“Maigret Sets a Trap,” most likely the movie that introduced American audiences to Georges Simenon’s best-known character, was hailed as an event by the New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther. “If you haven’t yet made the acquaintance of French writer Georges Simenon and his famous and fascinating Parisian detective, Inspector Maigret,” he wrote in his review in 1958, “you can’t ask a better introduction.”
What was true then remains so today. “Maigret Sets a Trap,” titled “Inspector Maigret” when it was originally released here, opens Friday in a fine digital restoration for a weeklong run at Metrograph.
The film’s director, Jean Delannoy — whose “Pastoral Symphony” shared the top prize with 10 other films at the first Cannes Film Festival in 1946 — was more a sturdy craftsman than a flashy auteur. (François Truffaut disparagingly called him part of the “old wave.”) Still, “Maigret Sets a Trap” is a credible example of the policier, a French genre that flowered in the mid-1950s.
This film adaptation of a Simenon novel published in France in 1955 pits the gruff, pipe-smoking inspector (played here by Jean Gabin) against a serial killer of women. Maigret actually sets several traps, one of which is a quite elaborate matter of fake suspects and female decoys, and another not exactly legal (at least in the United States), before closing the case.
“Maigret Sets a Trap” has a generic resemblance to Fritz Lang’s “M” (1931), in which Peter Lorre terrified the world as a serial child killer. There’s a similar interest in both criminal pathology and urban geography. Maps of Berlin figure in “M”; “Maigret” opens with a knife stuck into a map of Paris and the comforting shadow of a pipe. While Simenon’s novel is set mainly in Montmartre, Delannoy shifted the location to Le Marais, shooting much of the action in what were then the shabby streets in and around Place des Vosges.
Cat-and-mouse games are played throughout Paris’s gray labyrinth, with Maigret’s most inept associate stumbling across the crucial clue. The most impressive battle of wits occurs during the interrogation scenes at police headquarters, where Maigret sheds his avuncular pose and vents his righteous anger — an explosion of rage that was Gabin’s trademark. (According to the French critic André Bazin, the young Gabin used to insist such scenes be written into all his movies.)
Gabin was in his mid-50s when he was cast as Maigret (a role he would play twice more), and it helped revitalize his career. No longer the tragic proletarian tough guy of his prewar films (as Maigret he is shown as a domesticated husband and conveys a certain world weariness), he was now the repository of plain French values.