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December 12, 2017


maigret sets a trap cover.jpg

Maigret Sets a Trap / Maigret Tend un Piege
Jean Delannoy - 1958

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Maigret and the St. Fiacre Case / Maigret et l'affaire Saint-Fiacre
Jean Delannoy - 1959
Kino Classics BD Region A

One way of making a blu-ray a "keeper" is by having Nathan Gelgud do the cover art. Kudos to Kino for going above and beyond the lame photoshop efforts of some companies that think just issuing a film on home video is enough.

As for the films themselves? Historical curiosity is what attracted me in the first place. I revisited a vaguely remembered passage of Andrew Sarris' The American Cinema, where he paraphrases Francois Truffaut's declaration that the worst film be Jean Renoir is better than the best film by Jean Delannoy. I can't really argue that point as the only other Delannoy films I've seen were costume epics, both with Gina Lollobrigida, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Imperial Venus. Coincidentally, Renoir also made a Maigret film, La Nuit de Carrefour which Jean-Luc Godard declared as "the only great French detective movie - in fact, the greatest of all adventure movies." The films could well be considered representative of the "tradition of quality" that Truffaut, Godard and the others criticized, and notably were released at the same time French cinema was about to undergo a major shift.

Jean Gabin, re-established as a star in France after a slump following World War II, played Georges Simenon's famed detective twice for Delannoy, and a third time, to lesser effect in 1963 for Gilles Grainger. The first of these films is the best, featuring early performances by Annie Girardot and Lino Ventura. A killer has attacked four women in the Marais district of Paris, with Maigret leading the police investigation. The entire film appears to have been filmed in studio sets, with long, dark alleys. How this works in Delannoy's favor is with his frequent use of tracking shots through streets or within the police station. The scenes of murder are depicted with screams and shadows. There is one very brief moment when a gigolo's girlfriend pops her head through a doorway, topless, with a few seconds of footage that probably was never seen by U.S. viewers back in 1958. One of the other highlights here is the performance by Olivier Hussenot as a mousy detective who can't stop sneezing.

Delannoy took Maigret on location with the second film. A countess, the widow of a small town's land owner, receives a letter stating that she will die on Ash Wednesday. Maigret, who knew the woman as a youth, returns to Saint Fiacre after almost forty years, in hopes of preventing a murder. Something is amiss when the chateau is revealed to be almost empty of furniture, with the outlines on walls where paintings once hung. The mystery is solved in an almost leisurely fashion in the course of two days. Visually, the film is less stylish, though there is a nice use of close-ups of hands of Gabin and Valentine Tessier, as the countess. One nice scene is of Maigret gaining the confidence of an alter boy with tales of his own youth in the same church.

Delannoy could well be deserving of a re-examination. Among the writers, Delannoy filmed screenplays by Jean Cocteau and Jean-Paul Sartre. Even though he made films during the Nazi occupation of France, Delannoy was also a member of the Resistance. Forced to redo a film starring the the Jewish Erich von Stroheim, the film was recast with fellow Resistance member Pierre Renoir, Jean Renoir's Maigret. In 1953, in his book on French cinema, Georges Sadoul described Delannoy as "an honest craftsman, capable of good work and worthy of his international reputation." Sometimes, that's more than enough.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 12, 2017 08:54 AM