Inspector Maigret, Picpus

Inspector Maigret Mysteries Made in Occupied France

There’s no war going on in these subversive Inspector Maigret whodunits from occupied France, but there’s a lot more murder and paranoia than in the era’s newspapers.

Picpus and Cécile Is Dead! - Inspector Maigret Double Feature
Richard Pottier and Maurice Tourneur
Kino Lorber
9 November 2022

As calm and implacable as a mountain, author Georges Simenon‘s pipe-smoking Inspector Maigret is one of the rare detectives in crime fiction who have become iconic and inescapable, certainly in France. He’s been played by many actors of large phlegmatic mien, so one of the most unlikely players to ascend that Everest of a role is light and spindly Albert Préjean, a pop singer and comedy star of the 1930s.

Two of Préjean’s three outings as Maigret are packaged on a Kino Lorber Blu-ray as Picpus and Cecile Is Dead! – An Inspector Maigret Double Feature. Like virtually all French films issued in Nazi-occupied France, they were produced by Continental Films. This official German-controlled film studio sat upon the industry like an octopus and dictated that French cinema should be light escapist entertainment without messy and unpleasant political messages.

Modern critics tend to look for and discover political implications anyway, as shown in PopMatters‘ review of another Simenon film, Strangers in the House. That film was scripted by Henri-Georges Clouzot, whose influence over Picpus was in the background as head of the script department.

The scripts for Picpus and Cecile Is Dead! were the work of an even more dangerous person to have walking the halls of Continental: Jean-Paul Le Chanois (he changed his name from Dreyfus), whose Jewish and Communist backgrounds should have made him a prime candidate for arrest and deportation to Nazi death camps. When not at his day job, he was a French Resistance member who filmed footage of their operations, which he released after the war as Au coeur de l’orage (At the heart of the storm, 1947).

During the ’30s, he worked as a writer and assistant to a dazzling gallery of titans in French cinema, including Jean Renoir, Julien Duvivier, and Max Ophuls, all of whom were in Hollywood during the war. Le Chanois’ first directorial credit is a short documentary about early events in the Spanish Civil War. España 1936 was written and produced in that year by no less than Luis Buñuel for the doomed Spanish Republic. Imagine working at Continental Films while wearing such targets under your chapeau.

Now let’s take a closer look at the Maigret films.

Picpus (1943) Director: Richard Pottier

Albert Préjean’s incarnation of Inspector Maigret is introduced in Picpus reclining at a hostel with a newspaper draped on his face. He ignores the guests’ gossip about a sensational murder in the Rue Picpus. They don’t know Maigret’s identity, and he wishes not to be bothered. Finally, his assistant Lucas (André Gabriello), a large man who speaks in a peculiar combination of stuttering and rapid gibberish, shows up to drag Inspector Maigret away from his holiday and get started on the case.

So begins Picpus, and director Richard Pottier and photographer Charles Bauer make an eye-catching choice in the next scene. While Lucas is driving the car and explaining the details of the crime, the camera rests in the back seat and looks between their shoulders at the road ahead as the crime’s events are enacted in a swift sequence during Lucas’ recital.

Where another film might present these events as a narrated flashback, Pottier chooses an unusual split-screen effect in which the flashback occupies the southeast quarter of the screen, while the rest of the image looks out the windshield, a shot both static and in motion. Our attention is directed at the small screen within the screen – of an automobile’s windscreen.

There’s little point in going into the plot of Picpus. Its most salient feature is that the film is much more complicated and has more moving parts than Simenon’s original novel. That novel, Signé Picpus, wasn’t published until 1944 but was serialized in 1941-42. Pottier’s film could be described as more labyrinthine and nihilistic than the novel, with a much higher body count, including one by a public gunshot that attracts zero notice. In short, the film is a darker and more confusing vision than Simenon’s novel. It perhaps reflects wartime paranoia and uncertainty more directly, without mentioning any such thing as a war going on.

Apart from the story’s almost uncanny confusion, the primary element of Picpus is a comic tone likely conceived to match Préjean’s persona. His Inspector Maigret even takes a pratfall on a slippery floor. He fits easily into a gallery of characters with bizarre demeanor or stylized delivery. We’ve mentioned Lucas’ linguistic tics, and he’s far from the only example.

At least two main characters, Mascouvin (Jean Tissier) and Le Cloaguen (Édouard Delmont), are frazzled and befuddled figures out of comic opera. Mascouvin asserts, amid a very hazy narrative, that he has evidence of a clairvoyant about to be murdered that afternoon. Le Cloaguen is an even dizzier figure found locked in the clairvoyant’s kitchen. He keeps telling us he’s crazy, and we’re prepared to believe it.

Another weird comic character is a neighborly thriller writer played by Noel Roquevert. He stalks around with a hangdog expression and goes by two names. Is he a comment on Simenon or perhaps Le Chanois’ stand-in for himself? Amid Picpus‘ rare non-comic suspects is a kind of shady femme fatale in Berthe, played by Juliette Faber of Strangers in the House.

Conceptually, the surreal highlight is when we’re told that someone is at the Last of the Mohicans, which turns out to be an archery club and beauty parade where the judges wear feathered headdresses straight out of Hollywood Westerns. Inspector Maigret narrowly misses being shot by the mayor’s errant arrow as various lovelies mill around selling souvenirs. Has Paris become a campy Wild West in which supposedly friendly authority figures have become dangerous, their wartime loyalty in question?

The visual highlight, courtesy of great Russian emigré designer André Andrejew, is a startling set in which Inspector Maigret is dwarfed by a huge Paris map with flashing lights and a ghostly disembodied voice announcing tragedies and police reports. This scene conveys a sinister sense of a city monitored by an omniscient intelligence like something from Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse movies. Pottier shoots most of the scene in one shot, a technique he plays with here and there. For example, Inspector Maigret’s exploration of the clairvoyant’s hallway is presented as a traveling shot.

Le Chanois’ obfuscation of Simenon’s plot is so confusing that it doesn’t make much sense when we get to the climax, one of those standard movie confrontations where a talking killer is pointing a gun at the hero. The hero must blurt a rapid analysis before attacking the killer with much two-fisted rolling on the ground that feels very un-Maigret-like. All this happens in the stylish, noir-ish shadows of a cellar, an “underground” where the above-ground social masks are torn away. Did the wartime audience need to see Maigret as an action hero trouncing the threats to civilized society?

Cécile Is Dead! (Cecile est morte!, 1944) Director: Maurice Tourneur

While Picpus had only one brief scene outside Inspector Maigret’s knowledge (Berthe on the phone), Cécile Is Dead! has many scenes without him. Perhaps this approach is taken to disguise the point that he’s a lousy policeman this time.

Indeed, in Cécile Is Dead!, Inspector Maigret ignores not one but two women who announce they have testimony that would instantly clear up the murder case. The first is a case of people patronizing, ignoring, and mocking a woman trying to report something serious. That can be taken as social commentary on sexism, and Inspector Maigret recognizes his culpability. You’d think he’d have learned his lesson by the time he ignores a teenage girl who lives on the other side of paper-thin walls where a murder has occurred. He never even asks if she heard anything. At that point, his lack of inquiry is mere story manipulation.

Speaking of manipulating the story, Cécile Is Dead! is another film where Le Chanois elaborates on Simenon’s novel by opening with a sensational, faintly titillating, utterly gratuitous murder that doesn’t occur in the book and which is tied to the events in unsatisfactory ways. However, this murder fits the larger theme of not taking women seriously until they’re dead.

These story lapses explain why Cécile Is Dead! is more interesting when leaving Inspector Maigret behind to concentrate on Cécile (Santa Relli), her annoying aunt (Germaine Kerjean), a destitute brother/nephew (André Reybaz), a “foreign” and forward teenage tenant (Liliane Maigné), a fussy distant relative (Yves Deniaud), the gossipy concierge (Luce Fabiole), and the persnickety icky downstairs neighbor (Jean Brochard) who works with the court on “troubled youth”. Body language gives us a queasy impression of how he works with them.

As a window into French society, the youth worker and the aunt become increasingly disturbing emblems of rapacity and corruption with friends in high places. Again, this noir-ish vision of the world can be seen as an implicit commentary on Occupied France without acknowledging the war. For that matter, this vision runs through decades of Simenon’s work, a quality that made him both safe and ideal for the era’s “escapist” and “apolitical” movies. It’s just a detective story, right?

Director Maurice Tourneur had been among the most ravishing pictorialists of silent cinema. Even after talkies came in, he didn’t forget how to light a scene or place a camera, as he proves in the opening shadowy stairwells of Cécile Is Dead! and the claustrophobia of the apartment building. His cameraman is Pierre Montazel. The art director is Guy de Gastyne of Strangers in the House.

Tourneur continued doing his stuff until after WWII. Alas, those French talkies aren’t nearly as well known as some of his silent classics. His last film is the moody, lovely, noir-inflected romance Impasse des Deux Anges (1948), which, like Picpus, is named after a street in Paris. The script for Tourneur’s final film is by none other than Le Chanois.

Le Chanois went on to a successful directing career in the 1950s. According to Georges Sadoul’s Dictionary of Film Makers (University of California Press, 1972), his “postwar films with their simple, straightforward, and appealing themes were often major popular successes.” Ephraim Katz’s The Film Encyclopedia: Fifth Edition (Collins, 2005) calls them “traditionalist in style and humanist in content.” That’s been enough to seal his eclipse from film history after the French New Wave. He sounds ripe for rediscovery. More Le Chanois and more Tourneur please.

Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray offers Gaumont’s recent 2K restorations of Picpus and Cécile Is Dead! They look terrific. The disc has no extras except trailers for two later Maigret films. We can only wish they’d thrown in a second disc to include the final film in Préjean’s Inspector Maigret trilogy, Pottier’s Les caves du Majestic (1945) or Maigret at the Hotel Majestic, which was being filmed while screenwriter Charles Spaak was in prison. The things you’ve gotta do to make a movie during wartime.