Once again I find myself feeling inadequate culturally for being so ignorant because before watching this film I had never even heard of Inspector Maigret in any context. I had assumed this movie was just a random French film from the 50s, but it seems Maigret’s actually quite a cultural phenomenon, having starred in multiple novels and short-stories as well as been adapted to numerous radio plays, television series not to mention movies all over the world. You can find adaptations done in France, Britain, Italy even the Soviet Union, which quite frankly is quite a (cultural) shock to me. Even more bizarrely, there even is a Japanese version of the character, created in the late 70s for TV Asashi called Tōkyō Megure Keishi, which reinterpreted Maigret as Japanese-born detective called Megure. It’s fascinating what popularity the character has had over the course of 84 years of his existence.
The basic premise that we have here is quite simple. Maigret is invited to return to his home village to investigate a threatening note sent to the local widowed Comtesse, which contains a threat/promise that she will die the following day. Unfortunately for Maigret the next morning he oversleeps, and by the time he finds the Comtesse inside the church, she has died of an apparent heart attack. This strikes to be too much of a coincidence for the death to be natural causes, and it’s up to Maigret to investigate possible foul play and catch the murderer.
As expected of a murder that takes place in the countryside and involves aristocracy, you have all the necessary elements present for a juicy murder mystery. The wayward money spending offspring, the ill and elderly head of the family having sensitive open-secrets related to her private life, a desolated mansion on its way to ruin mirroring the financial strives of the aristocratic family itself, silent but faithful servants lurking in the background, the priest from the local parish applying moral pressure for undisclosed matters, etc. Everybody basically looks suspicious, and you can’t be sure much of anything at first glance. The way the murder is committed was pretty ingenious and elegant in its simplicity, as was the eventual trap that reveals the culprit. At face value the murder weapon is so obvious, but the deeper mechanics and preparation that have gone into devising the deadly assassination of the Comtesse actually provide some good leg work for Maigret as he tries to solve the crime, and lead to many entertaining scenes where we follow Maigret as he visits bars, night clubs, news paper offices and local shops to gather information as he pieces the assassination plot together.
The film’s got a very slow, steady pace and in its own mundane way, the murder investigation ends up becoming quite an engrossing journey. The French countryside offers a unique and fairly fresh milieu and the 50s time period adds some additional charm in its aesthetics to the mystery. Then there’s the coming home after years of being away aspect, which in mystery stories always provides a slightly melancholic but pleasant subtext. The overlaying theme of coming home and finding things changed doesn’t play that large or pivotal role in the story itself, but there is still some satisfying catharsis to be found in the movie in the form of furious indignation that Maigret projects when he cracks the case and catches who is responsible. While not the most thrilling murder mystery around, the calm and on its own time moving plot provides a fairly entertaining throwback to how murder mysteries used to be conducted, with a side dish of French temperament.