Welcome to a pair of vintage mysteries with George Simenon’s popular Inspector Jules Maigret, a gumshoe who gets the tough cases. Top kick French actor Jean Gabin is the cop who keeps cool, until it’s time to rattle a recalcitrant suspect. In two separate cases, he tracks a serial killer in the heart of Paris, and travels to his hometown to unearth a murder conspiracy.
Maigret Sets a Trap
Maigret and the St. Fiacre Case
Blu-ray (separate releases)
1958, 1959 / B&W /1:37 flat; 1:66 widescreen / 118, 101 min. / Street Date December 5, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber: Trap, St. Fiacre / 29.95 ea.
Starring: Jean Gabin, Annie Girardot, Jean Desailly, Olivier Hussenot, Lucienne Bogaert, Paulette Dubost, Lino Ventura, Dominique Page / Jean Gabin, Michel Auclair, Valentine Tessier, Michel Vitold, Camille Guérini, Gabrielle Fontan, Micheline Luccioni, Jacques Marin, Paul Frankeur, Robert Hirsch.
Cinematography: Louis Page
Film Editor: Henri Taverna
Original Music: Paul Misraki / Jean Prodromidès
Written by Jean Delannoy, Rodolphe-Maurice Arlaud, Michel Audiard
From the novels by Georges Simenon
Produced by Jean-Paul Guibert, Arrigo Colombo, Giorgio Papi / Jean-Paul Guibert, Robert Gascuel
Directed by Jean Delannoy
Georges Simenon was phenomenally prolific – with so many books taking up his time, it’s difficult to understand how he could have even met the 10,000 women he claimed to have had sex with. Many of the movies made from Simenon books have charted the adventures of Inspector Jules Maigret, a career detective who specialized in dramatic murders. Harry Bauer and Charles Laughton played him on screen, and the latest TV Maigret is none other than Rowan Atkinson.
The legendary Jean Gabin took a spin at playing the famed Maigret in the late ‘fifties. The first two installments were directed by Jean Delannoy, a popular French director of the generation dismissed as Old School by the critic-directors of The New Wave. They are indeed old-fashioned entertainment, so don’t expect experimental flourishes or progressive content. Yet they come across as exceedingly well produced. Doubtless due to the desirability of working with Gabin, the casts are impeccable; Gabin finds roles for screen veterans of the classic era. The star naturally bends the character of Jules Maigret to his own personality, but he doesn’t walk through the role — Gabin gets pretty ferocious when it comes time to bear down on a suspect.
The movies are standard-issue mysteries distinguished by high production values, personal style and attention to detail. Francophiles will love the local flavor in both character and setting. Delannoy may not be a star director, but the pictures are well made and very well acted, funny and engaging.
From 1958, Maigret Sets a Trap (aka Inspector Maigret tend un piège) is an urban serial killer mystery. Someone is stabbing women to death on the streets, each time with the same modus operandi. Despite concentrated efforts, the killer escapes once again, right in a dense neighborhood warren of alleys. All that Jules Maigret (Gabin) has to go on is a button torn from the killer’s coat, and an narrow passage from which the only exit is a locked door into the back of a butcher shop. Dogged gumshoe Lagrume (Olivier Hussenot) follows wandering wife Yvonne Maurin (Annie Giradot) and discovers that her father-in-law owned the shop and that her mother-in-law Veuve Adèle (Lucienne Bogaert) still lives in the building; Yvonne’s husband Marcel (Jean Desailly) is an architect and decorator. Maigret slowly pulls the case together by interviewing and re-interviewing his suspects, waiting for someone to crack.
Maigret’s case is wrapped up in marital infidelity and family secrets; an old photo on a wall is an important clue. Maigret frequently tells Yvonne that he’s disinterested in her indiscretions, and we soon realize that he’s shaking her tree to see what falls. Her light-hearted hubby Marcel seems even more highly-strung, so the film becomes an interesting study of a dysfunctional relationship.
Delanoy’s camera roams through Paris streets and alleys, a complex stage set beautifully designed and lighted. Gabin’s Maigret barks out orders and shows his impatience with underlings and the press, but also exhibits infinite patience with strangers, and possible suspects. He has a knack for making key interviews seem like casual inconveniences, but always asking for ‘just one more piece of information.’ He lays traps left and right, which include false news items and parading a fake suspect for the reporters. “Stop over-acting!” he coaches the conman he talks into playing the role.
The talented performers on view are likely pals of Jean Gabin, or actors he personally admires. Annie Giradot (Rocco and his Brothers, Dillinger is Dead, The Witches) shines as the housewife with something to hide. Jean Desailly (Le Doulos) brings complexity to the husband, and veteran Lucienne Bogaert (Le Corbeau, Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne) is very strong as the fierce mother-in-law. Gabin associate Lino Ventura is Maigret’s comrade Inspector Torrence, and the other aides from the books, Lucas, Janvier and Lapointe are represented as well. Figuring heavily in the crime’s solution is a woman played by the ubiquitous beauty Paulette Dubost, of The Rules of the Game, Le Plaisir, Lola Montès, Viva Maria! and The Last Metro.
Maigret and the St. Fiacre Case (Maigret et l’affaire Saint-Fiacre) takes the Inspector away from Paris to his hometown in the country, to detect and solve a killing that resembles a ‘Murder She Wrote’ episode. He had a crush on an older girl who became La comtesse de Saint-Fiacre (Valentine Tessier), and when she sends him a threatening letter she has received, Maigret drops everything to come to her aid. He hasn’t been in St. Fiacre for forty years — he ran away from home at age 13. He finds the countess a widow living in diminished conditions, with only her chauffeur (Jacques Marin) and the groundskeeper sticking close by. The groundskeeper has even been loaning her money. The problem is her dissolute son Maurice (Michel Auclair), who to maintain his wild lifestyle has bled the estate dry. The farm and the extra properties are gone, sold along with most of the valuables in the Manor House by Lucien Sabatier (Robert Hirsch) a secretary, art critic and possible gigolo who also seems to have profited handsomely.
When a murder does occur, Maigret reveals his identity and zeroes in on all the possible suspects, including the local abbot (Michel Vitold) and the doctor (Paul Frankeur), who seems to rush his examination of the body. Maigret’s investigation leads him into the sacristy, and to investigate a false news item planted in the local paper — which the victim read even though the paper had yet to be distributed. Things come together when Maigret and Maurice invite all the suspects to a ‘casual’ dinner, which is of course an opportunity for the detective to unleash his powers of persuasion and intimidation.
Although not with the looseness of the early New Wave classic Le beau serge, The St. Fiacre Case generates a convincing ‘country’ feel. Maigret has fun revisiting places he knew, and explaining to an altar boy that he held the same job in the same church forty years previous. The proprietress of the country store Marie Tatin is played by the actress Gabrielle Fontan, a veteran of pictures by Jean Renoir. Born in 1873 (!), she was the grandmother in 1936’s A Day in the Country and passed away a week after the film was released. The Countess that Gabin so reveres is played by Valentine Tessier, famed as Jean Renoir’s Madame Bovary from 1934. Also of note is the talented Michel Auclair from Cocteau’s classic La Belle et la Bete and René Clément’s superb Nazis-on-the-run thriller Les maudits. His character is particularly well shaded.
Viewers familiar with director Delannoy’s 1957 Notre Dame de Paris with Anthony Quinn and Sophia Loren may feel right at home — several of the actors in that color show made their way into the large supporting casts of these pictures.
These Maigret mysteries feel as equally ‘French’ as the New Wave classics and compare well to commercial product being made in America at the time. Although the first film was picked up by United Artists, they remain obscure here. Except in rarified art theaters in big cities, great stars like Jean Gabin were unknown here. And there is nothing particularly salacious to sell — the only risqué moment is in the first picture, where in one scene a topless women leans through a doorway. On the other hand, a call girl in a café (Micheline Luccione) does eat a sugar cube in a somewhat suggestive manner . . .
Gabin made one more Jules Maigret picture in 1963, but for a different producer and director. American fans of murder mysteries such as the Chabrol Inspector Lavardin pictures, will love Jean Gabin’s personality in this one — each show ends with Inspector Maigret walking alone, in a different kind of half-satisfied mood.
Thanks to Sergio Angelini for corrections
The Kino Lorber Kino Classics Blu-ray of Maigret Sets a Trap and Maigret and the St. Fiacre Case are fine-looking remasters from elements in excellent condition, mastered in HD. The B&W cinematography of Louis Page (The Walls of Malapaga) is rich and textured.
I’d say that both films were filmed for projection in 1:66 widescreen, but the only the second is presented that way. Sets a Trap is full frame, and looks good, but is diminished by the format. We can see by the title text blocks that the 1:66 area hovers well above the center of the frame, which when un-matted frequently leaves floors and cobblestones taking up a lot of visual real estate. It still looks fine, but the properly formatted widescreen second picture looks much less awkward, and is a better fit for widescreen monitors as well.
The films’ jazzy soundtracks are a definite plus. Sets a Trap carries a Paul Misraki score that provides sharp stings for action scenes. St. Fiacre is scored by the interesting Jean Prodromidès, with a quirky chamber-jazz feel quite different from his beautiful, baroque music for the impressive … Et mourir de plaisir (aka Blood and Roses).
The films are separate purchases; each contains a trailer for both pictures as the only extra. The cover illustrations have interesting ‘graphic novel’ art that might make purchasers think the films are animated.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Maigret Sets a Trap / Maigret and the St. Fiacre Case
Separate Blu-rays rate:
Movies: Very Good – Excellent
Video: Excellent (although the AR on Sets a Trap looks wrong)
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 6, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson