One of the most beloved detectives in all of narrative fiction, Georges Simeon’s Inspector Jules Maigret, (to many, the French Sherlock Holmes), was also one of the most cinematic. Star of 75 novels and 25 short stories, Maigret, who took Conan Doyle’s deductive reasoning shamus to the next level – and sought the truth by psychologically getting into suspects’ respective heads – appeared in a seemingly unending string of radio dramas, movies and television series worldwide, scoring high ratings and box-office in the UK, Italy, the Netherlands, Japan, Germany and, of course France. Among the more illustrious Maigrets were Charles Laughton, Maurice Denham, Bruno Cremer, Gino Cervi, Kinya Aikawa and, most recently (and bizarrely), Rowan Atkinson!
But perhaps the greatest Maigret was also France’s greatest Jean Valjean, and, for many, the country’s greatest motion picture thespian, Jean Gabin. As with so many of his other roles, once Gabin slipped into Maigret’s shoes, it was as if they were tailor-made; the character could have been written for him.
The casting of Gabin in a Maigret movie first occurred in 1958, via a splendid adaptation of Simeon’s risqué adventure, MAIGRET SETS A TRAP. The movie blew audiences and critics away; it became an international sensation, achieving high-end acclaim even in the States (where viewers had the option of seeing it in either the original French with English subtitles, or in a dubbed version, where it was hyped under the moniker Woman Bait!). Immediately, plans were made to follow-up the pic with a second Gabin-Maigret escapade – MAIGRET AND THE ST. FIACRE CASE, another popular Simeon novel, and another hit in France and abroad. Sadly, with the exception of one last appearance (1963’s Maigret voit rouge) there would be (for one reason or another, likely the actor’s busy schedule) no further Gabin-Maigrets – indeed a crime in its own right. Worse, the first Gabin twosome seemed to disappear from American shores (save for some terrible bootlegs). Thanks to Kino Classics (in conjunction with TFI Droits Audiovisuels), this heinous vanishing act has now been rectified, as both of the 1950’s mysteries are now available in near-pristine new 1080p transfers (in French w/English subtitles).
MAIGRET SETS A TRAP, based on Simeon’s 1955 novel, has always been one of the most popular entries in the Maigret library, both as a book AND a movie; in fact, it is one of the works that the recent earlier indicated Rowan Atkinson Maigrets chose for one of their remakes. And why not? With its plethora of sex crimes, a serial murderer (The Marseille Killer), a degenerate prominent family – all played out during one hot, sweltering summer – TRAP is a natural for crime buffs and sensation seekers. Of course, with Gabin psyching out the multitude of suspects (with the killer thinking he’s goading the inspector by contacting and cluing him in on his next moves) and methodically tracking down the vicious psychopath responsible, the movie is A-1 thriller fare from fade-in to fade-out. Yes, Gabin is the main attraction, but there are other reasons to enjoy this expert nail-biter: suspenseful direction from Jean Delannoy, the superb black and white cinematography of Louis Page (appended by a moody score by Paul Misraki), a great, snarky script by Delannoy, adapted by Michel Audiard and Rodolphe-Maurice Arlaud; dialog by Audiard (“Love is messy,” quips a character at a gruesome crime scene), and a marvelous cast of supporting players, including early appearances by Annie Giradot and Lino Ventura. A smash hit worldwide (it won the Edgar Award for best foreign film), MAIGRET SETS A TRAP is the perfect tonic for armchair sleuths in search of a top-notch cinematic puzzle.
A kinder, gentler Maigret is on view in the 1959 follow-up, also directed and cowritten by Dellanoy (with Arlaud and dialog by Arlaud), based upon the 1932 novel by Simeon (but updated to the 1950s), MAIGRET AND THE ST. FIACRE CASE. And with good reason. St. Fiacre is the fictional small provincial village where the detective grew up. Not that he carries any love for his hometown, but there is someone there for whom he does carry the torch, the Countess of the hamlet (Valentine Tessier). The elderly local noble, a former revered beauty, was young Maigret’s first love, ca. the time of the Great War. Not that they had a relationship, but she remembers the adolescent as a respectful and gracious admirer. He has never forgotten her; and, she obviously has followed his success as well. When a disturbing letter announcing her death arrives, she takes the liberty of contacting the country’s finest sleuth. Maigret, uncharacteristically, drops everything and heads to the town of his birth. The grateful Countess feels relieved, but Maigret, this time with his emotions not entirely in check, experiences a rare and painful loss. The woman is found dead – of an apparent heart attack. Maigret knows better, and the secrets masking a conspiracy of evil are about to be ripped to shreds. As the ads in 70’s and 80’s exploitation pics blared, “This time its personal!”
Beautifully shot again by Louis Page (this time in widescreen), ST. FIARCE shows us a side to Maigret seldom seem. The acting is extraordinary; the genuine affection for the detective and the Countess is apparent from their eye contact (no dialog needed); we know he adores this woman, and is cognizant of her handling of his decades-old puppy love, with appreciation and non-ridicule. She, again, is proud of her platonic conquest – the lady’s high regard being evident by asking him for help.
The Kino Blu-Ray is as good as SETS A TRAP. An excellent music score by Jean Prodromides nicely supports the visuals. While ST. FIARCE may not be the typical Maigret adventure, it’s the perfect Gabin-Maigret choice – underlining why many considered the star to be France’s finest screen actor.
MAIGRET SETS A TRAP. Black and white; Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA [French w/English subtitles]; Kino-Lorber Classics/TFI Droits Audiovisuels. CAT # K20888. SRP: $29.95.
MAIGRET AND THE ST. FIARCRE CASE. Black and white; Widescreen [1.66:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA [French w/English subtitles]. Kino-Lorber Classics/TFI Droits Audiovisuels. CAT # K20890. SRP: $29.95.