The set includes the entire run of the series, which ran over two short seasons of six episodes apiece in 1992-93. The mysteries themselves are above average, but that's not the reason to watch it. Rather it's Maigret (pronounced "May-Gray") himself, a captivatingly subtle criminologist.
There have been numerous adaptations over the years, with Maigret played by such diverse talent as Pierre Renior (Jean's brother), Jean Gabin (in three late-1950s/early-1960s films), and Charles Laughton (in the elusive The Man on the Eiffel Tower). Rupert Davies (1916-76), who bears a striking resemblance to Gambon and whose acting style is also similar, played Maigret in a 1960-63 series, and again in a rotating British anthology series similar to the NBC Mystery Movie. Italian Gino Cervi next played the detective, in a successful series of mini-series that ran well into the 1970s. In recent years, Richard Harris played Maigret in a 1988 TV movie. (And now, in a sad coincidence, Gambon has assumed Harris's role in the Harry Potter series.) Beginning in 1991, shortly before the Gambon series went into production, actor Bruno Cremer began playing Maigret in a long series of more than 50 TV movies, made in France. Though pushing 80, Cremer shows no signs of slowing down. Most of these movies and programs are completely inaccessible, at least in English, so just where Gambon rates among these various Maigrets is difficult to ascertain.
What is certain is that the actor has created an utterly engrossing character whose relative ordinariness is part of its appeal. Where Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot are defined by their eccentricities, Maigret is intelligent and understated. Middle-aged, slightly overweight with thinning hair, Maigret is respected but not a legend in his own time. He's neither fastidious like Poirot nor obsessive like Holmes, nor is he an outsider the way they are, and at night Maigret goes home to a supportive but equally plain wife, Louise (played by Ciaran Madden in the first six episodes, Barbara Flynn in the second set), whose main claim to fame is her ability to cook the country-style cuisine Maigret loves.
Just how Gambon turns this plainness into something compulsively fascinating is hard to explain. Unlike Holmes, Gambon's Maigret clearly is interested in the people he meets during his cases (like Horace Rumpole, often preferring the company of smalltime career criminals to honest bureaucratic types), watching them during interviews with a keen but understated interest. His style of investigation has been described as hermeneutic, an interpretation of human behavior somewhat different from Sherlock Holmes's modus operandi of observing and collecting data simply overlooked or dismissed in official investigations, and drawing logical conclusions from it. Unlike Poirot, who loved basking in the limelight, gathering suspects and announcing his solutions in the most theatrical manner possible, Maigret is content to let his suspects do most of the talking, as he soaks up their alibis, carefully observing their psychological makeup, reasoning and movements.
The pilot, "The Patience of Maigret," is a bonafide TV movie, running 79 minutes, and was perhaps produced with a theatrical run (in some markets) in mind. Whatever the case, it's extremely lavish, looking much more expensive than it probably was. What's most surprising is how well it evokes the look of Paris circa the mid-1950s, with the scenery looking a lot like, say, Mon Oncle or some Brigitte Bardot comedy from the period. The series was apparently shot in Budapest, but it sure had this reviewer fooled. The regular 52-minute episodes are more in line with typical Granada Television budgets, and some cost-cutting here and there is obvious (fewer costumed extras, period automobiles, etc.), but overall this is a handsomely-produced series.
The actors wisely do not affect French accents, which might have come off as comic, and instead generally adopt flat English ones all-around. (As opposed to, for example, British horror movies of the 1950s-70s, in which lower-class continental Europeans had anachronistically Cockney accents.)
The supporting and guest casts, as usual for British television, are uniformly exceptional. Cheryl Campbell who, like Gambon, became famous as the star of a Dennis Potter play (in her case opposite Bob Hoskins in Pennies from Heaven), stars in the first episode (the cast also includes Ann Todd), and subsequent shows feature John Moffatt, Godfrey James, Jonathan Adams, Minnie Driver, Peter Blythe, Kenneth Haigh, Betty Marsden, Jon Finch, and others.
Video & Audio
Maigret is presented in its original full-frame format with 12 shows on four discs, in a transfer that's serviceable but nothing special. The Region 1 DVDs of the Granada/Jeremy Brett Holmes series got better as they went along; the first DVDs looked awful, but steadily improved to the point where the last series looked great. Maigret falls somewhere in between. The shows, most running between 51-52 minutes, are unedited and not time-compressed. The IMDb claims the series was shot in 35mm but I doubt this is true; as is common for such series, 16mm (or, more precisely Super-16mm) seems to have been utilized judging by the amount of grain and overall resolution. The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo is very nice, however, and gives Nigel Hess's evocative score an added boost. There are no subtitle options.
There are no supplements to speak of, unless you count the fairly useless Credits for the series provided on each disc, and a trio of Weblinks on Disc 1.
Georges Simenon (1903-89) wrote 84 Maigret mysteries, from 1930 to 1972 (and soon thereafter published an autobiography in which he claimed to have had sex with more than 20,000 women - take that, Wilt Chamberlain). Given the wealth of material, it's a shame the series ended after only 12 shows, and one sincerely hopes Gambon will someday return to the character.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.