“Quai des Orfèvres”- Truly golden [MOVIE REVIEW]
by Neely Swanson
“Quai des Orfèvres,” by Henri-Georges Clouzot, has been reissued in a 4K digital restoration that crisply heightens the shadows, angles and grit that made this a masterpiece of film noir. Clouzot, perhaps most famous for two films that followed—Diabolique and The Wages of Fear—knew how to create a complex psychological drama that defied easy explanation even though all the elements appeared straightforward.
Post-war Paris and times are difficult. Maurice Martineau, a composer and gifted pianist from a solidly bourgeois family, has married far below his station and been reduced to accompanying and managing the singing career of his floozy of a wife Marguerite aka Jenny L’Amour. Jenny knows exactly how to get ahead and although faithful to Maurice, the love of her life, she’s an ambitious breasts-thrust-forward gal who targets a lecherous industrialist who has promised her a film contract if she dines with him. Maurice, alerted to their rendezvous, shows up and swears he will kill Brignon if he ever so much as speaks to Jenny again. Jenny is outraged that her husband would ruin such a career opportunity and plots to regain her foothold with Brignon.
Quel surprise! Maurice discovers Jenny’s plans and, setting up what he thinks is a fool-proof alibi, drives to Brignon’s mansion only to discover that Brignon is already dead. Tripping over himself to escape, Maurice arrives back on the street just as a man in the shadows steals his car. Now he has no means of escape, his alibi may not hold, and his wife is unaccounted for.
Quai des Orfèvres, the criminal investigation headquarters of the national police and Inspector Antoine now enter the picture. Inspector Antoine is gruff, annoyed, and thorough, dissecting the obvious and the not-so-apparent. No one is more nervous than Maurice, who worries that the center will not hold and he is surely the leading suspect. But he is not alone because the death of Brignon may not be as clear-cut as it seems.
Clouzot, who spent the war working for the German-owned Continental Films, had been condemned as a collaborator by the French government after the liberation and sentenced to a lifetime ban as a filmmaker. Supported by fellow artists such as Jean Cocteau, Rene Clair, Jean Paul Sartre, and others, his sentence was lifted after two years. A Russian émigré film producer named Anatole Eliacheff offered to finance Clouzot’s comeback film, provided he make something commercial. Clouzot knew just what he wanted to make. During the war, he had read a book by Stanislas A. Steeman, an author whose work he had already adapted to film, called Légitime Défense that he was sure would make a great film. Unfortunately, the book was out of print and he was on deadline, so he and his cowriter, Jean Ferry, set about writing the script based on what Clouzot remembered of the book. Steeman was unhappy with the results; the public was not. “Quai des Orfèvres” was a big commercial success and it paved the way for Clouzot to continue doing what he loved best.
“Quai des Orfèvres” is classic film noir. We have the relentless detective (Inspector Antoine), the hapless victim (Maurice), and not one but two femmes fatales (Jenny and their neighbor Dora). Gifted with an amazing cast, all the elements of the film soar and mesh to create a straightforward but complex psychological “who done it.”
Leading the cast is theater and film legend, Louis Jouvet. Having exiled himself to South America during the war, “Quai des Orfèvres” was only his second post-war appearance. His Inspector Antoine is a mumbling, thorough, dogged, crafty, and unsparing operative. Pointedly, he is the antithesis of the romantic view of a French Foreign Legion officer, which was his previous job. But further contradicting that harsh image is his home life where he is an older single father gently raising a young son, the treasure he brought back from his years in the Legion. Watching Jouvet unravel the other characters as he begins to unravel the mystery is a brilliant lesson in minimalism.
Maurice, the hapless husband, is played by Bernard Blier, who was one of French cinema’s leading character actors. He had been one of Jouvet’s best students at the Paris Conservatory and it was Jouvet who convinced Clouzot to give him the lead and lift him from supporting roles. Short, balding and chunky, it is Blier’s intensity that allows you to believe that someone like Jenny would feel so passionately about him. In an interesting side note, Bernard is the father of highly regarded French director Bertrand Blier whose career he helped start.
Suzy Delair as Jenny L’Amour, femme fatale, deceptively non-errant wife oozes the sexuality that Clouzot knew she would bring to the role. She was, after all, his mistress. Her presence is innocence and raw sexuality combining forces that make her irresistible. Suzy and her pouty lips and perfect Music Hall singing style mesh beautifully with the character Clouzot created especially for her. It’s interesting to note that the two songs she sings in the film, “Danse avec moi” and “Avec son tra-la-la” became signatures of her cabaret career.
Many of the artists Clouzot worked with on this film (and would continue to work with him on subsequent films) were with him at Continental Films during the war. Foremost among them was Armand Thirard whose dark, atmospheric work had been effectively used to set the unsettling mood for so many other films, including the Clouzot classics “The Wages of Fear,” and “Diabolique.” Thirard’s lighting is another character in the film.
Running for one week only, this is a must-see whether you are a film buff, a fan of noir, or just a fan of great cinema.
In French with English subtitles.
Opening April 20 at the Laemmle Royal.