Cine-Simenon: Georges Simenon on Film

The Belgian-born Georges Simenon (1903-1989) wrote over 200 novels (by Wikipedia's count) plus many shorter works. The New York Times estimates that number (including his memoirs and nonfiction works) as being between 400 and 500. Simenon's creation, Inspector Jules Maigret, who appeared in about 75 works, "ranks only after Sherlock Holmes as the world's best known fictional detective." (I'm not sure how Poirot feels about that.) Of course, such popularity could not be overlooked by the entertainment industry, and imdb.com has compiled a list of 132 movies and TV shows based on his oeuvre. And now the Anthology Archives, with Kathy Geritz and the Pacific Film Archive, is presenting 14 of these celluloid joys within the series appropriately entitled Cine-Simenon: George Simenon on Film, which runs until August 21st.

Before viewing the celluloid Simenon, I decided to nestle down with the textural Simenon, and within a week, I had plowed through five of his works, four featuring Maigret, all covered in this separate review. An addiction had been born.

So what's so habit-forming about this portly, pipe-smoking, happily wed, and at-times guilt-ridden fictional crime solver? In his novel No Vacation for Maigret (1953), Simenon writes, "To tell the truth Maigret had never been very hot on footprints, fingerprints, and the like. As a general rule he left such things to the 'experts.'" Yes, our investigator time after time exposes his villains by an uncanny instinct and an unrelenting doggedness. Often, he senses who the guilty party is in the second or third chapter, and then has to spend the rest of the book fleshing out his theory, unlike Agatha Christie, who springs her villain on you only in the penultimate chapter.

I was able to view six of the films included in Cine-Simenon:

A Man's Neck/La Tete d'un homme (1933)

One of the best offerings in the series, and one speculated to have inspired Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train, is Julien Divivier's fast-paced, exquisitely shot psychodrama that concerns Joseph Huertin (Alexandre Rignault), an impoverished, bovine man-on-the-outs, who's convinced to a rob an old lady's apartment by a rather persuasive stranger. This stranger is none other than Radek (the superb Valery Inkijinoff), a fellow penniless soul, who has overheard a gent at a local café jokingly claim that he'd pay anyone 100,000 francs to kill his rich, old aunt. Radek takes him up on the offer, commits the crime, and frames Huertin. Will Maigret (Harry Baur, above)  fall for the scam, especially with Huertin's bloody fingerprints everywhere? What's especially delicious here are the remnants of silent filmmaking scattered about, especially in the long close-ups and the unforgettable finale. Radek's rantings against the spoiled upper classes are an added bonus.

The Man on the Eiffel Tower (1949)

Utilizing the same novel, La Tête d'un homme, that A Man's Neck employed, this troubled American production is inferior in every manner, from the uneven acting by the supporting cast to the use of a dummy falling off the Eiffel Tower, yet at the same time, the tale is never less than intriguing. With star Burgess Meredith drafted into the director's role at the final moment (Charles Laughton threatened to walk off the set otherwise), Huerton (Meredith) is now an extremely nearsighted knife sharpener who turns gullible thief. Franchot Tone, who also financed the film, is the madman Radek, who lives with his mother when not murdering folk. However, here his motives are not so Marxian. This Radek considers himself a genius, one who can outwit Maigret (Laughton) plus his former professors and classmates. Sometimes, he'd predict the latter's deaths: "You will die in one year," and they did. Stymied by its low budget, this effort still entertains with its views of a post-War Paris and its battle of the minds.

Monsieur Hire (1989)

Michel Blance stars as the tiny, balding, highly unlikable Hire, a tailor with a passion for a young woman, Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire), whose window faces his own. One day she catches him peeping in, but that doesn't stop her from undressing, sleeping, or making love in front of his stare. In fact, she encourages Hire's voyeurism and even wants to make contact with him. (The spilled-tomatoes-on-the-staircase scene between the two is an unforgettable ode to seduction.) There's one problem. A local police inspector believes Hire is responsible for a recent murder of a damsel in the park. So who's in more danger now? Alice or her admirer? Helmer Patrice Leconte's early effort is one of his best.

Betty (1992)

When Simenon suggested to Claude Chabrol over lunch that he make a film without a plot because unlike novels, cinema's a truly visual medium that just needs a face, Chabrol took him up and adapted the master's Betty, a tale without much forward motion that is nonetheless engaging. Marie Trintignant stars in the titular role as a self-destructive femme fatale who one rainy evening, while drinking nonstop, allows herself to be picked up by a much older doctor, who drives her to a secluded restaurant, The Hole, for dinner. There she's befriended by Laure (Stephane Audran), a lonely, wealthy widow, who helps rescue Betty from her date, who turns out to be a bit insane, and installs the now unconscious girl into a room next to her own in a luxury hotel. Will Betty ever leave? Drifting back and forth in time, step by incremental step, we discover Betty's past: her lovers, her husband, his extremely well-heeled in-laws, her children, and her hedonism. So what happened to poor Betty? Is she a saint or a sinner? And will Laure survive once she finds out? Although I'm fan, The Washington Post's Megan Rosenfeld was not at the time this offering opened: "Trintignant brings little to the role beyond her beauty, including a curvaceous figure (fully visible). Even her tears seem painted on." You decide. 

The Bottom of the Bottle (1956)

After the war, Simenon was being accused of possibly being too friendly to the Germans, so he packed off to America and wound up in Arizona, scribing the source material for this adequate Henry Hathaway offering. (Hathaway directed it three years after  Niagara with Monroe and eight years before Of Human Bondage with Kim Novak.) The "sexy" blond here is the often shirtless Van Johnson, who stars as the on-the-wagon Donald, an escaped prisoner on the run. You see, while drunk, he bumped off a chap who was about to attack him. Seeking help, this apparently nice chap winds up at his highly respected, rich brother P.M.'s ranch. The problem now arises that P.M. (Joseph Cotton) has never briefed anyone that he has a sibling, not even his wife Nora (Ruth Roman). So Donald's introduced as P.M.'s old pal who becomes insane when he drinks. Not unexpectedly, everyone wants to see the man get soused. However, all Donald wants to do is get his boots into Mexico and be reunited with his own wife and three kids. P.M., who's only concerned about his reputation, feels no empathy for his kid bro, and you won't care much either thanks to Cotton's performance. It's as if he sent out his shirts to get starched and forgot to get out of them. Roman, though, is terrific. As for the ending, it's very schmaltzy Hollywood -- and very little Simenon.

The Man Who Watched Trains Go By/Paris Express (1952)

This solid adaptation embraces Simenon's favorite archetype, an innocent who mistakenly thinks he has committed some evil act, and then eventually actually does. Claude Rains stars as the loyal, nondescript Dutch bookkeeper Popinga, who lights upon the fact that his employer has embezzled funds for years in order to entertain a Parisian mistress. Consequently, the business Propinga has invested all of his savings in has gone bankrupt. A brief to-do occurs after this discovery, and the little man believes he's killed his boss. Grabbing the swindler's briefcase filled with hundreds of thousands of guilders, Propinga winds up in the City of Lights wooing the very woman who initiated the crimes. Who will get the upper hand? Directed by Harold French, a British stalwart, this little thriller is worth every one of the 82 minutes you'll spend with it. 

Click on this link to read my article on his literary career.Brandon Judell

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Mr. Judell is currently teaching "Theatre into Film" and "The Arts in New York City" at The City College of New York and is Coordinator of The Simon H. Rifkind Center. He has written on film for The Village VoiceindieWire.com, the New York Daily NewsSoho Style, and The Advocate, and is anthologized in Cynthia Fuchs's Spike Lee Interviews (University Press of Mississippi) and John Preston's A Member of the Family (Dutton). He is also a member of the performance/writing group FlashPoint.