Simenon’s relationship with his most famous literary creation was filled with contradictions. Resentful at being primarily known as a crime writer he nonetheless enjoyed the royalty cheques that enabled him to travel widely and savour a comfortable lifestyle.
Despite his publicly proclaimed aversion at being solely identified as the author of the Maigret novels, he recognised that securing a film deal would be profile-boosting and offer the promise of long-term financial security. In interviews, Simenon would frequently claim not to have viewed the adaptations of his work before offering a detailed critique of the actors who had played Maigret. Simenon’s public stance of indifference is at odds with the actions of a man who acquired and destroyed prints of adaptations he thought had failed to convey the true essence of his novels. In interviews, he talked of drawing up contracts that specified the adaptation had to be destroyed after a set number of years.
By the late 1940s, the character of Maigret had already appeared on screen in productions starring Pierre Renoir, Abel Tarride, Harry Baur, Albert Prejan, and Maurice Manson. English-speaking audiences were introduced to the character with the release of an American adaptation of The Man on the Eiffel Tower.
A versatile actor, Charles Laughton is perhaps best remembered for directing the Film Noir The Night of the Hunter. In the late 1940s he was one of British cinema’s most significant screen talents. Accustomed to playing a wide range of parts the acclaimed performer was the first actor to play Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Despite being no stranger to crime drama having also played a gangster in the mould of Al Capone in Edgar Wallace’s play On the Spot his casting as Maigret may have surprised audiences but it pleased Laughton’s bank manager.
When Laughton was initially approached to play the part producer Irving Allen was slated to direct the film. The Man on the Eiffel Tower had previously been filmed in 1933 as La Tête d’un Homme. Erroneously reported as the first English language adaptation of a Simenon novel, the 2013 discovery of previously lost quota quickie film Temptation Harbour based on the short story Newhaven-Dieppe starring Robert Newton and future Doctor Who William Hartnell has forced Simenologists to redraft the author’s screen history. Despite the relegation to second English language adaptation of a Simenon story The Man on the Eiffel Tower still holds the notable distinction of being the first American production based on the author’s work.
Based on the ninth Maigret novel A Man’s Head the film was a joint American-French co-production. In addition to introducing a new audience to the work of Georges Simenon, the film showcased post-war Paris.
At the time of production Simenon was living in Arizona. Yet to achieve anything resembling mainstream success in America he had a dedicated cult readership. With an acclaimed and bankable star on board, the film may have offered the opportunity to attract a wider audience for his books. Surprisingly, considering the film’s importance in establishing the Maigret novels commercial viability in a previously indifferent territory, Simenon elected to be critical of the central star’s performance.
For several decades The Man on the Eiffel Tower was considered to be a lost film. Reports suggest that Simenon ordered the destruction of all prints. Little known among Laughton aficionados and Simenologists, a false perspective about the film and it’s perceived failings became accepted as fact. UCLA’s discovery of two projection prints enables the film to be studied for the first time since its original release. What was previously a minor entry in the history of post-war cinema takes on a fresh significance in terms of offering previously unknown evidence about the French film industry’s strategy for representing Paris within the context of genre cinema and for how approaches taken by the film have influenced subsequent English language adaptations of the Maigret novels.
According to biographical accounts, Laughton was financially embarrassed when he was offered the opportunity to play Maigret. His acceptance in all likelihood probably was due to the need for an instant cash injection rather than a fondness for Simenon’s novel. Having agreed to play the part Laughton was thorough and diligent in his preparation. Intensely studying all available translated editions of the Maigret novels he soon gained a sense of the detective and his world. Determined to be truthful to Simenon’s creation, Laughton searched multiple Hollywood costumiers for clothing that would enable him to build an accurate and sympathetic character. Having constructed his version of Maigret before the cameras started rolling Laughton may have anticipated a stress-free shoot. According to contemporary press reports, it was a tortuous production.
Precisely who directed The Man on the Eiffel Tower is far from clear-cut. Producer Irving Allen was originally slated to direct the film. After three days of shooting, he was forced to resign the director’s chair when an enraged Laughton threatened to quit the production. To mollify the lead actor Allen agreed to his request that Burgess Meredith who had already been cast in a supporting role oversee the remainder of filming. More recently, reports have suggested Laughton directed several key sequences without credit. Scholars have also claimed that co-producer Franchot Tone directed scenes which featured Laughton and Meredith in the same frame.
Promoted as the first American colour production to be filmed in Paris, the screenplay was adjusted to showcase the city’s most famous monument. Throughout filming production was held up due to a variety of unforeseen factors. Weather delayed filming, the co-producer and Laughton argued ferociously, and electrical problems led to frequent blackouts.
Praised by Renoir and warmly but not effusively reviewed by critics, the film fell into relative obscurity and for decades the only available information was found in biographies. UCLA’s discovery of two previously unknown prints has resulted in a reappraisal. Now seen not only in terms of its place within the canon of Simenon screen adaptations, critics have suggested that the film is a rare example of a colour film noir.