Sunday, April 29, 2018

Maigret Sets a Trap (1958)

Original title: Maigret tend un piège

aka Woman-Bait

aka Maigret Lays a Trap

aka Inspector Maigret

A serial killer stalks the streets of Paris during a very hot summer, killing women regularly, always right about sunset. The killer clearly knows all of the classics, so he summons his probable nemesis, Chief Inspector Maigret (Jean Gabin), to one of the killings via an emergency call, and seems right proud of his job. Maigret, pretty tired and frustrated after twenty years of police work, has the guy pegged as a show-off right quick, so he decides on various methods to goad him, starting out with a fake public arrest of an acquainted crook, and putting a small army of police secretaries (apparently there were no other women in the French police at the time) of the physical type he’s going for on the street as honey traps.

Eventually, investigative work and a bit of luck lead Maigret to a rather curious bourgeois couple, Marcel (Jean Desailly) and Yvonne (Annie Girardot) Maurin. Something’s clearly not right with the husband, but it will take the Inspector some time and quite a bit of interview work to get his man.

When you’re like me, you’re used to the way US cinema of the late 50s had to treat elements of the human existence like sexuality, the way it could only ever suggest the facts of the lives of quite a few people without rubbing the censors wrong. In that case, the first of two adaptations of some of the immensely popular (and often rather excellent) Maigret novels of Georges Simenon might just come as quite of a culture shock, for in the French version of the 50s, the existence of gigolos is normal, the sort of thing our protagonist takes without even raising and eyebrow, and you can even use the fact that a woman is still a virgin after five years of marriage as a perfectly spelled out plot point.

These are only some of the elements that make Jean Delannoy’s film sometimes feel strangely modern. Its idea of how serial killers work is at least in part surprisingly close to the more codified interpretations of the matter that became popular knowledge years later. The film emphasizes the importance of the appearance of the killer’s victims, the connection of this to his messed up past; Maigret understands the shortening length of time between killings as meaningful, and so on and so forth. Now, these ideas weren’t completely new for crime film and literature – or psychology - at the time, of course, but they weren’t yet set in stone as pop cultural base-line knowledge about these things, nor, as far as I know, in real life. Less modern in this regard is the film blaming the killer’s mother for his problems by basically not letting him become manly enough, but you can’t have everything, I suppose.

Maigret’s interview methods are a lot closer to more modern ideas of how this sort of thing works, too, his sometimes threatening, sometimes ingratiating manner combined with psychological insight de-emphasizing the search for practical clues and replacing it with one for motive. Particularly the interrogation scenes work as well as they do because of a combination of sometimes – let’s ignore the whole blaming the mother bit – incisive and insightful writing and a fantastic performance by Gabin that starts from the actor’s trade-mark phlegmatic air but can shift emotion and meaning lightning quick. Gabin’s even good enough to help one overlook the lack of subtlety and substance in Desailly’s performance as the killer Marcel, who’s really doing too much of a rote crazy person bit for the kind of film this is. The rest of the cast is thankfully as good as Gabin.

Delannoy’s direction of all this is elegant, sleek, and stylish, without the noirish shadows one might expect (or hope for), but still creating a sense of intimacy for a film that, is all about character psychology and twisted kinds of love.

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