There is a wonderful scene in this film where everyone gathers around the titular character's fallen body on an ice rink, producing concentric circles of onlookers that spread like the pool of blood beneath him. Even without any context, the image reminds the viewer of a bull's eye, which Monsieur Hire (a squeakily pronounced "ear") certainly has on his narrow, uncaressed back. Hire (Michel Blanc) is a tailor by profession, one whose sartorial manias carry over into the layout of his apartment and his fascination with things he cannot have. Single, sexually ambiguous, and very shy, Hire has spent many years (we are never told quite how many) being stared at, pelted with random materials, and generally feared. "Why do you think people are afraid of you?" asks Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire), the young woman who lives across the way and becomes the epicenter of her creepy neighbor's life. The tailor does not know how to answer this question and brushes it off with a platitude, but we know that fear can only come from ignorance. Mediocrity and nondescriptness are the hallmarks of a functioning society; it has no room for freaks or eccentrics, both of which might be used to describe this small man getting on forty, always dressed in black, always dressed impeccably. Why would anyone put so much effort into his outward appearance when he knows that no one will ever compliment him on it? Surely there exist scruffy tailors who fashion quality products, so it cannot only be for professional reasons. "You have no idea how much I've suffered," he says to Alice, who concurs but does not indulge Hire by asking further questions.
Hire, we are told, is short for Hirovitch. In the 1933 original by the Belgian master of detective novels, Hire is a Jew, the classic outsider amidst France's impassioned Catholic throngs. When the book was adapted into this film shortly after the Second World War, it was thankfully no longer possible to dwell on such ethnic stereotypes, and the person was transformed into the opposite – a potential collaborator. Strangely, Blanc's Hire has elements of each side, at once the pariah whose ostracization from society is primarily imputable to his neurotic neatness, lack of confidence and sociability, and his feeling that it is much easier to hide in one's apartment and observe his pet mice than try to make friends in the world. On the other hand, we perceive that Hire is plagued by the worst of conditions: a bad conscience. Some vile act follows him on his daily errands, stands by him as he gazes out his window and into Alice's uncurtained quarters, prevents him from striking his teenage tormentors as they defile him verbally and sometimes even physically. We are then not surprised when Hire is approached by a smarmy police inspector (André Wilms) investigating an awful crime committed not far from the modest Parisian quarter which Hire never seems to leave. Yes, thinks the intuitive demotic mind, Hire would be just the type of person to commit such a crime. After all, outcasts naturally loathe the laws of the societies that do not accept them. Yet the inspector has another reason for visiting Hire: he is just as much the type of person who would notice the slightest disturbance in the neighborhood's locomotion.
A handful of other details is provided. Hire is a peerless bowler ("the one place where I am not feared," he boasts to the inspector), a regular trick at the local brothels, enamored with one dramatic piano quartet (written by this composer when he was only twenty-two), and obsessed with watching Alice do everything women in their early twenties do, even with her boyfriend. Hire's voyeurism proceeds unimpeded very much like a silent film, with a booming soundtrack and his strong, almost hysterical expressions occupying the frame of a dark and distant window. Then, in one very curious passage, he tells Alice about an elderly lady who would accost some of Paris's infamous pigeon population and try to feed them. This was, he notes, her main activity, although she wasn't actually giving them food but poison. Why would Hire bother recalling this drab detail considering the slippery slope that he already seems to have transgressed? And why doesn't he finish telling his story? Despite director Patrice Leconte's half-hearted attempt to emphasize Alice's role (the original novel is entitled The engagement of Monsieur Hire), Blanc absorbs all of our interest, expressing the pettiest of concerns with great gusto and all serious emotions with nary a twitch. Alice is a simple country girl who has only been in Paris a few months, but she decides that she could love an outcast. What she doesn't see is that being apart from society is what makes Hire begin each miserable day: he is not so much above it as beside it, watching everyone move, live, and breathe with the exception of himself. Entering society would deprive him of this distinction and he would become just like everyone else. And that is, mind you, absolutely the last thing he would ever do.