The Place des Vosges, that Parisian gem, is hardly a location where sinister deeds can be imagined taking place. It exudes charm, it is at the end of the busy rue des Francs Bourgeois, a little shopping paradise in the Marais, and is much loved by tourists and locals. The film maker Jean Delannoy chose it as the setting for his 1957 movie “Maigret tend un piège” (Maigret lays a trap), based on an original history by the great Georges Simenon. Why le Marais? The action in the novel unfolds around Montmartre, a much trendier spot during the 50s. Jean Delannoy may have known that Simenon lived in the Marais in the late 20s and chose the location as a covert homage to the writer. The neighborhood was home to the eastern Jewish families of Paris and by the time of filming the movie, the Sephardic community was moving in. The place then had a soul.
This is the territory where a serial killer picks up his victims. At night, the anguished screams of the victims are heard in the grimy corners of Le Marais. The camera hardly goes into daylight, moving from stuffy interiors to poorly lit and drab streets. Driving the action and the chase is Jean Gabin, as Inspector Maigret, an icon of French filmmaking, who happens to play himself in most movies. Here, Gabin, adds genuine pathos to the character. Simenon’s characters translate to the screen flawlessly and Delannoy endows them with intensity, balancing their psychological plight and the unfolding of the action.
Yet, the film reaches beyond its conventions: it is the visual chronicle of a post-war Paris. The unobtrusive camera unveils a city almost provincial, still bleak and totally unselfconscious. It is the dark side of the Paris imagined by Hollywood. The lives of those individuals are decent and limited. Good folk. The poetry trickles hypnotically as the images come one after the other.
Haunted by that mood, I returned the other day to the arcade of the Place, hoping to capture some images in my camera. Gone was the cinematic alchemy I was looking for. Tourists and shoppers mingled smugly in balmy weather. Children played in the garden around the fountain. If Simenon were still in the neighborhood he would spot among the contented crowd, the mind of a killer.