Maigret of the Month: Le voleur de Maigret (Maigret's Pickpocket)
1. Simenon and the cinema: from the illusion of glory to the disillusion of reality
Beyond the intrigue surrounding this criminal who "believed that he was smart", Ricain, this novel swings between the evocation – always more present as we advance through the chronology of the corpus – of Maigret's memories, and the evocation of the slightly artificial world of the cinema... We have the impression that Simenon, here, had wanted, albeit with discretion, to settle accounts with this milieu. We know that the relationship that the author had with the cinema had been far from simple. Attracted since his youth by the ambiance of movie halls, the author would soon discover "the other side of the screen", with regard to the experience he would have with the first cinematographic adaptations of his novels. The commercial failures of the first films (La nuit du carrefour, Le chien jaune, La tête d'un homme) diverted him from wanting to produce his own cinematographic adaptation, but that didn't stop him from profitably managing the financial returns on the adaptation rights he granted. His relationship with the grand screen had its highs and lows... some friendly encounters (Jean Renoir, Fellini, Michel Simon and Jean Gabin), the presidency of the jury of the Cannes Festival in 1960... But there was also his reticence the see the adaptations of his work on the screen, which he sometimes exposed,
"In writing a novel, I see my characters and know them down to the smallest detail, including what I don't describe. How can a director, or an actor, portray this image which only exists in me? Not by my descriptions, always short and summary, since I want to leave the reader in charge of using his own imagination." (in Mémoires intimes).
If you'll join me, let's look through several autobiographical texts drawn from the Dictations, to lay the groundwork for following the intrigue of the first Maigrets adapted to the cinema.
Saturday, August 15, 1931, Simenon is in Deauville for a book-signing of his first Maigrets...
"That August 15... I'd just gotten my first four or five Maigrets published. I wasn't expecting a thundering success. I myself called them "semi-literature". At that time ... every August 15, Librairie Hachette set up near the boardwalks of Deauville and Bar du Soleil, and invited the best-seller of the year to come sign his books in public, on a table set up outside, facing the bookstore. To my great astonishment I had been chosen that year, and I admit that I was pretty excited about it. I went to Deauville, not by train, nor by car, but aboard my boat, the Ostrogoth, which had just crossed the North Seas, waiting to anchor at Morsang, a little north of Corbeil and near a lock with a pretty name, la Citanguette. So I had come down the Seine and I was anchored in the yacht harbor. I remember that I was wearing an extraordinary canary yellow shirt with thin blue stripes. ... I signed, signed, signed, as if I were an intimate friend of all those who brought me their copies. ... This passion, born in so little time, dazzled me, I admit, and I lived the rest of that August 15 as if in a dream. ... And that was the only time in my life when I let myself get caught up in vanity. ... I was very young, not yet 30. I don't deny that the blood had rushed to my head. ... My basic store of realism quickly cured me of this flash of what I could call notoriety. Two days later, the Ostrogoth left the sumptuous port of Deauville and I set off to moor, some 30 or 40 km. from there, in a little fishing port, Ouistreham, where I no longer rubbed shoulders with bankers, industrialists and nobility, but with simple fishermen. ... One fine morning I saw a Bugatti stop in front of my boat, and an already rather corpulent man get out. It was Jean Renoir, who has become not only a friend, but like my brother, and who came to buy the rights for my first film, La Nuit du carrefour. He was followed by many others. But this meeting with Jean Renoir, all of whose films I'd passionately watched ... profoundly marked my future years. I no longer agree to do book signings, especially outdoors on the most snobbish beach in the world. That August 15 and the days which followed, nonetheless marked a stage of my existence." (in Vacances obligatoires)
So this is how the first Maigret film was born...
"I've spoken elsewhere of the birth of Maigret. It was at Deauville ... that he received his confirmation. I didn't stay long in Deauville, maybe two or three days, then back at sea with the hope of finding a peaceful port to continue the 10 or 12 Maigrets which I'd been contracted to write. I wound up discovering the port of Ouistreham ... . One morning, after I'd finished writing my chapter, I was on the bridge of the Ostrogoth when I saw a racing Bugatti arrive like a whirlwind, and stop right at the edge of the gangway with a great screeching of brakes. ... A man, a little older than me, jumped out and headed my way. He had a face that I would call angelic, if somewhat chubby, and goodness oozed from his entire being. He walked towards me, kissed me on both cheeks and said, "Simenon... finally!" It was Jean Renoir ... His first question was "Are the film rights available for La Nuit du carrefour?" We were still at the first Maigrets published. No one had proposed to adapt them for the movies. My heart was beating strongly. I said yes, naturally. To be adapted by Jean Renoir, whom I admired more than all the other directors of the epoch... I would happily have given him the rights for nothing. ... We talked for a long time. And the more we talked, the closer we felt to each other. A friendship, or rather an affection which has not changed in more than 50 years.
Jean Renoir directed the first Maigret. It wasn't one of the two or three big agencies of the time who financed it, but a producer with a name ending in "sky", with whom the disputes were not slow in coming. Without asking for them, I received very substantial rights... 50,000 francs [of that time]. As for Maigret, he was interpreted by Jean's elder brother, Pierre Renoir, who, in my opinion, was the best Maigret. Pierre Renoir ... had understood that a principal Chief Inspector of the PJ is a civil servant. He acts and dresses as a government employee, always maintaining his dignity, his look steady and inquisitive. ...
The filming had to be interrupted numerous times for lack of funds. ... Editing ended some months later, a low water period with regard to money. They showed the film. ... But after the showing, the film people came to me to ask exactly what the plot was. ... The holes corresponded to the low water periods of Mr. "sky". And so he brought me into his office and said, "It seems that people don't understand everything. I've come up with a way to remedy that. After the credits, you'll appear in close-up and explain the story. After that, you'll return from time to time to clarify this or that sequence." ... He offered me 50,000 francs for that work. 50,000 francs which he'd probably pay me with a bad check, for in the cinema then they often paid with bad checks. I refused, of course." (in Point-Virgule)
Let's follow some other films...
"There would be no lack of offers for film adaptations. In a few months, there were three films in progress, counting that of Jean Renoir: Le Chien jaune, by Jean Tarride ... The new Maigret was Abel Tarride, an enormous man who played a little like they used to play at Porte Saint-Martin. Then there was La Tête d'un homme, with again a different Maigret, Harry Baur. I fled Paris, through which I was passing after leaving Normandy, and, driving my car, I reached the Côte d'Azur. Cap d'Antibes was hardly populated. ... Feeling cocky over the success of my Maigrets and the sale of the rights of my three films, I rented an immense villa... These three devils of films were going to follow me there. It was Jean Renoir who came first to ask me to do the scenario and dialogues for La Nuit du carrefour. That took almost a month, but that wasn't all I did. Rising early in the morning, I first wrote a chapter of a Maigret, for my contract with Fayard required a regular production. ... From the time [Renoir] was there, I dictated the scenario and dialogues, and we discussed everything with Jean. ...
After Jean Renoir, it was Jean Tarride who arrived with the goal of having me write the scenario and dialogues for Le Chien jaune. Unlike the preceding Jean, his was not a great mind, and the work with him was even more painful as he spoke slowly and was a snob to the tip of his toenails. It was he who had placed his father, Abel Tarride, in the role Maigret. Now, Abel Tarride played in the theater what are called "chubbies". He had an enormous belly, and jowls. He was more likely to get a laugh than to represent the Police Judiciaire.
The third scenario, dialogues included, I wrote by myself... That was La Tête d'un homme, which a big film producer had asked me to personally direct. Having finished the scenario, I should have returned to Paris ... to select the actors there, and to get ready for production. ... I needed a Maigret. I don't often go to the theater, nor to the movies. I ended up choosing Harry Baur. The producers had told me, "You have free rein to chose the artists and establish their characters." Which I naively did. The producers obligingly signed the contracts I'd set up... From there on, another mechanism came into play. Every day I'd receive one of my actors, furious, waving under my nose the bad checks he'd received. I tried to straighten things out, but I couldn't get the checks paid. So, in a burst of anger... I announced to the producer that I would not direct the film that was about to begin. I packed my bags, and, with Tigy, left for Equatorial Africa. It was my late friend Julien Duvivier who had the courage to take up once more La Tête d'un homme, and he was able to get back a certain number of my discouraged actors, including Harry Baur, who thus became the third Maigret. ... I nonetheless discovered that the Paris cinema was worth nothing to me and I preferred the tropical bush. And I also made a decision, which I stayed true to for more than five years... to no longer grant any film rights to my novels, no matter how high the fees proposed to me by producers." (in Point-Virgule)
Disillusioned, Simenon no longer risked doing the adaptations of his novels himself, and if he eventually reversed his decision and granted film rights again, we can no doubt find the reason in this explanation which he gives in a letter to Gaston Gallimard, cited in Assouline's biography... "From now on I'll ask of cinema the pecuniary equivalent of what I get from the publication of my novels as serials."
Simenon would still retain a certain resentment towards the world of cinema... If he has his Chief Inspector enjoy the little halls where you can wrap yourself in human warmth, and delight in an old western, a Chaplin film, or Laurel and Hardy, he will also pit Maigret against the producer Bronsky, with the predestined name, who is in reality the head of the Czech gang (MOR), and the far from glamorous group at the Vieux-Pressoir (VOL), of whom not a single member is portrayed in a favorable light... Small vengeance, admittedly trivial, but no doubt somewhat soothing...
2. Guessing game for a few corpses...
"Near a couch transformed into a bed for the night, a woman was stretched out on the Moroccan rug with multi-colored designs, with blue-bottle flies swirling and buzzing around her." (end of the first chapter);
"a huddled body, dressed in a flowered silk bathrobe, a slipper still hanging from one foot." (Ch. 2)
That's how Sophie Ricain appeared to us in two sentences, in a decor posed by the author in a few characteristic details. No need for a long description to have us "feel" the picture of this woman transformed into a corpse...
Fellow Maigretphiles, would you like to play a little game? I've located for you in the corpus several descriptions of cadavers discovered by Maigret in the course of his investigations. Can you recognize them?
- "She was wearing only a cream-colored silk dress and white suede shoes which were rather more beach shoes than town shoes. The dress was crumpled, but with no trace of mud. Only the tip of the left shoe was still wet at the time of the discovery. ... Her earrings were two genuine pearls... Her bracelet, in gold or platinum ... had the mark of a Place Vendôme jeweler. Her hair was brown, wavy, cut very short in the back and on the sides. As for her face, disfigured by the strangulation, she must have been remarkably pretty."
- "A strange corpse... a plump little old woman, heavily made up, with pale blond hair, overly bleached, but with the white roots still visible... a red bathrobe, and a stocking, only one, on the leg which hung off the bed."
- "On the white goatskin rug, at the foot of the bed ... a body was stretched out, a black satin dress, a very white arm, hair with copper highlights... next to a foot still in its high-heel shoe, a shoeless one, whose toes could be seen through a silk stocking splattered with mud, with a run from the heel to the knee."
- "In the corner of a yellow sofa, a young woman with brown hair was strangely folded over, with a large dark red stain on her robe. ... She was leaning towards the right, and her head hung down, her hair almost touching the rug."
- "The young woman was lying on her right side, one cheek on the wet sidewalk, one of her feet shoeless... It was somehow unexpected to see her toes through the silk stocking. She was wearing a pale blue satin evening dress, and, perhaps because of the way she was lying, her dress seemed too big for her."
- "When the door of the cabinet was opened, it revealed the body of a woman, entirely nude, which must have been folded in half to get it into the cramped space."
- "She was wearing an almond green spring dress... After the blow, she must have slid from her chair, and her body had folded up on itself, strangely twisted. Her throat was open, and she had lost a considerable quantity of blood, which must have still been warm... The Chief Inspector, in spite of himself, looked at the face of the young girl, her glasses askew, her eyes blue and fixed. "
- "The old woman seemed even more tiny dead than alive. It was just a little body with the legs strangely folded, in a way which gave her the look of a disarticulated puppet. ... Her face and hands were an ivory white."
- "On the ground, a body was slumped, folded in two, strangely contorted. ... He straightened the torso [of the corpse], saw, on the chest, on the shirt and jacket, traces of burns from a gunshot fired at close range, making a great dark stain, mixed with purplish blood."
- "Dead, the young man was even more pitiful than when he was alive. You could see the holes in the soles of his shoes, and his pants had ridden up when he fell, uncovering an improbable red sock, a pale and hairy shin."
- "After which, the technicians carefully removed the knife... and the body was finally turned over. We could then see the face of a man of 40 or 50 whose sole expression was one of astonishment. He hadn't understood what had happened to him. He died without understanding. ... His clothes were clean, decent. He was wearing a dark suit, a light beige overcoat, and his feet, strangely twisted, were in light brown shoes"
- "The red stripes of his pajamas emphasized even more his contortion. You would say that he had collapsed while walking on all fours, and he was all twisted, his arms straight out, hands strained, as if, in a final effort, he had tried to reach the revolver which was also on the ground, less than a foot from his fingers."
- "A bullet had entered his right eye, shattering his skull, and, judging by the tears in his black velvet dressing gown, and the bloodstains, other projectiles had reached his body in several places."
- "The man was young. He appeared to be hardly 20, wearing a suede jacket, and his hair was long in back. He had fallen forward and the back of his jacket was plastered with blood..."
- "His chest was covered with clotted blood, but his face remained calm. His clothes were those of a clochard and contrasted with the dead man's face and hands. He was fairly old and had long silver hair, with bluish highlights. ... He had a white moustache, slightly curled, and a goatee, also white, Richelieu style. Aside from that, he was close-shaven, and Maigret had another surprise in discovering that the dead man's nails had been carefully manicured."
- "Maigret approached the body, and it seemed strange to him to be looking down on him like that. He was wearing a dinner jacket, as he did every evening, and a large bloodstain spread out on the front of his shirt."
Mary Lampson (PRO)
Juliette Boynet (CEC)
Louise Filon (TRO)
Louise Laboine (JEU)
Eveline Jave (AMU)
Antoinette Vague (HES)
Léontine de Caramé (FOL)
Pietr Johannson (LET)
Louis Jeunet (PHO)
Louis Thouret (BAN)
Xavier Marton (SCR)
Armand de Saint-Hilaire (VIE)
Antoine Batille (TUE)
Marcel Vivien (SEU)
Maurice Marcia (IND)
3. A badge
A beautiful silver badge, or more exactly, silver-plated bronze, for, with use, the thin coating of silver had not long hidden the red metal. On one side, Marianne in a Phrygian bonnet, the letters "RF" and the word "Police" framed in red enamel. On the reverse, the arms of Paris, a number, and, engraved in small letter, the name of the owner. Maigret's badge had the number 0004, the number 1 being reserved for the Prefect, 2 for the Director of the PJ, and 3, for some obscure reason, for the head of the Security Branch."(Ch. 1).
It was this badge that Maigret had had stolen by Ricain, along with his wallet. We know that Simenon, at the time of his 1952 trip, when he'd been invited to the PJ, received the same badge:
"April 18: Official reception at 36 Quai des Orfèvres, headquarters of the Judiciary Police, capped with a great luncheon. The writer is greeted like one of the family by the prefect and several inspectors and superintendents... The various men Maigret was modeled on have all retired, and the fireplace his hero liked to stir has been replaced by central heating. Before the novelist leaves, a silver badge, no., 0000, is issued in Maigret's name. Simenon will have it made into a key chain, and one day will use it to get the gendarmes off his back when he is stopped for speeding..."
(Pierre ASSOULINE, Simenon, biography, Julliard, 1992)
Here's an image of the famous badge:
translation: S. Trussel
Honolulu, July 2009