Le Cinéma français. 1930-1960
Simenon on Screen
In all, there have been more than forty French films which have used as their starting point the works of the creator of the famous Commissioner Maigret. Of the Maigrets there are some fifteen, fewer than the other Simenon novels adapted to film. But it is with them that it all began, ten years before the rest.
It is interesting to note that Commissioner Maigret made his screen debut in 1932, the same year in which Simenon himself was granted the status of "important writer" in the first articles of René Lalou, Robert Brasillach and Jean Cassou, awaiting those of Edmond Jaloux and Ramon Fernandez in 1933, and the supreme consecration of Le Temps and André Thérive in 1935. Thus in 1932, three Maigret films appeared, one after another. The first, featuring Abel Tarride in Jean Tarride's Le Chien jaune, has left no trace, neither in memory, nor, apparently, in film libraries. It is different for La Nuit du carrefour, which is, notably, a film by Jean Renoir. Through bad luck, one of the reels was unusable after the filming, rendering the film incomplete, to the detriment of its intelligibility and success. Nevertheless, Claude Gauteur has justly appraised La Nuit du carrefour (in his survey in L'Avant-scène, n° 235) as "the only Maigret, on the big screen or the small, to offer a successful film equivalence of the famous Simenon atmosphere." Pierre Renoir played Maigret, and his creation remains one of most satisfactory. It should be noted that these first two films were the only ones in which Simenon played an active role in the adaptation. Thereafter, he took no further interest in what film-makers did with his novels. The third Maigret of 1932 was Julian Duvivier's La Tête d'un homme, with Harry Baur, who was physically probably closest of all to the Maigret model. This was an excellent production, which also gave a fine period picture of Montparnasse.
Despite this rather encouraging beginning, Maigret disappeared from the screen for ten years. (We note that between 1934 and 1942 he was similarly abandoned by his creator, to the profit of his "serious" novels.) It wasn't until 1942 that Maigret returned to the movies, in the unexpected form of Albert Préjean slender, smooth-cheeked and sporty hardly preserving anything of the original Maigret except his pipe. There were three films, Picpus (1942), Cécile est morte (1943), and Les Caves du Majestic (1944), all produced by the German firm Continental, a major consumer of police stories (including those of Steeman and Pierre Véry). The first two were adapted by Jean-Paul Le Chanois, the third by Charles Spaak. While Maurice Tourneur directed the second, the least bad of the three, the other two can be laid to Richard Pottier, a film-maker more prolific than talented. All three sank quickly into oblivion.
In 1948, a curious Franco-American co-production, L'Homme de la tour Eiffel, directed by the actor Burgess Meredith, brought cinema-goers a Maigret personified by Charles Laughton. A remake of La Tête d'un homme, it was no match for Duvivier's version. Nor did Harry Baur suffer comparison with Laughton, whose portrayal was extreme, even grotesque. Another Maigret for nothing. Brélan d'as (1952), by Henri Verneuil, left us wishing we could keep Michel Simon as Maigret. In this film of three sketches, one drawn from Simenon, the great actor embodied the commissioner in an adaptation of an excellent story, "Le Témoignage de l'enfant de chur." Just a sketch, but it was remarkable, and, unusually, it gained the approval of Simenon himself, who greatly admired the actor. Another film of sketches appeared: Maigret dirige l'enquête (1954) by Stany Cordier, with Maurice Manson.
With the joining of Jean Gabin and Maigret in 1957, a new, less empty era opened up, beginning with Maigret tend un piège, directed by Jean Delannoy, with dialogue by Michel Audiard. The formula was a success, and in 1959, the Gabin Delannoy-Audiard trio returned with Maigret et l'affaire Saint-Fiacre, an adaptation of one of the earliest Maigrets (1932). Finally, joining only Préjean in playing the role three times, Gabin was again the commissioner in Maigrit voit rouge (1963), directed by Gilles Grangier (with dialogue by Jacques Robert), based on "Maigret, Lognon et les gangsters." Exhausted by success, there was no fourth. Was Gabin a perfect Maigret? Simenon seemed to think so when he declared: "Gabin has done an incredible job. He's spoiled the rest for me a bit, because I can't picture Maigret any more except with his features." Sincerity or flattery? It's tempting to go along with Jacques Siclier: "The literary myth is much too strong to be embodied otherwise than in the reader's imagination... On the screen, the two myths [Maigret and Gabin] overlap and cancel each other out, leaving a character of pure composition."
Plausible or not, Gabin was in any case the last French Maigret on the big screen. After him, there were the German Heinz Rühmann and the Italian Gino Cervi, in two mediocre co-productions, German (1966) and Italian (1967), quickly forgotten. For fifteen years, the famous commissioner has awaited a new cinematic face, while Jean Richard offers television viewers some approximate compensation.
If Maigret has long deserted the darkened halls, Simenon himself has been ever-present. His works outside the investigations of the famous commissioner comprise a set of novels nearly twice as numerous, and among them may be found his true masterpieces. It is from this nearly inexhaustible mass that film-makers continue to draw. Still, it took them some time to discover it, for while the first Maigrets appeared in 1932, work on other Simenon novels didn't begin until 1941, to appear in 1942. Here again it was Continental, most likely under the influence of its artistic director, Henri-Georges Glouzot, that began the movement, with a minor film by Jean Dréville, Annette et la dame blonde, quickly blessed with oblivion. (One had awaited Danielle Darrieux, but gotten Louise Carletti...) Then another flash in the pan, La Maison de sept jeunes filles (1941) from Albert Valentin, before the emergence of a film of a totally different caliber, Les Inconnus dans la maison (1941), one of the first great successes of the Occupation, and of Continental. Directed by Henri Decoin, the film owes much to Glouzot, who made of it a model of intelligent adaptation, inserting scenes of his own invention into the "blanks," like the famous plea for the defense, which Raimu delivered so superbly, and of which there is no trace in the novel. And Pierre Fresnay's voice-over commentary contributed significantly in evoking the heavy, oppressive atmosphere of the book. Simenon was rarely better treated on film than by this adaptation of one of his best works. That was again the case the following year, with Le Voyageur de la Toussaint (1942). Also one of his strongest pieces, it is a savage rendering of a clan of provincial bourgeoisie, weaving a dark familial plot of squalid self-interest against the shelter of a respectable home. The director was Louis Daquin, solid though without genius; the film owes much to its adapter-dialoguist, in this case Marcel Aymé, whose work was remarkable. There is in his production a current close to that of Simenon, and the affinities between the two blend favorably.
Compared with the two previous films, Monsieur La Souris (1942), adapted by Marcel Achard and directed by Georges Lacombe, appears rather colorless, in spite of the presence of Raimu. As for Henri Decoin's L'Homme de Londres (1943), it was, as always, very well directed, but Exbrayat's inappropriately grandiloquent adaptation managed to compromise the work. The opening was nevertheless remarkable, and rarely has the famous atmosphere been so well captured. We should note that if one includes the three Préjean Maigrets, nine Simenon novels were produced between 1941 and 1944, as if there had existed some secret consonance between this period and the heavy atmosphere that Brasillach called "the tragic social sense" of the writer. That a film like Les Inconnus dans la maison should have been banned at the Liberation is not completely inexplicable... But after the war, film-makers did not desert Simenon at all. In 1946, there was Panique, Spaak and Duvivier's adaptation of "Les Fiançailles de M. Hire," a disappointing work, of which one only remembers Michel Simon's interpretation. Then there was Marc Maurette's unsuccessful Dernier Refuge, based on "Le Locataire," a first adaptation of which, under the same title, had been started but not completed in the spring of 1940. The final Simenon of the '40s was La Marie du port (1949), practically Marcel Carné's last good film, in which Gabin was no more than equal to himself, while Nicole Courcel played a remarkable little girl, of which the novelist painted a certain number.
Some successes among numerous "bombs"
In the '50s the movies drew on Simenon nearly as much as in the previous decade. They opened with a bang, thanks to La Vérité sur Bébé Donge (1951). Another literary success and another remarkable realization by Henri Decoin, decidedly much inspired by the novelist. The extremely well-balanced interpretation was dominated by the starring duo Gabin-Darrieux, and the adaptation by Maurice Auberge (Jacques Becker's script writer) was a model of non-literal fidelity. On the other hand, fidelity was not the strong suit of the next film, Henri Verneuil's Le Fruit défendu (1952), which distorted the famous "Lettre à mon juge" to give a role to Fernandel, who was hardly the character. In l952 again, another very good novel, "La neige était sale," was frankly slaughtered by the Argentine film-maker Luis Saslavsky. One can pass quickly over Gilles Grangier's 1956 La Sang à la tête (based on "Le Fils Cardinaud"), and Ralph Habib's worse-than-mediocre Passager clandestin (1957). On the other hand, in 1958 Claude Autant-Lara succeeded with one of his better films, En cas de malheur, as underlined by François Truffaut himself, who saw it as "a film more intelligent than beautiful, more skillful than noble, more artful than sensitive." Ambiguous judgment, certainly, but the praise was there, if grudging...
The period from 1960-1965 was discouraging, though fertile. Here we find "vehicles" for Gabin, Le Baron de l'écluse (Delannoy, 1959-1960) and Le Président (Verneuil, 1960), and for Lino Ventura, Le Bateau d'Émile (La Patellière, 1961); Jean-Pierre Melville made one of his worst movies, completely spoiling L'Aîné des Ferchaux (1962), an admirable novel, and Marcel Carné did the same with Trois Chambres à Manhattan (1965), which Renoir had wanted to do with Leslie Caron in the role taken by Annie Girardot. In the middle of all these bombs and mediocrities, there was an interesting film however: Édouard Molinaro's La Mort de Belle (1960). The adaptation and dialogues were by Jean Anouilh, whose personal universe, like that of Marcel Aymé, fits well with Simenon's, with whom he is not unconnected. Jean Dessailly, first seen eighteen years earlier in Le Voyageur de la Touissant, received a leading role, rarely granted him.
Aside from Bertrand Tavernier, who, thanks to L'Horloger de Saint-Paul (1973), based on "L'Horloger d'Everton" transposed to Lyons, made some extremely promising beginnings, one producer in particular has for ten years been interested in the novels of Simenon, Pierre Granier-Deferre. He made successively, Le Chat (1971), La Veuve Couderc (1971), Le Train (1973) and L'Étoile du Nord (1982), a new version of "Le Locataire." All these films have their qualities, but none are completely satisfying, nor do they equal, for example, the successes of Decoin, or even of Daquin. In spite of interpreters like Gabin, Simone Signoret or Romy Schneider, they lack life, and the secret of the famous "atmosphere" seems today lost. It is the same for the numerous adaptations of Simenon produced over a long period abroad. There have been English Simenons, like L'homme qui regardait passer les trains (The Man Who Watched Trains Go By) by Harold French (1951), or American, like Le Fond de la bouteille (The Bottom of the Bottle, 1955) or Les Frères Rico (The Brothers Rico, 1957), respectively by Henry Hathaway and Phil Karlson. Successes are even rarer than in the French adaptations.
The difficulty of adapting Simenon
One may wonder why an author so beloved of film-makers is, in the final analysis, the source of so few good films. Is there some great misunderstanding in the belief that Simenon should be a film author par excellence? Contrary to appearances, is this writer actually not so adaptable to the screen? And if not, why not? All these questions deserve to be asked. The answer may be found in a survey by the Belgian critic Robert Poulet, who notes that "Nearly all of Simenon's stories begin with a hundred masterly pages, in which one participates as in a natural phenomenon... and at the conclusion, much less easily. In truth, this restorer of the detective novel, which is all action, feels ill at ease with action. It is in the depiction of states that he triumphs." And he follows by explaining why the universe of Simenon is "a static universe," which indeed confirms the analysis of many famous novels. It is obvious that a static universe is not what is most attractive to the art of movement which is film, and that the painting of states, at which so many film-makers find themselves awkward besides, is not sufficient to feed the plot of a script that asks for development of situations and evolution of relationships and characters. These are very difficult adaptative problems to resolve, fidelity balanced against cinematic failure, with the success of the film only obtainable through a deceit that disappoints the reader. Considering this, it isn't surprising that the operation has succeeded on average no more than once out of ten tries. Yet, one can be sure that film-makers will continue not to be discouraged (in 1982, Claude Chabrol tried his hand, producing Les Fantômes du chapelier) and that there will still be many more films drawn from the novels of Georges Simenon.
(translation by Steve Trussel
December 2, 2002)