Renowned French film star’s Maigret trilogy.
Despite being largely unknown to English audiences, Jean Gabin was one of French cinema’s biggest stars. The son of music hall artistes, he initially had no interest in an acting career. After a period working as a labourer and warehouse clerk he was cajoled by his father to join the Folies Bergère. Graduating from bit-parts to a leading man, he demonstrated an ability to play a wide variety of roles. He started a screen career at the dawn of the talking picture era.
A commanding screen actor, he appeared in 95 films in a career that lasted over 40 years. Performances in Pepe Le Moko, La Grande Illusion, La Bete Humaine, Le Jour se leve, and Le Quai des brumes were critically acclaimed. One of the pre-war period’s biggest stars, his career’s trajectory was interrupted when hostilities erupted across the continent.
In stark contrast to Georges Simenon, Gabin refused to collaborate with the Nazi regime’s film industry. Relocating to Hollywood, he was offered a contract by Twentieth Century Fox and promoted as “The Spencer Tracy of French pictures.” An artistically fruitless period, he made Moontide for Fox and The Imposter for RKO. A third project, The Temptress, was canceled when he demanded that the producers cast Marlene Detrich as his co-star (Gabin and Dietrch were real-life lovers). Told that he would never again work in Hollywood, Gabin enlisted in the French liberation forces and fought against German troops in Africa.
At the end of the war, he returned to acting. No longer a matinee idol, he played a succession of everyman parts. Gabin and Simenon’s careers first intersected with the 1950 adaptation La Marie du port. A 1958 film En cas de malheur based on Simenon’s romans dur In Case of Emergency saw Gabin act alongside Brigitte Bardot. Also released in the same year was the first of Gabin’s three cinematic outings as Simenon’s pipe smoking Inspector Maigret.
Despite being maligned by the French new wave, Jean Delannoy directed a number of box-office hits and won the Palme d’Or for his 1960 film La Symphonie pastorale. He was made an officer of the Legion of Honor, a Commander of Arts and Letters and a Commander of the National Order of Merit. In 1986 he received an honorary César. Paying tribute to Delannoy, French President Nicolas Sarkozy described the director as “More than just a great artist, he was a man of great intelligence, alert, pertinent and faithful in friendship,”
By the late 1950s, Delannoy’s reputation had been tarnished by a string of sub-standard films and criticism by François Truffaut. Attuned to the cinematic possibilities of Maigret, the director had considered adapting a Simenon novel for several years before securing the cinematic rights to Maigret Sets a Trap. With a reputation for directing solid thrillers including Le garçon sauvage and La minute de vérité, he may have considered an adaptation as an opportunity to restore his box-office fortunes.
First published in 1955. The English translation of Maigret Sets a Trap was issued in 1965. The book has been adapted several times. A recent adaptation starring Rowan Atkinson was poorly received by critics. Delannoy’s version is the most satisfying adaptation.
Primarily known in English-speaking territories as Maigret Sets a Trap, prints were circulated with the alternate titles Inspector Maigret and Woman-Bait. The film and its two sequels were the last big screen outings for Simenon’s detective released prior to the character migrating to the small screen.
An atmospheric adaptation blessed with supreme production design. Indebted to Film Noir and aware of the urban environment’s importance in the Maigret novels, the director ensured the film made the story’s location the de facto star. An entire district was slavishly on a soundstage. The decision to shoot the majority of the action on a studio lot enabled the director to exercise total control over the environment.
Hybridising American and French approaches to crime films, Delannoy’s location sequences employ expressionistic camera angles favoured by Film Noir directors and attempts to document a city still scarred by war and in the throes of modernisation.
Claustrophobic, tightly coiled and utterly focused, it’s hard to see why Delannoy’s film isn’t better known in the English-speaking world. Maigret Sets a Trap is sensitive to the humanistic philosophy expressed in Simenon’s novels. The film has many reasons to recommend tracking down a copy; tight plotting, thematic complexity, a distinguished supporting cast. At it’s core is an electric portrayal from one of French cinema’s most popular actors. Stripping away the over reliance of props that had plagued previous attempts at filming Maigret, Gabin’s performance conveyed compassion and solidity. Simenon was pleased with Gabin’s interpretation and is alleged to have suggested that future Maigret novels might be influenced by the performance.
A box office hit in France, Maigret Sets a Trap was seen by more than 2,500,000 cinemagoers. It was nominated for a BAFTA and won an Edgar Allan Poe award. The film’s producers commissioned a sequel to satisfy a public clamouring for further cinematic adaptations. Released in 1959, Maigret and the St. Fiacre Affair is considered by critics to be a less successful film. Adapted from a novel first published in 1933, the film contains a number of elements that will delight Maigret enthusiasts and Simenonologists.
Leaving behind the first film’s urban environment, the sequel relocates to a small village. Maigret is visiting his childhood home at the request of the Duchess of Saint-Fiacre. She has recently received an anonymous letter stating that she will soon die. When she suffers a fatal heart attack during a religious service the local doctor pronounces she died of natural causes. Maigret is not satisfied with the diagnosis and is convinced the Duchess was murdered.
Tonally very different from its predecessor, the portrait of a once-great family in decline is indebted to Agatha Christie and Citizen Kane. Delannoy once again demonstrating a sympathy for themes present in the originating novel, effectively balances moments of joy and intensity.
Jean Gabin played Maigret one final time in the disappointing Maigret Sees Red. Jean Delannoy declined an offer to return to direct and was replaced by Gilles Grangier. Released in the UK shortly after the finale of the BBC’s highly-praised adaptation featuring Rupert Davies, Grangier’s film was largely ignored. Gabin’s performance is not enough to save the film. Not entirely unwatchable, it suffers from having a director too much in awe of American B-pictures and a lack of enthusiasm for the work of Georges Simenon. Jean Gabin’s Maigret deserved a better final investigation.