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    Simon Says Volumes

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    In The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson writes: “When people see Boudu Sauvé des Eaux/Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932, Jean Renoir) or L’Atalante (1934, Jean Vigo) for the first time, they ask ‘Was Michel Simon [1895-1975] really like that?’ It is a revealing question, that shows the trace of threatened bourgeois in all of us at Simon’s sprawling, unclean satyr, and points at the special mingling of self and character that is so necessary (and dangerous) in screen acting.” And how remarkable it is that this earthy, exuberant, unmistakably French acting icon and veteran of great cinema by great directors like Renoir, Marcel Carné, René Clair, Sacha Guitry and many others is commanding attention again on movie screens this Spring as prolific crime novelist Georges Simenon’s inscrutable, romantically-obsessed outsider-turned-victim Monsieur Hire in a 70th-anniversary restoration of director Julien Duvivier’s bleak, postwar noir Panique (1946). Simon’s “unsettling, multifaceted performance” finds the mercurial actor “nattily dressed with a thick full beard,…something of a standoffish fussbudget,…an amateur photographer who…gives the neighborhood the creeps, and it is easy to see why,” Kenneth Turan observed in the Los Angeles Times. “For it soon develops that Hire is simply aman who has fallen sincerely in love….Both smarter and more sophisticated than those around him, Hire is also completely naive about love and about people, including the neighbors he has contempt for. Those neighbors are unsparingly depicted by Duvivier as small-minded busybodies and self-important fools who think they know more than they do, with ruinous results. In its portrayal of the effects of the fear of strangers, the rejection of the other, Panique could not be more unnerving or more timely.” The film is now in West Los Angeles for another week and adds playdates in other cities in the months ahead. Simon’s character becomes the focal point of the deceit of two schemers and the object of the fury of the crowd in Duvivier and co-writer Charles Spaak’s masterful Simenon adaptation, which offers an unsparing view of the malleable mob mentality. Seventeen years later, Simon’s gruff and defiant character of veteran railwayman Papa Boule ignites a flashpoint in another memorable movie set in World War II-shadowed France: director John Frankenheimer’s tense and viscerally exciting The Train (1964). Burt Lancaster stars as Paul Labiche, a Resistance cell leader and area railway inspector who initially balks at the mission proposed to him and his battle-weary comrades: to stop the movement via train of French art treasures out of the country by an imperious Nazi officer (Paul Scofield) trying to waylay the priceless cargo home to Germany before the Allies liberate Paris. (“I won’t waste lives on paintings,” he declares.) But the cantankerous, rag-tag engineer Papa Boule has ideas of his own. “I used to know a girl who modeled for Renoir,” he says, referring to the artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir, which might stand as a self-reflection on the actor’s own experiences working for his filmmaker son Jean. He makes his own move to delay the transport – “I’m too old to be careful,” he tells Labiche – and he pays dearly as the result of his efforts. Labiche desperately pleads for the old man’s life, but in all his infamous “sprawling, unclean satyr” glory, Simon/Boule bitterly upbraids him: “It’s my train. I know what I’m doing. Do you? Huh? You’ll help them. I practically raised you. But you’re no better than they are.” And one man’s final act of heedless heroism instantly galvanizes another man to action. For unexpected love and for besieged country, to the easily aroused mob and to a chilling enemy conspiring against him, Simon makes self-sacrifice moving and memorable in Panique on theater screens and in The Train on home theater screens via Twilight Time’s thrilling hi-def Blu-ray.

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