Georges Simenon wrote seventy-six novels starring the detective Jules Maigret, many of which have been adapted for television and the cinema. Two of the most effective film adaptations, both directed by Jean Delannoy and starring distinguished French actor Jean Gabin, are now available for home viewing on DVD and Blu-ray discs from Kino Lorber.
Maigret and the St. Fiacre Case (1959), adapted from Simenon’s 1932 novel L’Affaire Saint-Fiacre, has the French detective (Gabin) visiting his hometown of Saint-Fiacre, where his father served as manager for the St. Fiacre estate. Count St. Fiacre has been dead for some ten years, leaving his widow, the elderly Countess (Valentine Tessier), in charge. She has a good heart, but perhaps not the best judgment when it comes to people. Still, it comes as a complete surprise when she receives a threatening note, made of letters cut from the newspaper, which foretells her death on the coming Ash Wednesday. Maigret is called to St. Fiacre to investigate, but despite his best efforts, the prediction comes true—the countess has a heart attack in the village church shortly after receiving communion.
There’s certainly no lack of suspects in this case. The countess’ personal secretary, Lucien Sabatier (Robert Hirsch), is remarkably ill at ease in Maigret’s presence and has been authorized by the village physician (Paul Frankeur) to give the countess injections, giving him an obvious way to bring about her death. Her playboy son Maurice (Michel Auclaire) has a floozy girlfriend (played hilariously by Amarande) and a lifestyle he clearly can’t afford on his own. The estate manager, Gautier (Camille Guérini) has advanced quite a bit of his own money to keep the place running. The village doctor seems a little too eager to close the case without much investigation, and even the village priest (Michel Vitold) is acting suspiciously—could the communion wafer have been poisoned?
As in all well-made plays, key evidence resides within a written document—in this case the countess’ missal, which has mysteriously disappeared. There’s also the matter of a false report in the local paper of Maurice’s death, although officially the newspaper wasn’t delivered to the estate until after the countess’ death. It’s quite a puzzle, but not too much for Maigret, who invites the key suspects to a dinner during which, Thin Man style, he gets them to attack each other before laying out his conclusions in the case.
Maigret Sets a Trap (1958), also known as Inspector Maigret, is adapted from the 1955 Simenon novel Maigret tend un piège. In it, we find Maigret investigating a series of Jack-the-Ripper style murders of women on the streets of Le Marais, a district in central Paris. The killer, who wears a distinctive pair of leather gloves (all we see of him for much of the film) calls Maigret on a police phone to demonstrate how clever he is. Always the master psychologist, Maigret sets a trap to capitalize on the killer’s vanity. First, a fake suspect (Guy Decomble, hamming it up) is “arrested” and described in the newspapers as “a madman” (the real killer takes particular offense to that description). Second, a number of female officers are assigned to stroll the streets at nightfall, acting as bait for the killer, while plainsclothesmen lie in wait should he attack. (I can’t say that the execution of this plan gives me much faith in the male members of the French police force, who are remarkably slow to react to attacks.) Besides the intricately-plotted story, Maigret Sets a Trap offers a wonderful time capsule of some of the seedier streets of Paris in the late 1950s, and feature several actors of note besides Gabin, including Annie Girardot, Jean Desailly, and Lino Ventura.
Maigret Sets a Trap is more cinematic than Maigret and the St. Fiacre Case, featuring a greater variety of locations and far more visual storytelling. In contrast, Maigret and the St. Fiacre case feels more like a cross between a well-produced television program—perhaps an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents with location shooting—and a stage play. While you get cinematic action in Trap, most of the story in St. Fiacre is told through dialogue. The solution to the mystery in Trap is also revealed more conventionally, as opposed to simply being narrated by Maigret. Both approaches are valid, and both films are enjoyable, although you may prefer one or the other.
Jean Delannoy is a name worth knowing if you have any interest in the history of cinema. To the critics of Cahiers du Cinéma (who were also the creators of the French New Wave movement or La Nouvelle Vague) he was the positive embodiment of everything they hated about the French “cinema of quality” or, as they more disparagingly put it, “le cinema de Papa.” To their young and revolutionary minds, Delannoy and his films were old-fashioned and phony in the worst possible way. Of course, making a name for yourself in the arts often involves tearing down whatever is currently accepted as the artistic standard, and the attacks on Delannoy and his peers by the Nouvelle Vague creators should be considered within this context. Looking back more than half a century later, we can enjoy both Delannoy’s well-crafted films and the likes of Breathless and The 400 Blows.
Maigret and the St. Fiacre Case and Maigret Sets a Trap are distributed on DVD and Blu-ray by Kino Lorber, with a street date of Dec. 5. Both films look and sound great, but the only extra on either are the trailers for the two films on the Maigret and the St. Fiacre Case disc; the Maigret Sets a Trap disc has no extras. | Sarah Boslaugh