Based on one of Georges Simenon's most exciting novels, "Maigret Sets a Trap" is a classy and suspenseful, but most of all intelligent movie about the battle of nerves between two proud men. A serial killer proud enough to taunt the police and a policeman proud enough not to like being laughed at.
The plot is kicked into gear during a lovely morning scene between Commissaire Maigret (Jean Gabin) and his wife (Jeanne Boitel). He's tired having worked all night, she's tireless seeing how she'll be working all day. All the papers carry the news about the latest handiwork of the Marais Killer - his fourth. "He must be thinking," observes Mme Maigret, "I'm the king". "You believe he really thinks that way," asks Maigret, bothered by the idea of a serial killer gloating under his nose. "If he's at all proud, he must be pleased with himself," she replies, not knowing she's just given her husband a devilish idea. In a wonderfully captured moment of warmth, he jokes with his wife. "Say, there's a big brain under those rollers". Mme Maigret doesn't laugh.
Maigret's idea is this: He'll have a number of highly trained policewomen patrol the Marais area undercover. When the killer inevitably pounces on one, she'll make the arrest. It's a dangerous trap, dangerous enough to make all of Maigret's colleagues and bosses shudder, but with enough chance of working for them to let him try it. At his own discretion, of course.
The trap doesn't quite work as planned but it leads Maigret into the home of Marcel Maurin (Jean Desailly), a self-professed architect-decorator. A bit of both and a bit of neither. Untrained but an artist at heart... or something like that. What he is, without a doubt, though is a child in a man's body with lively eyes filled with childish glee. Glee about what? Maigret's unannounced visit shakes him up, though. Enough to shout at his wife in an argument which unusually enough leaves him in tears.
Not that Maigret is only interested in Marcel. His wife, the young and frustrated Yvonne (Annie Girardot) is hard to overlook. A bundle of nerves, at the same time emotional and distant, as if lost in thoughts of unattainable desires. She claims to have spent the night of one of the murderers in bed with her lover. "He cheats on me," she says of her husband, "I was filled with an idiotic fury and I wanted to take revenge. Pay him in kind." But is she telling the truth? Is the childish Marcel capable of such an act? Like a complete inversion of her husband, Yvonne looks like a child, wide-eyed and awkward, but her soul is old, old and tired.
Finally, there's the mother, the formidable widow Maurin (Lucienne Bogaert) and it only takes a few moments in her presence to see how she's the reason for her son's childishness. She's one of those mothers who always wear skirts large enough for their adult sons to hide under. She keeps her artist son's juvenalia framed on the walls of her large apartment. "He painted this when he was 12," she says to Maigret as if the painting doesn't look exactly like it was painted by a 14-year old. "He would have been a great artist if they'd let him persist". Always the mysterious them - the them who've ruined her child's immeasurable talent. At the same time, as she praises her son, she scoffs at her husband. "He was neither good nor bad. He was a butcher." In this case, it seems Jocasta murdered Laius herself.
"Maigret Sets a Trap" is nominally a mystery but it's the precisely observed characters that make it a wonderful experience. Note, for instance, the superb scene in which Maigret interviews a gigolo (Gérard Séty) about a woman who turned him down. "Why are you whispering," asks Maigret. "I'd rather not spread this around. It's not good publicity," replies the harried lover.
There are so many similarly wonderful and witty vignettes in this film it would be impossible to list them all. This is the only Simenon adaptation I've ever seen that is as observant as the great author's novels. This is doubtlessly down to writer/director Jean Delannoy who does an impressive job on both counts. His script is witty and admirably easy to follow despite the many characters and leisurely pace. His direction is taut, artful but unfussy, interesting but not distracting. Although marketed as such, this is not really a thriller, not in the classic sense of the word. It is a masterfully observed human drama, a study in warped psychology but Delannoy dresses it into a suspenseful film with admirable ease. The thriller elements are like sugar to help the bitter pill go down.
The performances are uniformly excellent. Jean Gabin in particular gives a flawless portrayal of a man worn out by the horrors he sees every day. There's great tiredness in him, in the way he moves, the way he plops down into chairs, and the way he quietly interrogates his suspects like a man who's absolutely sure they'll crack. After all, he's seen it before so, so many times. Harry Baur may be a more letter-perfect Maigret, but Gabin is by far the most convincing as a highly experienced French copper.
His team consists of Olivier Hussenot as the eager and comical Lagrume, Lino Ventura as the bullish Torrence and André Valmy as the dependable Lucas. Delannoy lets us into their little tricks of the trade in a series of delectable scenes set in the police station. The way they drive a suspect mad by continually asking him for his mother's maiden name is both hilarious and utterly authentic. It's the kind of realism that shows like "The Wire" so fascinating to watch.
Finally, there are the Maurins. A trio of pitch-perfect performances. Jean Desailly is alternatingly annoying and chilling as the spoiled man-child and Lucienne Bogaert despicable as his overbearing mother. Annie Girardot, meanwhile, manages to elicit even some sympathy as the woman caught in between. Her haunted, expressive eyes say more than a thousand words ever could.
If I had anything negative to say about "Maigret Sets a Trap" it would only be that it is a tad too long, though I'd have no idea what to cut. Every second of it is so perfectly observed and depicted. It is also a shame that it wasn't shot on location. Even though René Renoux's sets are convincing reproductions, their inherent staginess takes a little away from the realism of the film.
But these flaws are so minor, they aren't really worth mentioning. "Maigret Sets a Trap" is a perfect Simenon adaptation in tone, pace, and psychology. It is less of a thriller and more of a collection of perfectly observed human vignettes. With superb performances, atmospheric direction, and a beautiful melody composed by Paul Misraki tying it all together, this is a film that absolutely must be seen.
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