“If I were an architect and I had to build a monument to the cinema, I would place a statue of Julien Duvivier above the entrance”.1 These are the words of none other than Jean Renoir paying tribute to his colleague in 1967. What happened then to Duvivier’s reputation in posterity? Held in high esteem by some of the world’s leading filmmakers and widely respected in the industry, he was relegated to the ranks of uninventive and conventional by directors of the Nouvelle Vague, alongside other big names that are only now starting to be re-evaluated (such as Marcel L’Herbier, Henri Decoin and Yves Allégret, to name just a few).

In part, his downfall may have been of his own making: instead of focusing repeatedly on the same themes and confining himself to one genre, Duvivier embraced comedy, thriller, melodrama, social drama and film noir. He himself admitted: “Variety has always been my rule in life. I am not able to be endlessly obsessed by the same thing. Therefore I am drawn to the new”.2 However, in the same interview he added that all his films were “pessimistic in tone, and they illustrate some themes that are a constant in my work, such as the savagery of the mob, the futility of taking action, the cruelty of fate and the impossibility of escape”.3 All these themes are clearly illustrated in one of Duvivier’s own favourite works, Panique (1946). 

Telling the story of Monsieur Hire (Michel Simon) – a withdrawn man who is framed for murder by the woman he is obsessed with and her lover, who is in fact the killer – Panique was freely adapted from a Georges Simenon novel by Duvivier and Charles Spaak. (Spaak, who collaborated with Jean Grémillon, Jacques Feyder and Jean Renoir among others, was another victim of the wrath of the Nouvelle Vague.) Along with Henri Decoin’s 1943 L’homme de Londres (The Man from London) – with whom it shares the same art director, Serge Piménoff – it is possibly the bleakest screen adaptation of a non-Maigret novel from a series that Simenon called romans durs (“hard novels”). It takes place in a Paris suburb where people live in confined spaces; in most of the interior shots, the ceilings are shown, low, oppressive, creating a claustrophobic, almost prison-like atmosphere. Their only form of entertainment seems to be spying on their neighbours. A great number of shots are framed by windows, doorways and shop fronts. They see the lives of others only in fragments and their somewhat limited imagination fills in the rest. Above all, they want everybody else to be like them. The crime of Monsieur Hire is that he is not: he is suspect because he does not have a family and seems indifferent to the charms of the local lady of the evening. The butcher finds it suspicious that he likes his steak with a lot of blood (does he suspect Hire is a vampire?). The neighbours are alarmed when he offers sweets and fruit to a little girl (do they think he is a paedophile?).

The truth is that Hire is a voyeur. Doubly so, in fact. An amateur photographer, he takes snapshots that reveal “faces of misery, shame, vice and crime”. From the window of his flat, he spies on his new neighbour Alice (Viviane Romance) in her bedroom. Like the rest of the quartier, he has only a limited vision of the lives of others. Yet his imagination adds qualities to the girl that she does not possess. He pictures her as good, pure, innocent and exploited by her criminal boyfriend. In fact, she exists in a world made up largely of illusion. The scenes in which she appears contain multiple mirrors, often arranged inventively to form reflections of reflections, to a point where the viewer starts to feel disoriented. To complete this world of distorted realities, Duvivier adds shadows and lights that have no established source, creating an atmosphere that is both realistic and oneiric. As Jean Renoir put it: 

This great technician, this rigorist, was also a poet. His films are never mere expositions of a subject; he lures us into a world at once realistic and unreal. This world is never just the product of his imagination; it also derives from his acute capacity for observation. His characters are real, yet they are also fantastic. A stickler for precision, Duvivier was also a dreamer.4

To complement this world of illusions, a carnival with fairground attractions arrives in the neighbourhood at the beginning of the film. It is here, while riding a bumper car, that Hire will first experience the full and implacable cruelty of the mob. In a sequence that forecasts his final demise, he is set upon by all the other drivers who see that he is inexperienced and isolated in a place dominated by couples. They gang up on him, ferociously running into his car to the great amusement of the onlookers, one of whom compares it to “a real hunt, with hounds and all”. In theory, this cruel game is all in jest, but it becomes deadly earnest at the end when the crowd is convinced of Hire’s guilt in the murder of a local woman. The manhunt begins in the street, then leads up a staircase and onto the roofs. Disoriented, exhausted and disillusioned, Hire falls to his death in full view of his neighbours, most of whom express and feel no remorse. The man who runs one of the fairground rides compares it to “a free show” and “unfair competition”. 

In 1946, France was a country riven by questions of guilt and collaboration with the enemy, which may explain why Panique was neither a box-office nor a critical success. Patrick Brion wrote that “very few films have painted such an acute picture of post-war France, with its guilty conscience, its tedium and its suspicions”.5 The resonance of the film today stretches well beyond its original time and place, with its vision of an ignorant and violent mob ready to destroy anything (or anybody) that does not adhere to its own limited vision of the world. The mercilessness of Duvivier’s vision finds its echo in the fears of the audience and perhaps in those of Duvivier himself. “I’ve always been afraid in life,” he said. “Afraid of others, afraid of their persistent mistrust. In short, I’m always afraid”.6

Panique (France 1946 99 mins)

Prod Co: Filmsonor Prod: José Bosch, Pierre O’Connell Dir: Julien Duvivier Scr: Julien Duvivier, Charles Spaak, based on the novel Les Fiançailles de M. Hire by Georges Simenon Phot: Nicolas Hayer Ed: Marthe Poncin Prod Des: Serge Piménoff Mus: Jean Wiener 

Cast: Viviane Romance, Michel Simon, Max Dalban, Émile Drain, Guy Favières, Louis Florencie


  1. Jean Renoir, “Death of a Professional,” Sight and Sound, Volume 8, Issue 9 (September 1998): 31.
  2. Pierre des Vallières and Hervé Le Boterf, “J’ai toujours eu peur dans ma vie. Entretien avec Julien Duvivier,” Positif, No. 730 (December 2021): 92.
  3. des Vallières and Le Boterf, 92.
  4. Renoir, 31.
  5. Patrick Brion, “Julien Duvivier, le mal-aimé,” Revue des Deux Mondes (December 2000): 184.
  6. des Vallières and Le Boterf, 92.

About The Author

Rolland Man is a Teaching Fellow in Film Studies and Literature and Drama for the Centre for Open Learning at the University of Edinburgh.

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