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Michel Simon
from Peter Haining's "The Complete Maigret"
Boxtree, 1994. pp 41-45

In the meantime, back in France, Maigret was to be portrayed by two outstanding actors whose performances would set standards that have still not been surpassed, in the cinema at least ...

The first of these stars was Michel Simon (1895-1975), a hulking, heavy-featured actor who made two Maigret pictures, Le Temoignage de l'Enfant de Choeur (Elusive witness) in 1952 and ten years later starred in a joint French-Italian version of Le Bateau d'Emile (never translated). [This is an error: Le Bateau d'Emile is not a Maigret. Simon only played Maigret once.] Born François Simon in Switzerland, the son of a Geneva sausage maker, Simon had, considering his ungainly size, a remarkable ability at playing comic or dramatic characters with a mixture of power and deftness.

There was also about him something of Albert Prejean, his predecessor in the Maigret role, for he, too, had pursued a number of careers — including those of boxer, photographer and music hall clown-acrobat — before going onto the stage in 1918. And like the current incumbent of the role, Michael Gambon, Simon was a big, shambling figure, with a distinctive deep voice and an admiration of animals, especially the ape family. Indeed, his home on the outskirts of Paris was famous for its menagerie of animals, including dogs, birds, cats and five monkeys. When one of these monkeys named Catherine who had been his constant companion for twenty years died, he was inconsolable. Simon even refused a number of film roles that involved cruelty to animals.

Like Gambon, too, Simon was described as 'a man with a homely face and teddy bear body' who possessed a wicked sense of humour and earned the respect and admiration of his fellow professionals for his dedication to his art. His connection with the Maigret legend extends still further for he came to public notice in two films directed by Jean Renoir, La Chienne (1931) and Bondu Sauvée des Eaux (1932), and established his basso profondo talent in Julian Duvivier's La Fin du Jour (1939). Francois Truffaut who also directed him in a later picture said of his ability to bring ordinary and unglamorous characters to life: 'When Michel Simon plays a part, we penetrate the core of the human heart.'

This was an ability which Simon used to good effect in both his performances as Maigret. Elusive Witness was actually one of three stories in an anthology of detective tales released under the generic title, Brelan d'As (Brelan the Ace) — the other two stories being Mort dans l'Ascenseur by S. A. Steenan, and a Lemmy Cauton adventure, J'ai le Coeur Tendre by the English crime writer, Peter Cheyney. The Maigret episode was based on a short story of the same title in which Simenon drew on his own childhood memories as a choirboy to recount the inspector's pursuit of the killer of a young chorister. [This is an error: the chorister was the witness, not the victem, as seen in the following paragraph.]

A contemporary French report of the making of the film in Paris describes Simon's performance as Maigret in these words: 'The manner in which this prodigious actor puts himself into a role is always remarkable — his stature is such that he has to enlarge his roles to fit him and by so doing gives them life. As Maigret, he smokes his pipe, a short briar, with which he shrouds himself in smoke while he thinks and makes his deductions. He is taking the evidence of a chorister in this "crime without a body" about which his lieutenant, Rignault, does not appear to be concerned. The three of them are there in the banal atmosphere of a police office, Maigret, his assistant, and the choirboy, Claude Fourcade, a youth of ten who has already made as many films as he has years, and who is quietly waiting his opportunity for really entering this medium of entertainment.

'Henry Verneuil — whose Table aux Caves marked a brilliant directorial debut — directs with a good humour which nevertheless misses nothing. But the presence of Michel Simon on a set immediately gives it that something ... and it is not just his ability to tell a funny story. He does everything with an amusing good grace and charm. He does nothing that would rouse the curiosity of visitors or disturb the work of the technicians. He gives way obligingly and is never aggressive. He has a sharp and mordant wit that is not noticeable in his characterisations. For many people he is soon going to be the Commissaire Maigret, that very popular character in French detective fiction.'

Reviews of Brelan d'As singled out the Maigret episode and Michel Simon's performance as the best part of the film, but it was not until 1962 that he was seen in the role again. In the interim, his career had very nearly been destroyed in 1957 by a nightmare experience which occurred while he was working on a film entitled Un Certain Monsieur Jo. For the part Simon was asked to dye his moustache black and a chemical in the dye poisoned his skin and penetrated his nervous system, paralysing part of his face and body. Both his vision and his voice were impaired for almost two years before he was well enough to act again.

This had not been Simon's first brush with suffering. During the First World War he had contracted tuberculosis and spent several years in a sanatorium. Meanwhile, during the German occupation of France, his home was taken over by the Gestapo who persecuted him for allegedly being Jewish until he was able to obtain papers proving his Catholic background. After the war, he was also unfairly accused of being a Nazi collaborator because he had made a number of films with the overt approval of the Germans. When his life was threatened by members of the Resistance, he was for a time forced to travel everywhere with two bodyguards whenever he was working.

These experiences gave him a special insight into the background of the Maigret story, Le Bateau d'Emile, based on another short story, which was directed by Denys de La Patelliere and costarred Pierre Brasseur and Annie Giradot. The story of a man with a mysterious past who is being persecuted and has taken to the river to try and escape his fate was one that Simon could relate to well. Once again he brought the Maigret of Simenon's story to life in a performance that was both measured and commanding whenever he was on screen.

For Brasseur, who played the persecuted Emile, it was his second encounter with a Maigret, for he had actually studied acting with Harry Baur and appeared with him in a couple of movies. A fine character actor who could mix wit and irony, Brasseur made an ideal foil for Simon and the film undoubtedly benefitted from their partnership. Brasseur later appeared in a number of other detective stories including the critically-acclaimed Crime Does Not Pay (1962).

Simon had one more association with the Maigret story before his death in 1975. This occurred in 1960 when he appeared on a Swiss television documentary about Simenon and his work, Simenon, Abre à Romans, produced by Jean-François Hauduroy. Extracts from his two films were shown, and Simon also played a scene from a non-Maigret novel, Le Président, as the venerable lawyer, Augustin, reviewing some of his past triumphs at the bar. Once again viewers were given a hint of how much Simon might have contributed to the Maigret legend if he had played the inspector more than twice.


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