26 May 2017 | robert-temple-1
A masterpiece from Duvivier, probably the best Maigret ever
This magnificent and brilliant film goes to prove, to any who may not have known, that Julien Duvivier was one of France's greatest film directors. The film is very expressionistic in its shots, shadows, and atmosphere. One can certainly never forget the last, unexpectedly shocking scene of the film. This was the third Simenon novel to be filmed, the first having been filmed the previous year, Jean Renoir's NIGHT AT THE CROSSROADS (1932, see my review), which was a disappointing failure. Here Duvivier triumphs where Renoir sank into the dust. Maigret is played in a droll and understated fashion by the plump and far from glamorous Harry Baur. He says little but accomplishes much, and by eccentric but inspired methods. But the film is dominated by the extraordinary performance of the Russian actor Valéry (Walerian) Inkijinoff as a psychologically complex villain who has only six months to live because of tuberculosis, and therefore has nothing to lose. The intensity, power, and menace of his performance is simply incredible. With him on screen, one could even describe the screen itself as haunted. Inkijinoff had made his mark with his film debut as the Mongol in Pudovkin's STORM OVER ASIA (1928), where his name was spelled properly as Inkizhinov. Here he plays Radek, a penniless Czech émigré living in a cheap hotel room in the centre of Montparnasse, where most of the action of the film is set. He intends to carry out a major crime, but sets up a witless labourer named Joseph Heurtin as a patsy to take the fall for murder. Alexandre Rignault's performance as Heurtin is outstanding. And Duvivier makes the most of this character, showing him walking around with his huge ungainly hands wide open with the elongated fingers dangling, sometimes seen in dramatic shadows which are clearly meant to be reminiscent of the shadows of the actor Max Schreck as the vampire in Murnau's famous NOSFERATU (1922). The closeups of Rignault's puzzled and fearful face, with his large uncomprehending eyes of a fleeing game animal, are immensely powerful. Duvivier has turned this Maigret story into something approaching a Gothic horror tale. We see many lively scenes in Montparnasse cafes, especially a Bar Eden, full of locals nursing their café crèmes, loose women picking up men, and men winking at each other either in complicity or as a sign that they have a good little crime up their sleeves. The compulsive gamblers roll dice on the zinc bar between their Pernods. There is a genuine Montparnasse flavour about this film, which is entirely lacking in Jacques Becker's unsatisfactory and artificial film about Modigliani, THE LOVERS OF MONTPARNASSE (1958). Another strange and compulsive performance in this film is by Gina Manès as Willy's fiancée Edna Reichenberg. Duvivier gives her many lingering closeups where we see her passionately bulging eyes, her fear, her greed, her brazen nature, and when she comes up against Radek, her own incomprehension, equal almost to Rignault's, of that arch-villain's extreme audacity which surpasses anything she has ever known. This film is a deep psychological film masquerading as a Maigret mystery. Duvivier is exploring the limits of human nature with the enthusiasm of a dedicated pathologist. The film really is well described by that popular slang phrase: 'something else'. In other words. 'you gotta see it'. Aspiring film geniuses, be ready to learn from a master.