SIMENON ON THE SCREEN
Has Not Been So Successful As
He Has Been In PrintBy JACK EDMUND NOLAN
ULTRA-PROLIFIC writers are rarely of lasting interest or cultural importance. Either they rework the same plot, or character, over and over, or they exploit whatever nonsense is fashionable at the moment (in our day, Freudianism, Marxism, existentialism, etc).
In the opinion of a surprisingly large number of thoughtful people Georges Simenon is not only one of this century's most prolific writers but one of its authors who best understands the comédie humaine. Indeed, there are those who say his Inspector Maigret novels are not detective stories, i.e., puzzles about who did it, so much as literary excursions into why twentieth century human beings do unthinking, bizarre and violent things.
Simenon is sometimes compared to Balzac, even though he has written nothing approaching the stature of, say, Père Goriot. What is meant is that Simenon's vision of people, and society, is free of partisanship of that commitment to party or creed which imprisons writers and so often turns them into hacks. Simenon has written 186 books under his own name, and 200 more under pseudonyms, but even the most snobbish literary critics do not dismiss him as a hack.
Simenon's saving grace is his understanding of human beings and his freedom from cant in depicting them. Inspector Maigret is no cybernetic whizzbang pulling mach-5 solutions out of a Sherlock Holmes hunting cap. He is an honest, plodding cop who had wanted to be a doctor, who doesn't always get his man, and who sometimes doesn't even establish the fact that a crime has been committed.
Simenon himself thinks he will be remembered, if at all, because of Maigret. I would not be surprised if he is remembered less for Maigret than for the picture of twentieth century man which emerges from the totality of his enormous output.
Simenon also says his novels are not cinematic, and fundamentally this is true. Action is much less important in them than description and cerebration, and to date no film from a Simenon novel or story has made cinematic history. Also, many more films have been made from the outpourings of Edgar Wallace and Frank Gruber than from Simenon's.
Georges Joseph Christian Simenon was born in Liege, Belgium, on Friday, the 13th of February, 1903. His birth occurred at 12:10 a.m. and his superstitious mother, a 21-year-old Dutch woman (née Henriette Brüll), registered his birth as having been on February 12. Of his mother Simenon has said: "She had a fierce, tenacious will, a toughness. All her life she traveled her road toward her goal, at all costs."
The father, Desiré Simenon, was a shy 25-year-old Breton who had emigrated to Belgium with high hopes, and who spent his life scratching for a meager living as a salesman of fire insurance. Of his father Simenon has written: "He was humble and resigned, but without sadness or melancholy. He adored life... liked everything, loved everybody. That's why I have such veneration for him."
In 1907 the family moved to the rue de la Loi and Mme Simenon took in lodgers (students at the University of Liege). Trotsky once visited some of the young Poles, Hungarians and Russians who roomed there, and once the police searched the house, presumably for evidence of "radicalism."
There can be no doubt that Simenon's understanding of society began with this first-hand encounter with early, and for the most part idealistic, Marxists, and that his awareness of how identical the power-lusts of radicals and conservatives are, came from the same source. Certainly his reading of Gogol and Dostoievsky as a child was the doing of his mother's Slavic clientele. Mme Simenon, however, was wholly untouched by the political passions seething in her house. She had been a salesgirl before her marriage, and after her two children were born she became involved with religion. So much so that Simenon later alleged:
"She demeaned her husband and two sons, and eroded the virility of the house."
Mme Simenon at first sent Georges to a school run by the Christian Brothers. They shifted his reading to Dickens, Dumas and Balzac, and by the age of twelve he was writing short stories and telling all who inquired that he wanted to be a priest or soldier because those occupations would "leave me time to write."
In '14, aged 11, he entered the small Jesuit-run College of St. Louis, and the following year the College de St. Servais (non-clerical professors). He was an exceptional student, and not only because he wrote short stories.
In the last year of World War I his father had an incapacitating heart attack and Mme Simenon quickly apprenticed her oldest son to a pastry cook. He stood it for two weeks, and then obtained for himself a job as a clerk in a bookstore, from which he was soon discharged for quibbling with a customer about a Dumas first edition. In January '19, a few months before his father's death, he got the kind of job he needed: reporting for the "Gazette de Liège," a daily of non-Socialist, conservative hue owned by Catholics.
Within a year he was writing editorials and contributing humorous and cynical pieces some of them imitations of Mark Twain and Jerome K. Jerome under the pseudonym of M. le Coq.1
Also during his first year on "Gazette de Liège" Simenon wrote his first novel. It was a poor attempt at marital comedy called Au Pont des Arches and was published in an illustrated edition of 1500 copies. He was only 16 years old. Like every novel he has written since, it was finished in less than 16 days.
Simenon's military service part time for 18 months was spent as a baggage clerk with the cavalry, and not long after he completed it he decided to quit Liege for Paris. He arrived there Dec. 11, '22, and landed a public relations job with Les Anciens Combattons (French war veterans). For a while he lived in the Hotel Bertha, but, when the going got tough, he rented a room from a British woman in a St. Honoré slum.
He returned to Liege to marry, on March 24, '23, Regine Renchon, daughter of a cabinet-maker to whom he'd been engaged since December '20. They were "immediately unhappy" and quickly went separate ways. But the marriage lasted, on and off, for 22 years. On April 19, '39, while they were living in Belgium, a son, Marc, was born. Simenon and Regine stayed together throughout World War II, but in '45 Simenon received a French divorce, in '46 a Canadian one, and in '50 a US one (three jurisdictions to satisfy, three divorces from Regine).
When Simenon first left his bride and returned to Paris he got a job as personal secretary to a wealthy landowner, the Marquis de Tracy, through Constantin Weyer, the editor of "Echo du Centre," which de Tracy also owned. The job allowed Simenon plenty of time to write, and he sometimes wrote four short stories a day, and sold them, chiefly to "Le Figaro". One day early in '24, while sitting in a cafe, he wrote an entire novel (Roman d'une Dactylo). Indeed, his writing was so saleable he quit the marquis and rented a large apartment at 21 place des Vosges. On Jan. 1, '25, a publisher gave him a contract for 12 novels, and he began writing one every three or four weeks (his pace is only slightly slower today) . By '28 he had enough income to afford an 18' boat, which he kept in Spain, and to replace it a year later with a 36' sloop, the "Ostrogot," in which he explored the northern European coast for almost two years. While doing so his typewriter clattered day and night. From Spring '29 till August '30, he has said, he never spent a whole night ashore.
Simenon refers to the fiction he pseudonymously penned in the late '20s as "juicy," and it's true these novels dealt so graphically with gratuitous sex that he became the darling of Parisian riffraff and a multi-millionaire (francs). Some of these novels were published by Eugene Merle, who once had Simenon write a few in full view of the Parisian public in a glass cage constructed for the stunt outside the Moulin Rouge.
In a story written by "Georges Sim" in '27 that wasn't published till '29 there was an aging detective character, Commissaire2 Jules Maigret, who reappeared in some subsequent Simenon short stories and might have been forgotten had Charles Dillon, a reader for the Fayard publishing house, not become intrigued by this minor character and induced Artheme Fayard to give Simenon a contract for a series of books with Maigret as the focal point.
Inspector Maigret wasn't created with a stroke of the pen. He is the end product of many Simenon intuitions about the character, of much Simenon craftsmanship in emphasizing things that reenforce the Maigret image readers like and discarding things extraneous to, or destructive of, that image.
Fayard launched the "Maigrets" at a party in February '31 for which Simenon footed most of the bill a wild affair at a Montparnasse gin-mill called "La Boule Blanche." Simenon's investment paid off: the 400 invitees and 700 party-crashers made the name "Maigret" the talk of Paris, and Simenon's "non-Maigret" books began to sell as well as the "Maigret" ones, and the film rights to three of the "Maigrets" were sold almost immediately.
It is interesting to note that some of the best of the 36 books Simenon wrote for Fayard between '31 and '35 were not among the first Simenon works to be filmed. Le Pendu de Saint Pholien, which had a brilliant twist-ending and was autobiographical, and Pietr-le-Letton, were not filmed till the '60s, and then only by British tv. Liberty Bar, which is a fine elucidation of Simenon's obsession that there is no escape from retribution for evil doing, wasn't put on film for 27 years, and then only by French tv.
The first three Simenon works to be filmed were all "Maigrets." The first was a cinematic disgrace directed by Jean Renoir, assisted by Jacques Becker, called La Nuit du Carrefour. Its exteriors were shot at a crossroads about 30 kilometers north of Paris and some of its interiors were done in a part of the Renault works. Renoir's financial backer gave up after only three reels were finished, but these were edited after a fashion and released as a feature film in '32. Maigret was played by Jean Renoir's brother Pierre, and the plot had him endeavor to solve the off-screen murder of diamond-merchant Isaac Goldberg, whose body is found in a garage at the crossroads. Much of the novel went unutilized, including the murder of Mme Goldberg and the development of its pivotal Elsa character. Jean Mitry, the French film historian, had a bit part in it.
Wiinna Winfried & Pierre Renoir in... CARREFOUR
The second Simenon film was Le Chien Jaune, a little-known feature begun by director Jean Tarride in December '31 from the novel of the same name. Set in the harbor of a little town, it has many plot snares, including the chestnut about crimes which seem to have occured when none really had, and the bit about a long lost fugitive returning from the US. Maigret was played by Abel Tarride.
The third film to use Simenon material was La Tête d'un Homme, which director Julien Duvivier began in September '32. It was a financial, though not a critical, success largely because its budget was wisely spent and Duvivier used fast cutting. Harry Baur, as Maigret, knows a Czech con man has stabbed two women to death, but has to ransack Paris to prove it. Simenon thought Baur was "without doubt a great actor, but 20 years too old, and with a face too flabby and tragic."
In the summer of '33 Simenon announced he would not write any more Maigrets, and left for a vacation in the USSR. Rather oddly, he focussed upon Odessa and southern Russia.
Simenon neither was, nor is, a friend of the Left, and has gone out of his way to remain a-political. "You won't find any political convictions expressed in any of my novels," he has said, and added: "Even when my father was 40 my mother never knew how he voted or to which political party he belonged. She only knew he went to Mass. That was all."
Nevertheless, although "L'Humanité" was one of the few French periodicals in the '30s which didn't puff him, the Left press in France often does so now. Ilya Ehrenburg always liked Simenon's tales, and Claude Roy wrote that Simenon "restricts his work to that middle-class which has recently emerged from the fields and slums, and to those workers who live on its fringes. He succeeds less well with the bourgeoisie proper, and knows less deeply the working class proper. He remains the fine painter of the buffetted, indecisive, formless mass of people who are pulled by inconsistent aspirations, those who want to become middle-class and who dread becoming 'workers'".
During the '30s Simenon also visited Germany, New York City, Cuba, Panama, Tahiti, Bali, Australia and the Holy Land, and since first conceiving Maigret has had over 30 "permanent" domiciles. In late '34 he purchased his first chateau called "La Cour-Dieu" which nestles in the Forest of Orleans.
But his affluence and travels of the '30s affected his output not at all, and the mid-'30s were the years of the psychological novels Le Coup de Lune, L'Evadé, 45° à l'Ombre, Faubourg, Chemin sans Issue et a1 which were praised by such disparate intellectuals as Count Keyserling, Francis Carco, Maurice de Vlaminck, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Pagnol, André Gide, composer Arthur Honegger, and detective-story writer Pierre MacOrlan.
In July '38 Simenon reluctantly reactivated Inspector Maigret and during the two years before France capitulated to the Nazis he used him in several books and not a few short stories.
The fourth use of Simenon on the screen was not from a Maigret tale but a Simenon novel of '32 featuring another policeman, Inspector Blanc. Like the novel, this film was titled Le Locataire. It was written and directed by Jacques Constant and dealt with a small-town family and their lodger, a worthless habitué of bars and gambling dens. Jean Tissier was Inspector Blanc. Incredibly, after the film was shot the negative was completely destroyed in a fire at the St. Cloud laboratories.
After the fall of France Simenon and his wife took a house in the Vouvant forest, in the Vendée and there, in August '40, while chopping wood, Simenon had a severe coronary attack. It was impossible for him to get to Paris, and the local doctor said he had two years to live. But by September he was well enough to move to a less isolated house at Fontenay-le-Comte, about 60 kilometers away, where he, with Regine and Marc, sat out the Occupation.
Nine films were made from Simenon material while France was under German domination. The first was Annette et la Dame Blonde, based on a novelette, which director Jean Dréville began in September '41. It was a comédie à l'américaine, financed by the German-owned Continental Films, and an imitation of the zany Carole Lombard vehicles of the '30s, with Louise Carletti, whose previous forte had been handwringing, as leading lady. Her efforts were derided by the critics and the film itself seems to have disappeared. I have never seen it.
The second "Occupation" Simenon film also derived from one of his infrequently light things, a '37 novel titled La Maison des Sept Jeunes Filles, as was the film. Director Albert Valentin began it in October '41 and it was released in '42 just before Annette. It didn't altogether lack charm, but its critical reception was lukewarm. It was full of whispered confidences between principal fille Jacqueline Bouvier and principal lover André Brunet and was little more than a finger-excercise on one of Simenon's favorite themes (how destructible an in-group or clan can be, how secretly anxious and worried the "in" ones sometimes are).
In November '41 Henri Decoin began Les Inconnus dans la Maison, from Simenon's '39 novel of that name. It was both a critical and commercial success, and the first movie to state adequately some of Simenon's key ideas. Henri-Georges Clouzot wrote the script and Decoin directed it in an almost documentary style.
Inconnus was set in a provincial French town and the "inconnus" of the title were young wastrels, wealthy and bored, who progress from petty theft to murder. The film's first half depicts the secluded, withered town (another of Simenon's hermetically sealed-off refuges) and its stifling effect on the boys. The second half, which details their trial for shooting a wealthy man in his ornate mansion, centers on their lawyer, a drunken failure whose daughter has nursed him through twenty years of retirement with the wine bottle and loves one of the culprits. Raimu played the lawyer and his summation to the court was thought at the time to be a covertly pro-France declamation.
Since the war there has been some talk about Inconnus being anti-Semitic. It is true the man murdered in it is a Jew, and that some of the remarks in the defense lawyer's summation can be stretched into an anti-Semitic semblance. But if one goes through Simenon's books I think it will be quickly apparent that Simenon's depiction of Jewish vices differs little if at all from the way he presents the failings of the population at large.
The fourth Simenon film during the Occupation, Monsieur la Souris, from a '37 novel, was even more a vehicle for Raimu than Inconnus, and was, I think, the first Simenon film to obtain a regular US release (in September '47 under the title Midnight in Paris). Souris is a virtually plotless item about an unlovely tramp who bellows at the world but is nonetheless lovable in numerous close-ups. Louis Jourdan was in the cast, but it was not his first screen role, as has been said.
Le Voyageur de la Toussaint was adapted by Marcel Aymé from Simenon's '41 novel and directed by the brilliant, 34-year-old Communist Louis Daquin (yes, even during the Nazi domination of France Communists got screen jobs). In this actionless, "interior" film, the ship "Toussaint" alternately traverses fog-bound or moon-lit seas and berths in the grubby port of La Rochelle. The sad arguments between a character Simenon calls Gilles Mauvoisin and his hapless, dock-side woman, occur amid a ghostly atmosphere of confinement which is one of Simenon's favorite milieux, and one which, during the Occupation, had symbolic meaning for many French people, in all classes, who enjoyed the Occupation (a not inconsiderable number of French intellectuals liked the warm cocoon so much they actually wrote about liking it). Hence films in which characters are not able to escape from a situation were both overtly and covertly enjoyed in France for reasons few Frenchmen will admit today.
The first Maigret film made during the Occupation, titled simply Maigret, was from a '33 novel and never got off the ground. But the second, Picpus, from Simenon's '41 novelette Signé Picpus, starred Albert Préjean as the Inspector and is the best Maigret film there has ever been. It is based on the writer of an anonymous letter being himself the culprit (a gimmick later exploited in Clouzot's Le Corbeau). Picpus is set in summertime Paris, amid considerable luxury, and there is no recognizable reference to the war whatsoever.
In January '43 Henri Decoin began his second Simenon film, a non-Maigret, and, in my opinion, something of an overlooked masterpiece. It had the same title as the '33 novel on which it is based: L'Homme de Londres.
The Londoner of the title is a smalltime British acrobat who robs his theatre-owner employer and absconds to Le Havre with the loot and is there drowned by his British accomplice. The murder is observed by a shy, honest, middle-aged French railway worker (Fernand Ledoux), who inadvertently takes the valise which contains the loot. The gendarmes suspect the Englishman, but lack evidence, and do not arrest him, and without the loot he has no money, and can't go home if he had. The French railway worker wants to keep the loot but cannot spend foreign currency. Neither can inform on the other without implicating himself! Although they've scarcely met, a relationship develops between the two, and, when the murderer, to elude a police dragnet, holes up on an unused barge, the French worker, divining where he must be hiding, takes him food to prevent his death by starvation. But in trying to arouse the weakened murderer, the worker accidentally kills him, and must himself pay for a theft and murder he did not commit.
L'Homme de Londres is the one Simenon film which most clearly elucidates Simenon's thesis of inescapability: you may seemingly get away with something, but you will not be able to avoid performing a distasteful or guilty act later that will bring the deferred penalty down upon you. Other Simenon trademarks in this film: everlasting family friction, and the vermin-infested, but protected, burrow in which the Briton hides. A fine script by Charles Exbrayat helped this film, but it was carried to success by the performance of Fernand Ledoux as the tired human who suddenly discovers "100 years of wages" hidden in a valise. Film societies would do well to locate and screen L'Homme de Londres.
The last two Simenon films made during the Occupation were both Maigrets, and both had Albert Préjean as the Inspector.
The first was Cécile est Morte and director Maurice Tourneur began shooting it around Christmas '43, from one of the few Maigret stories Simenon laced with wry humor. The pitiful Cécile (Santa Relli) is one of the many guilty characters Simenon lets be drawn to Maigret like a moth to a flame. She hangs around him ostensibly because she's in love with him, but Jules Maigret, happily married for many years, discourages her advances. So she plies him with tales of a mysterious friend who is threatening the aunt with whom she resides. Indeed, the aunt is strangled, and Cécile herself is later found dead at police headquarters. "Red Herring" suspects are proven innocent one by one, and the obvious denouement is telegraphed as plainly in the movie as in the novel. Rather surprisingly, Tourneur sentimentalized the story more than Simenon did.
In February '44 Richard Pottier began directing the last German-financed Simenon film: Les Caves du "Majestic," from Simenon's short novel of '41. The script had actually been written by Charles Spaak in the Fresnes prison, where the Gestapo had confined him the previous year. Spaak's imprisonment probably contributed to Caves being one of the most interior-oriented of all Simenon films. There's almost no action and most of the talk takes place in the wine cellars of Paris' Hotel Majestic, where a guest's murdered wife is discovered stuffed in an employee locker. It develops that the victim had been unfaithful for many years with the hotel's desk clerk. At the film's climax Maigret (Préjean) proves the manager of the cellars had discovered the pair in flagrante delicto, blackmailed the couple, and murdered the adulteress. In this film, as in the other two in which Préjean portrayed Maigret, the Inspector maltreats several suspects while quizzing them. In the stories and novels themselves Maigret scarcely lays a hand on anyone, ever.
A few weeks after the German surrender Simenon left France with his 6-year-old son Marc and did not live in Europe again for almost ten years. After five months in London he arrived in New York City (October '45) and less than three weeks later asked Denise Ouimet, daughter of a Canadian government official working in New York as a secretary, to marry him. She worked for him as a proof-reader for a few months Simenon does all his own typing, two drafts of everything, but none of his proof-reading and they married in Canada early in '46. In the next four years they lived in Montreal, New York City, Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Cuba, Tucson (locale of Simenon's particularly anti-American novel Maigret chez le Coroner), New Mexico, Carmel, and again New York City.
In '46 Julien Duvivier directed Panique from a '33 novel of Simenon's called Les Fiancailles de Monsieur Hire. In it a disreputable and vicious married pair (Michel Simon and Viviane Romance) brutally murder a helpless, elderly Jew. They are very much isolated from the real world and their attempt to escape is pathetic. In one of the film's best scenes the husband gets on a train, pauses, gets off, and returns to his home and punishment. Panique went to the Venice Film Festival in '46, but for some reason wasn't released in France until the following January.
The next three Simenon films one British, one French, one American were re-makes.
Dernier Refuge was an up-dating of Le Locataire. Its screenplay was by Maurice Griffe and Marc Maurette, and the latter directed. This time Raymond Rouleau played the ne'er-do-well gambler who shacks up in his "last refuge," the home of a rural industrialist (Tramel), to which he brings love and trouble.
Britain's Temptation Harbour was a limp reprise of Decoin's L'Homme de Londres. Rodney Ackland, who was slated to write and direct it, became petulant when he found Simenon didn't have time to consult with him, and was replaced by Lance Comfort. The railway worker was played by Robert Newton, and William Hartnell was the thief who drowns his accomplice. Temptation Harbour was released to good business in England in April '47, and was sent to the Venice Film Festival, but there impressed no one.
The third re-make of a Simenon film, The Man on the Eiffel Tower, was directed in Paris by Burgess Meredith with a cast composed of his vacationing friends (Charles Laughton, Franchot Tone, Robert Hutton, Jean Wallace, et al). A new version of Duvivier's La Tête d'un Homme, it also tried to be a travelogue of Paris. Unfortunately, Meredith color-photographed the phony, tourists' Paris and proved only that he is incompetent as a director. Tone was foolish as the murderer who likes to hang around. Maigret, and Laughren, in my opinion, was bizarre as the Inspector. Said Simenon: "They made Maigret fat again, fat enough to burst... At the same time, through the talent of Charles Laughton, he was able to speak the English language as if it was his mother tongue." Simenon himself, despite his years in the US, never learned to speak English well.
Tone & Laughton in... EIFFEL TOWER*
Shortly after they married Simenon's second wife took over his business affairs, his dealings with publishers, film producers, and the press. Up to the end of last year she'd sold rights to at least 20 more as yet unproduced Simenon works.
Marcel Carné's La Marie du Port, which is based on a '37 novel of Simenon's, is a cinematic excursion into the author's theories about the futility of trying to escape a humdrum existence. Its principal character (Jean Gabin) reluctantly ignores the far-off blasts of ship whistles in order to settle down and marry a younger woman (May-September love affairs have long intrigued Simenon).
The fact that La Marie du Port is not a crime film and the fact that its leading character blithely favors marriage, led several Catholic film critics to praise this film inordinately. Simenon, however, has never replied in kind. In his favorite, and semi-autobiographic Simenon work, Pedigree, he ridiculed his mother's faith, and he has reiterated the ridicule in several interviews since. "I believe religion is too personal and intimate a matter to be dealt with in a novel," he has said, adding: "Readers who read between the lines, so to speak, can divine my convictions and outlook, if I have any." Whether he has or not you may be able to judge from this: "I'd rather walk around the streets completely nude than have to define my opinions about the existence of God." And from this: "With each succeeding novel my goal is to go a little deeper under someone's skin. In a way, it's impossible. I can't be God."
As a matter of fact, Simenon has been praised at one time or another by practically every stratum of French intellectual life from the Catholic Right to the Pekinese Left; from existentialists to De Gaulle gloirists; from Gide-esque perverts to healthy lovers of a simple mystery story.
In July '50, almost a year after the birth of his first son by Denise (Jean, and called "Johnny"), Simenon moved to a large house and farm in Lakeville, Connecticut, and lived there four years and eight months, a record Simenon residence in any one house or apartment.
In '51 Henri Decoin directed another of Simenon's May-September love tales. Called La Verité sur Bébé Donge, it is one of the best movies about a marriage ever made. After the affable, dissipated husband (Gabin) is poisoned by his overwrought wife (Danielle Darrieux), there is a typical piece of Simenon irony. As the husband dies he hopefully asserts, in a failing voice, that he and his wife will soon find "a new lease on life."
In the Spring of '52 Simenon was elected to Belgium's Royal Academy and director Henri Verneuil finished the 3-story film noir called Brelan d'As. Many mystery addicts regard this work as the marker of the "hard-boiled" detective's transition from the US to France. Be that as it may, Brelan d'As comprises one story by Steeman, one by Peter Cheney, and Simenon's '42 story "Le Temoignage d'un Enfant de Chur," which opens that film and has Michel Simon as Inspector Maigret.
In '52 the British succeeded at last in making a good Simenon film: The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By (in the US: Paris Express). It was from Simenon's '36 novel and Claude Rains played another of the honest, aging failures to whom Simenon likes to give ill-gotten money. Marta Toren was the younger woman who leads him down the garden path, and Herbert Lom the heavy. Although Man is a fine film, it doesn't resemble Simenon's novel, which was actually a French version of the German film M (Kees was a maniacal murderer and assaulter of women for whose capture the police enlisted the aid of Paris' underworld). Simenon used several Parisian police characters from other Maigret novels in this one but the British dropped them from the film.
Le Fruit Défendu, also released in '52, was yet another variation on Simenon's favorite theme of the aging male, and was from his Lettre à Mon Juge. The forbidden fruit of the title was a sensuous, chic and cruel Françoise Arnoul, and Fernandel played the good-natured but foolish doctor who wants to find love with a young woman and ends up murdering her. More emphasized in novel than film was his domineering mother, the root cause of his distress. (Simenon often peoples his fiction with physicians and nurses, and is himself actively interested in medicine. Jules Maigret, it will be remembered, was going to become an M.D. before he joined the police force.)
Fernandel, Françoise Arnoul & Claude Nollier in FORBIDDEN FRUIT*
Maternity occupied Mme Simenon in '53 she gave birth to Simenon's first daughter and no films were made that year from Simenon material.3 But in '54 one of the better and also one of the more sordid Simenon films was released.
La Neige Etait Sale (US: The Snow Was Black, November '56) derived from Simenon's '48 novel and the play of '50 which was based on it. (Six other stage productions have used Simenon material.)
Neige was written and directed by Argentinian Luis Saslavsky and depicted the coming of age, and death, of a gluttonous wastrel named Frank Friedmayer (Daniel Gélin), who, during the Occupation, murders a relatively harmless member of the German military police. He holes up with his girl, but rejects her sexually, and, when he has a sleazy pal substitute for him in bed, the girl runs out into the snow and gets pneumonia. The lug then kills an old lady (a surrogate for his whorehouse-madame mother?) and is executed by the German authorities for that crime not the first one.
Daniel Gélin & Vera Norman in LA NEIGE...*
The following year a US film adaptation of Simenon material appeared: Harry Horner's A Life in the Balance. Made "for peanuts" in and around Mexico City, it was far superior to the previous, and "A" budgeted, American attempt to film Simenon (The Man on the Eiffel Tower). Lee Marvin was chilling as the religious fanatic and murderer who threatens to kill a child-hostage.
Simenon left Connecticut and returned to Europe early in '54 and toward the end of that year sold a novel he'd written while in the US: The Hitch Hikers (not to be confused with Ida Lupino's earlier and singular film, The Hitch-Hiker). It was bought by Hecht-Lancaster Productions for $50,000 and Simenon was asked to do the script. It is the only movie script he acknowledges having completed, and the terms under which he wrote it are characteristic: for $3,000 he would spend ten days on a first draft and five days on one rewrite (his usual schedule for a novel). Hecht-Lancaster agreed, but never made the film.
Three films based on Simenon novels were released in '56.
The first was The Bottom of the Bottle, a gangster yarn that was Americanized by scripter Sydney Boehm and sharply directed by Henry Hathaway. Van Johnson played against type as an escaped convict whose brother (Joseph Cotten) is a paternalistic attorney living with a discontented wife (Ruth Roman). They at first try to help the convict to cross the border into Mexico, but then fight him physically and morally in an effort to get him to surrender. When the lawyer saves his brother's life, the convict relents and gives himself up.
The second Simenon film of '56, Le Sang à la Tête, was better. It was directed and written by the Gilles Grangier/Michel Audiard team from a mediocre Simenon novel called Le Fils Cardinaud ('41). After 30 years of business dexterity and struggle François Cardinaud (Gabin) has become a tycoon. When his wife absconds with a lover his "friends" refuse to help him locate her. Angry at their way of getting back at him for his financial success, Cardinaud stops being friendly and ultimately clubs several of them into divulging what they know. When he locates his wife he "forgives" her adultery.
The third Simenon film completed in '56 had Maigret Dirige L'Enquête as a working title but was finally released as Maigret Mène L'Enquête. It was young director Stany Cordier's first feature, and had only limited distribution in France. I haven't seen it and it doesn't seem to have been reviewed in the French trade press.
Phil Karlson's The Brothers Rico was based on a book Simenon wrote while in the US. It suffered from his attempt to translate American underworld argot directly into French (in other books Simenon used equivalent French slang). It was an unbelievable book and Karlson's film was worse. The plot has older Rico brother (Richard Conte) re-enter the rackets in order to ransom his younger brother from a rival mob.
Brothers revealed how little Simenon understands the US. To date, eight of his non-Maigret books and two of his Maigrets have been set here, and not one of them shows any real insight. Simenon has never comprehended England, either.
In July '57, Simenon moved his family to his present home, the Chateau d'Echandans, which is about seven miles from Lausanne, Switzerland. His guests there have included such dissimilar types as Huw Wheldon of the British Broadcasting Company, the Van Johnsons, Ian Fleming, and Charlie Chaplin. Said Simenon to Chaplin: "When we artists feel a crisis coming on, when our skins don't seem able to contain us, we write a novel, make a film, daub a picture." And another guest, Graham Greene, has written rather idiotically: "Georges Simenon has been, and is, with his Maigret series, my great example."
In January '58 Gabin at last portrayed Maigret in Jean Delannoy's Maigret Tend un Piège (US: Inspector Maigret) and Gabin and Simenon at once became fast friends.
This picture is a perfect demonstration of the fact that Simenon's mystery stories turn more on "why" than on "who." Simenon always deprecates the who dunnit principle: "In most of the Maigret stories I think people know after about 10 or 20 pages who the killer is. I don't think today's reader still tries to guess."
Early in Maigret Tend un Piège the Inspector realizes that it's weak, rich Marcel Maurin (Jean Desailly) who's been disemboweling those girls. He doesn't bag him and instead tries to discover why (Maurin's mother made him a sissy and a murderer). After Maigret arrests him another ripper-murder occurs. So Maigret arrests Maurin's mother for killing in order to make it appear that Maurin was innocent of the previous murders.
Director Ralph Habib's Le Passager Clandestin derives from the a-typical Simenon story of that title. Set in the South Seas, it has an idiot living in the islands suddenly inherit a fortune back in England. A lawyer who starts for Tahiti, to inform the ignorant heir, is thrown overboard by a professional criminal who wants to preempt the windfall for himself. Other interested bystanders in the ensuing imbroglio include Martine Carol, Karlheinz Böhm, Roger Livesey, Reginald Lye, Maea Flohr, and the immortal Arletty.
Jean Gabin & Edwige Feuillère in EN CAS DE MALHEUR*
In En Cas de Malheur (US: Love Is My Profession) director Claude Autant-Lara and writers Jean Aurenche and Pierre Bost managed to make pro-Algeria, anti-Right propaganda out of a completely unpoliticized novel in which Simenon had a big-time lawyer defend a small-time tart, and make her his mistress. His wife, and the tart's boy friend, couldn't have cared less, but Paris' legal circles objected, and so in the end the lawyer declares "I shall go on defending the scum" and decides to live with it as well.
But in Autant-Lara's movie the part of the wife (Edwige Feuillère) is arbitrarily built up and the tart's boy friend (Franco Interlenghi) is made a Leftist. Furthermore, the tart seems half-lesbian, as does her chum (in the novel the chum was merely another of the lawyer's girl friends). Gabin played the lawyer and Brigitte Bardot the tart. This was the film on which she was quoted as having called Gabin France's greatest silent film star, and he is said to have retorted that he wouldn't trust Bardot in a barnyard. Both of them, reportedly, hated Autant-Lara. Producer Raoul J. Levy did very well with this film commercially.
The next Maigret film was a very good one Maigret et l'Affaire St. Fiacre, with Delannoy again directing and with Gabin again as the Inspector. In it one of Maigret's old friends, a countess, receives an anonymous threatening letter, sends for Maigret, and dies in a church. A local doctor declares her death to have been from natural causes, but Maigret thinks it was murder. Suspicion falls in turn on the countess' secretary, her son, his wife, et al, and Maigret finally proves the executor of the countess' estate had engineered the crime.
Delannoy and Gabin were also responsible for the succeeding Simenon movie: Le Baron d'Ecluse, in which a phony baron victimizes all with whom he dallies, and otherwise indulges himself.
Perhaps the best Simenon film we'll ever have is La Mort de Belle, which was released in the US as The Passion of Slow Fire ('62) . This splendid film was based on a '51 novel and was directed by Edouard Molinaro. Belle, a sluttish and beautiful American student living in France, is murdered by a person unknown. She had been lodging with a middle-aged, genteel French couple, and, we learn in flashback, had aroused the husband's desire (he is impotent with his wife). Most of the film is a slow building up of tension as an unscrupulous prosecutor, and his ugly German secretary, try to prove the husband had been so enticed by Belle he had murdered her in a paroxysm of lust. The husband is innocent, but, as his embroilment deepens, he becomes fascinated with the peculiar crime of which he's been accused, and with the prosecutor's secretary. When she eggs him on, he tries to assault her sexually and murders her.
Monique Melinand, Jacques Monod & Jean Dcsailly in LA MORTE DE BELLE*
La Mort de Belle somewhat resembles Kafka's The Trial, insofar as both deal with the unjust prosecution of a confused innocent. Overlaid is Simenon's theme of a human being committing a second crime to pay for one he didn't commit, but wanted to. The film's brilliance owes much to both Jean Anouilh's screenplay and Jean Desailly's projection of the feelings of a man becoming aware of impulses he had long repressed.
Le Président, based on a '57 novel, has Gabin in the title role as a salty, sly, pragmatic ex-President of France. In the film, as in the novel, he is always called "Le Président," never by a surname, presumably so audiences may imagine their favorite politician is being depicted. Simenon has denied he had Clemenceau in mind.
Le Bateau d'Emile, which was released February '62, was based on a short story Simenon had re-worked into a '42 novel called Le Fils Cardinaud, from which the movie Le Sang à la Tête derived. Like the earlier film, Le Bateau d'Emile is set in the port city of La Rochelle and depicts the come-uppance of a would-be social climber, and his revenge. It was supposed to be a comedy.
The two most recent Simenon films were released two years ago. L'Ainé des Ferchaux was shown at the first New York City Film Festival under the title Magnet of Doom. It is set in the US and has an old crook be in partnership with a young one he doesn't trust but has to use. Michel Simon was originally slated for the title role and Alain Delon for that of the young crook, but in October '62 the project was re-begun by one of France's ablest directors of recent years, Jean-Pierre Melville, with Charles Vanel and Jean-Paul Belmondo playing the leads.
The last Simenon film released to theatres, Maigret Voit Rouge, has American crooks shooting up the French capital, the corpse of a naked beauty in a bathtub (not in the novel), and FBI or CIA, who could tell agents "helping" the French. It probably won't be exhibited here but should be, for in it Jean Gabin, as Maigret, imitates his performance as the master-thief in Melodie en Sous-Sol. I grant the anti-Americanisms in it are silly as silly as the current Gaullist political line itself.
As this article goes to press Marcel Carne's Trois Chambres à Manhattan, which is based on a '45 Simenon novel about French ex-patriates in NYC (its exteriors were shot on NYC's West Side), is about to be released. And Leonard Keigel has announced that he will make a film of Simenon's Le Coup de Lune which used Libreville, Gabon, as a background.
A large amount of Simenon material has been filmed directly for television in practically every major country west of the Iron Curtain. For four years, beginning in '60, the British Broadcasting Co. did 13 Maigret tv-shows a year, and got up a documentary film about Simenon himself, which was telecast not only in Britain but also in much of the Commonwealth. Last August a 70-minute documentary about Simenon was assembled and televised in Italy.
It was especially notable for the complete disinterest displayed by Simenon in the movies and tv-shows that have been made from his writings.
Simenon's names come from the phone book
FILMS FROM SIMENON
They are listed in the order in which they were produced, but the dates are release dates. Directors' names are italicized. Ensuing names are those of starred and featured players.
THE MAIGRET FILMS
- LA NUIT DU CARREFOUR. '32 Jean Renoir. Pierre Renoir (Maigret), Georges Koudria, Winna Winfried, Michel Duran, Jean Gehret, Max Dalban, Lucie Vallat, Jean Mitry.
- LE CHIEN JAUNE. '32. Jean Tarride. Abel Tarride (Maigret), Rolla Norman, Jacques Henley, Fred Marche, Robert le Vigan, Rosine Deréan, Paul Azais, Jane Lory, Sylvette Fillacier, Germaine Essler.
- LA TETE D'UN HOMME. '33. Julien Duvivier. Harry Baur (Maigret). Valery Inkijinoff, Gina Manés, Marie-Louise Damiens, Line Noro, Alexandre Rignault, Gaston Jacquet,
- PICPUS. '43. Richard Pottier. Albert Préjean (Maigret), Juliette Faber, Jean Tissier, Noel Roquevert, Guillaume de Sax, Antoine Balpetre.
- CECILE EST MORTE. '44. Maurice Tourneur. Albert Préjean (Maigret), Santa Relli, André Reybaz, Germaine Kerjean, Jean Brochard.
- LES CAVES DU MAJESTIC. '45. Richard Pottier. Albert Préjean (Maigret), Jacques Baumer, Suzy Prim, Gina Manés, Florelle.
- THE MAN ON THE EIFFEL TOWER. Released in '49 in France, in US in '50. Burgess Meredith. Chas. Laughton (Maigret), Franchot Tone, Robt. Hutton, Jean Wallace, Patricia Roc.
- BRELAN D'AS. First Segment: LE TEMOIGNAGE D'UN ENFANT DE CHOEUR. '52. Henri Verneuil. Michel Simon (Maigret), Christian Fourcade, Claire Olivier.
- MAIGRET MENE L'ENQUETE. '56. Stany Cordier. Maurice Manson (Maigret), Peter Walker, Marcel André.
- MAIGRET TEND UN PIEGE (US: Inspector Maigret) '58. Jean Delannoy. Jean Gabin (Maigret), Jean Desailly, Annie Girardot, Gérard Sety, Lucienne Bogaert, Lino Ventura.
- MAIGRET ET L'AFFAIRE ST. FIACRE. '59. Jean Delannoy. Jean Gabin (Maigret). Valentine Tessier, Mabel Vitold, Michel Auclair, Jean Desailly, Gabrielle Fontan, Paul Frankeur.
- MAIGRET VOIT ROUGE. '63. Gilles Grangier. Jean Gabin (Maigret), Françoise Fabian, Vittorio Sanipoli, Guy Decomble, Ricky Cooper, Paul Carpenter.
FROM OTHER SIMENON FICTION
- LE LOCATAIRE. Completed '39, never released. Jacques Constant. Mireille Balin, Mary Glory, Staurnin Fabre, Georges Rigaud, Marcel Dalio, Jean Tissier, Mila Parely, Roger Blin, Michel Rittener, Jerry Gray.
- ANNETTE ET LA DAME BLONDE. '42. Jean Dréville. Louise Carletti, Henri Garat. Simone Valére, Mona Goya, Rosine Luguet.
- LA MAISON DES SEPT JEUNES FILLES. '42. Albert Valentin. Jacqueline Bouvier, André Brunot, Jean Tissier, Gaby Andreux.
- LES INCONNUS DANS LA MAISON. '42. Henri Decoin. André Reybaz, Marc Dolnitz, Raymond Cordy, Raimu, Juliette Faber, Jean Tissier, Jacques Baumer.
- MONSIEUR LA SOURIS. '53. Georges Lacombe. Raimu, Aimé Clariond, Charles Granval, Gilbert Gil, Louis Jourdan, Micheline Francey, Marie Carlot.
- LE VOYAGEUR DE LA TOUSSAINT. '43. Louis Daquin. Jean Desailly, Gabrielle Dorziat, Serge Reggiani, Jules Berry, Assia Noris.
- L'HOMME DE LONDRES. '43. Henri Decoin. Jules Berry, Fernand Ledoux, Blanche Montel, Helena Manson, Mony Dalmes, Suzy Prim.
- PANIQUE (US: Panic). '47. Julien Duvivier. Michel Simon, Viviane Romance, Paul Bernard, Charles Dorat, Lucas Gridoux, Max Dalban. Shown at Venice in '46.
- DERNIER REFUGE. '47. Marc Maurette. Raymond Rouleau, Mila Parely, Giséle Pascal, Jean Max, Noël Roquevert, Gaston Modot, Marcel Monthil, Marcel Charpentier.
- TEMPTATION HARBOUR. '47. Lance Comfort. Robt. Newton, Wm. Hartnell, Simone Simon, Dave Crowley, Joan Hopkins, Marcel Dalio.
- LA MARIE DU PORT. '50. Marcel Carné. Jean Gabin, Nicole Courcel, Blanchette Brunoy, Julien Carette, Claude Romain, Jeanne Marken, Louis Seigner.
- LA VERITE SUR BEBE DONGE. '52. Henri Decoin. Jean Gabin, Danielle Darrieux, Daniel Lecourtois, Gabrielle Dorziat, Jacques Castelot.
- THE MAN WHO WATCHED THE TRAINS GO BY (US: Paris Express). '52. Harold French. Claude Rains, Marta Toren, Herbert Lom, Marius Goring, Felix Aylmer, Anouk Aimée.
- LE FRUIT DEFENDU (US: Forbidden Fruit). '52. Henri Verneuil. Fernandel, Françoise Arnoul, Claude Nollier, René Genin, Raymond Pellegrin, Jacques Castelot, Fernand Sardou.
- LA NEIGE ETAIT SALE (US: The Snow Was Black). '54. Luis Saslavsky. Daniel Gélin, Marie Mansart, Daniel Invernel, Valentine, Tessier, Vera Norman, Naome Basile.
- A LIFE IN THE BALANCE. First released in England in '55. Harry Horner. Lee Marvin, Anne Bancroft, Ricardo Montalban, José Perez Rodolfo Acosta.
- THE BOTTOM OF THE BOTTLE. '56. Henry Hathaway. Jos. Cotten, Van Johnson, Ruth Roman, Bruce Bennett, Jack Carson, Margaret Lindsay.
- LE SANG A LA TETE. '56. Gilles Grangier. Jean Gabin, Renée Faure, Henri Cremieux, Nadine Tallier, Monique Melinand, Paul Frankeur, Georgette Anys, Florelle.
- THE BROTHERS RICO. '57. Phil Karlson. Richard Conte, Dianne Foster, Larry Gates, Harry Bellaver, Lamont Johnson, Paul Dubov, Jas. Darren.
- LE PASSAGER CLANDESTIN. '58. Ralph Habib. Serge Reggiani, Martine Carol, Roger Livesey, Karlheinz Böhm, Arletty, Reginald Lye, Maea Flohr.
- EN CAS DE MALHEUR (US: Love Is My Profession). '58. Claude Autant-Lara. Brigitte Bardot, Jean Gabin, Edwige Feuillère, Franco Interlenghi, Nicole Berger. 22. LE BARON D'ECLUSE. '60. Jean Delannoy. Jean Gabin, Micheline Presle, Jean Desailly, Blanchette Brunoy, Jacques Castelot,
- LE MORT DE BELLE (US: The Passion of Slow Fire). '61. Edouard Molinaro. Alexandra Stewart, Jean Desailly, Monique Melinand, Jacques Monod, Yvette Etiévant.
- LE PRSIDENT. '61. Henri Verneuil. Jean Gabin, Bernard Blier, Pierre Larquey, Louis Seigner, Alfred Adam.
- LE BATEAU D'EMILE. '62. Denys de la Patellière. Lino Ventura, Michel Simon, Annie Girardot, Pierre Brasseur, Edith Scob.
- L'AINE DES FERCHAUX. '63. Jean-Pierre Melville, Chas. Vanel, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Michele Mercier, Jerry Mengo, Ginger Hall, Eddie Somers, Stefania Sandrelli.
- TROIS CHAMBERS A MANHATTAN. '65. Marcel Carné. Maurice Ronet, Annie Girardot, Chas. Aznavour.
1. 'This is the second of the 19 Simenon noms de plume. The first, Georges Sim, was used while he was still in school. Some of the 19 most frequently employed in his maturity: Christian Brulls (a combination of his brother's first, and his mother's maiden, names; Gomm Gut; Jean du Perry; Poum-et-Zette; Luc Dorsan
Stanislas-André Steeman is the name of a real author and not one of Simenon's pen names, as some literary and film critics have stated. Steeman, who shunned notoriety and petered out of active French literary life a decade ago, was born in Liege in '08 and his character, "Inspector Wens" is much like Inspector Maigret. The films made from Steeman's works: Le Dernier des Six (released in '41), L'Assassin Habite au 21 (directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot and released in '42), Les Atouts de M. Wens (also called L'Ennemi sans Visage and released in '46), Quai des Orfèvres ('47), Le Manniquin Assassiné ('48), Le Furet ('50), Mystère à Shanghai ('50), one segment of Brelan d'As ('52), and Le Dortoir des Grandes ('53).
2. 'The French police rank of chief inspector. Like most Americans and Britons, I go along with translating this as "Inspector." However, the French police rank "inspecteur" as something like our sergeant.
3. She bore a second son, Pierre, on May 26, '59.
* Sept. 4, 2005. Andre Limot writes that the photos captioned "Tone & Laughton in... EIFFEL TOWER", "Fernandel, Françoise Arnoul & Claude Nollier in FORBIDDEN FRUIT", "Daniel Gélin & Vera Norman in LA NEIGE...", "Jean Gabin & Edwige Feuillère in EN CAS DE MALHEUR", "Monique Melinand, Jacques Monod & Jean Dcsailly in LA MORTE DE BELLE", were taken by his father, Walter Limot. They were not credited in the original article.
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