France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.
This iconic figure is played by another icon, the equally phlegmatic and dogged Jean Gabin, in two late-'50s films directed by Jean Delannoy, Maigret Sets a Trap (1958) and Maigret and the St. Fiacre Case (1959) (both available from Kino Lorber). The shadowy pipe features prominently in the opening credits of both, and both give us Maigret from the back before we see him full on.
The first film, based on a 1955 novel, concerns a serial killer who draws comparisons with Jack the Ripper by stabbing random brunettes in the dark on the streets of Paris. Realizing that he's dealing with an arrogant killer who sends messages directly to Maigret, the Inspector sets a trap by arresting a false actor and staging a highly public re-enactment while dozens of women decoys, trained in self-defense, wander the streets under watchful eyes.
It almost works for highly coincidental reasons that quickly narrow the investigation to a woman (Annie Girardot) cheating on her husband (Jean Desailly). Disappointingly if unsurprisingly, it turns out to be women's fault when a man goes off the rails.
The second film finds Maigret returning to the home village he left as a child. He's been summoned for help by the local aristocratic widow (Valentine Tessier), who's received a letter stating that she'll be dead before Ash Wednesday mass is over. Far from an urban police procedural, this setting provides more of an Agatha Christie-type mansion murder as a hothouse of suspects give each other the eye.
These conventional mysteries don't feel like anyone's masterpieces yet, like Maigret, they get the job done in professional fashion. Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations. Louis Page shoots the proceedings in clean black and white, the camera sometimes swerving and gliding as if on cat feet. Paul Misraki scores the first with some attention to Paris accordeons, while Jean Prodromides scores the second with unobtrusive tradition.
One particular felicity that will be lost on most English-language viewers is that Michel Audiard's dialogue loves vernacular phrases delivered rapidly by everyone in a crossfire. For example, one character describes his influence over the countess and Maigret suggests he has "beaucoup de cendre", which literally means a lot of ashes -- a grim pun on Ash Wednesday. On this and other idioms, the subtitles can do nothing but flatten them to the simplest meaning.
With their moments of profanity and a glimpse of bare breasts in the first film, the movies show that French popular cinema was looser than Hollywood in terms of censorship at this time. The first film even has a man pretending to use a urinal, something unknown in '50s-era Hollywood, which didn't even like to admit that bathrooms might have toilets.
One curiosity for the modern viewer is that both films have characters strongly coded as effeminate gay stereotypes. One such character is a mama's boy and interior decorator who hasn't consummated his marriage and the other is a fussy art freak who hangs out in an underground dive ("the Hula Hoop") hosted by a woman in a tux. Apparently some things could still only be suggested without going all the way.
Both Kino Lorber Blu-rays deliver excellent prints with trailers as the only extras.