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  Maigret Sets a Trap He's no Clouseau
Year: 1958
Director: Jean Delannoy
Stars: Jean Gabin, Annie Girardot, Olivier Hussenot, Jeanne Boitel, Jean Desailly, Lucienne Bogaert, Jean Debucourt, Guy Decomble, Paulette Dubost, Jacques Hilling, Hubert de Lapparent, Jean-Louis Le Goff, Pierre-Louis, Gerard Sety, Jean Tissier, André Valmy,
Genre: ThrillerBuy from Amazon
Rating:  8 (from 1 vote)
Review: For several weeks now a serial killer has stalked the streets of Paris' Marais district savagely murdering "loose" women. While several prominent police inspectors believe the culprit to be a local butcher, seasoned and sharply intuitive Inspector Maigret (Jean Gabin) is certain someone else is responsible. To that end he enacts a crafty plan to trap the killer, only to unearth a twisted back-story...

Created by author Georges Simenon, Inspector Jules Maigret is to French crime fiction what Sherlock Holmes and Philip Marlowe represent to British and American genre fans. Namely the archetypal sleuth of their respective cultural milieus. Through the years a host of talented French actors donned the iconic slouch hat, raincoat and pipe. From Pierre Renoir, cinema's first Maigret in Night at the Crossroads (1932) directed by his more famous brother Jean Renoir, to Bruno Cremer who portrayed the inspector in fifty-four TV adaptations from 1991 to 2005, and most recently the great Gérard Depardieu in Patrice Leconte's simply-titled Maigret (2022). Interestingly Simenon's personal choice for the "definitive Maigret" was Rupert Davies in the British television series of the 1960s. Similarly both Michael Gambon in the early Nineties and lately Rowan Atkinson acquitted themselves very well.

Maigret Sets a Trap, adapted from Simenon's 1955 novel of the same name and released in the United States under the more lurid, exploitable title of Woman Bait, marked the first time Jean Gabin, the most venerated French actor of the Twentieth Century, assumed the role. In many ways this transition away from the romantic outlaw roles that made Gabin a star - e.g. Pepé le Moko (1937), Touchez Pas au Grisbi (1954) - towards respectable authority figures (policemen, judges, politicians) mirrors the his evolution from edgy, intense proto-method actor to venerable elder statesman of French cinema. Here he saunters through the velvety noir urban swamp with pipe-puffing authority, that splendidly gravelly voice simultaneously exuding world-weariness, unsentimental compassion and stoic moral outrage. It is evident in the way other characters react to Maigret's presence, be it crowds parting, officers standing to attention or suspects cowing in humility, that he is a man who commands great respect. A cop so imposing he does not have to act tough.

Jean Delannoy's direction is not quite film noir (a label cineastes slap on too many thrillers simply for being made in black and white) but not too far off. He fashions a richly evocative thriller that makes masterful use of light and shadow (e.g. the opening murder unfolds in silhouette), prowling camera-work that enhances suspense and a lively sense of time and place. Maigret's patch was never more vivid or detailed as it is in Gabin's movies; full of lively, memorable, at times even amusing characters, smoky bars and half-lit streets. Very much a straight police procedural, Maigret Sets a Trap lays out the anatomy of a murder investigation in minute detail laced with Simenon's familiar though still disarming wit. While dry and somewhat by the numbers the film is undeserving of the scorn heaped on it at the time by the young hot-headed cineastes of the New Wave. There is enough tension, dark comedy and psychological charge to its drama to make for a memorable, thoroughly compelling thriller.

A big part of the Maigret stories is the charmingly warm, intimate, mutually supportive relationship the title character shares with his wife Louise, portrayed here by Jeanne Boitel. She is Maigret's confidante and counsellor and frequently challenges him to be better, occasionally pointing out a clue he may have missed. Elsewhere a young Annie Girardot enjoys perhaps the film's meatiest role as a wayward wife with a connection to the case more twisted than her demure demeanour leads viewers to suspect. The same goes for her gregarious yet secretly tortured artist husband, brilliantly played by Jean Desailly (a lot of Jeans involved in this movie!) The film builds to a third act, wherein Maigret patiently interrogates the killer and unravels both the case and his psyche that might seem conventional today but at the time must have seemed a revolutionary break from the familiar melodramatic finale of most murder mysteries. Gabin returned for the sequels Maigret and the Saint-Fiacre Case (1959) and Maigret Sees Red (1963) then remarkably went on to pioneer the modern policier with the non-Maigret-related Le Pasha (1968).

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam


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