At face value, the 1989 crime drama Monsieur Hire is about a creepy and predatorial voyeur and the young woman he targets. Yet the nuances of writer-director Patrice Leconte’s 1989 film travel far beneath the surface features of plot. Why does the man watch the woman? Why is her response so bizarre? Who really committed the murder? And why does the man refuse to tell the authorities when he knows very well who did it?

Monsieur Hire is based on Georges Simenon’s short novel Les Fiançailles de M. Hire, which had previously received a very different kind of adaptation in 1947 with Julien Duvivier’s Panique. That film was told primarily from the point of view of the woman, whereas Leconte is more interested in the psychology of the man, which is truer to the novel. With his small frame, bald pate and sociopathic leer, Hire (Michel Blanc) is a toxic presence in the life of anyone who crosses paths with him. People don’t like him, though they regard him with curiosity if they happen to see him in the hallway of his apartment complex.

To Hire, that’s perfectly ok. He doesn’t like his neighbors either, and far short of regarding them with curiosity, the other people in his building matter not a single bit. Over the course of the story, we only see one of his neighbors, who peers out briefly from his living space. Hire’s response: “A picture – would you like one?” The only things this man enjoys are his egg dinner, his bowling reputation, and his nightly observations of the woman across the way. Her name is Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire), and Hire watches her for hours upon hours, eating his egg dinner and never speaking a word. He learns a lot about her, mostly about the relationship with her boyfriend Emile (Luc Thullier), who ‘s eager about starting a family with her. But Alice seems ambivalent, especially since Emile has proven himself untrustworthy.

One night, a flash of lightning reveals Hire’s watchful ways to Alice, who recoils at first but then becomes fascinated by this little man. Key to the film’s impact are the performances by Blanc and Bonnaire, which are strategically blank, revealing layers as the film moves forward with its ideas and incidents, falling into rhythm with Leconte’s patient direction, Denis Lenoir’s shadowy and quietly stunning cinematography and Michael Nyman’s lush classical score.

Complicating matters, a detective (André Wilms) is investigating the murder of a young woman who looks very much like Alice. He grows weary of Hire’s charmless, suspicious personality, intent upon pinning him for the murder. Hire, meanwhile, knows perfectly well who the culprit is, and the puzzle at the heart of the film is why he does not simply tell the detective everything he knows, having witnessed the whole thing from the God spot of his apartment window. Leconte is not interested in explaining his characters’ motivations, even while the denouement offers exactly that, far too late for it to make any difference or to reverse a series of hilariously avoidable tragedies. The director is far more interested in exploring the contours of deception – both of oneself and of others.

The film was released with little fanfare in the United States in 1990, and fevered critical support, particularly from the late Roger Ebert, led to slightly elevated exposure for certain of Leconte’s later films (1992’s The Hairdresser’s Husband, about a man who buys a salon for his wife as an act of pure love, and 2003’s The Man on the Train, in which a lonely professor and a tired bank robber briefly wish to switch roles). This film, though, was Leconte’s breakout, and what resonates so deeply about it is how it inspires the audience to put in some work of their own.

At only 79 minutes, including end credits, Monsieur Hire manages a lot in a small amount of time, traversing some intense emotional terrain, a procedural plot mechanism and even a significant degree of patience and perseverance to reveal what it must about this character. It has been lost to time and an inconsistent American distribution on home video and streaming services, but what is waiting to be revealed is an implausibly perfect movie – suspenseful in the way Hitchcock might have appreciated and a lot sadder and weirder than that description might suggest.

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