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Quai des Orfèvres

by Glenn Erickson Feb 29, 2020

 

Another big title from Henri-Georges Clouzot touches down in Region A. The great director’s first postwar feature dials back the misanthropy — but only a little. It’s a detective tale set in an impressively recreated theatrical milieu, about the tangle of illicit desire that people get caught up in. Ambition, sacrifice, and jealousy figure in a tightly-knit murder scenario — Louis Jouvet’s detective must sort them out, to determine if the vain variety singer Jenny Lamour is really guilty of a heinous crime.


Quai des Orfèvres
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1947 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 106 min. / Street Date February 25, 2020 / Jenny Lamour / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Louis Jouvet, Suzy Delair, Bernard Blier, Simone Renant, Pierre Larquey, Jeanne Fusier-Gir, Charles Dullin, Dora Doll, Christian Marquand, .
Cinematography: Armand Thirard
Film Editor: Charles Bretoneiche
Original Music: Francis Lopez
Written by Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jean Ferry from the novel Legetime defense by Stanislaus-André Steeman
Produced by Roger De Venloo, Louis Wipf
Directed by
Henri-Georges Clouzot

 

After viewing several excellent biographical video pieces as well as the masterful documentary on his aborted film project L’enfer, Henri-Georges Clouzot still emerges as a mysterious figure, obsessed and driven by cinematic demons. A DVD collection of his 1930s screenwriting efforts showed a different man, with a flair for comic farces, melodramas and musicals.

All it takes is a nasty war, with a brutal Occupation, to change one’s outlook on life. Clouzot made Le Corbeau for a Nazi-owned French company; whether he was a real collaborator or just an unpopular scapegoat, Clouzot faced serious charges after the Germans left. Most of his later pictures are consistent in their Corbeau- like misanthropy, taking the murder mystery to new depths of cold-bloodedness, and the political protest thriller and social tragedy to new levels of despair and futility.

 

H.G. Clouzot’s first film free of postwar recriminations may not be as bloodthirsty or as negative as his later work, but its view of humanity still tilts to the dark side. Quai des Orfèvres has the lush look of classic-era French filmmaking. Grand sets reproduce the slick streets and claustrophobic neighborhoods of Paris, but without the romantic aura of the Poetic Realist works of ten years earlier. When ambition, lust and desire clash in the shabby environs of the entertainment district, nothing beautiful results.

True to form, Clouzot’s adaptation lays out a group of strong characters. The outwardly calm Maurice Marineau (Bernard Blier, father of director Bertrand Blier) is a pianist with marriage problems. He accompanies his wife Marguerite, a singer who goes by the stage name Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair). Her act is popular, but her sexy persona attracts men and she’s a notorious flirt. Maurice can barely control his jealousy. His protests go unheeded, as Jenny sees nothing wrong with letting a songwriter pat her thigh. She also has a habit of disappearing for appointments, only for Maurice to find out that she’s going out with producers that might advance her career. One of these secret dates goes very badly. While posing for Dora Monier (Simone Renant), the photographer downstairs, Jenny contacts the lecherous, wealthy Georges Brignon (Charles Dullin). It doesn’t matter that Brignon brings young women to Monier’s studio for nude photo sessions.

 

A murder occurs, and in no time at all both Maurice and Dora have compromised themselves with lies and cover-ups to shield Jenny. Police inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet of Drôle de drame and La fin du jour) takes the case, senses the resistance of the key witnesses, and works behind the scenes to tear down various alibis. Antoine keeps advising his subjects to come clean before more crimes occur, but the drama plays out to the bitter end.

It’s been explained that the Quai des Orfèvres refers to a main police facility in Paris; we never see the exterior but it shows up frequently in attractive tourist photos. The show is less a mystery who-dunnit than a detailed examination of the fascinating folk in a tawdry show-biz world. The characterizations are subtle and the relationships beautifully observed. Maurice and Jenny go on auditions, try out new material and perform in the nightclub circuit. Maurice is a gentle husband, tolerating things that a less loving and gentle man wouldn’t. But he has plenty of motivation to become violent. Jenny is always leaving food for Maurice to heat up while she’s off on dimly- explained errands.

The theatrical district seems partly a Tin Pan Alley and partly a skid row; we begin by watching two tired singers enter a songwriter’s salon, to witness Jenny trying out a new tune. Other performers listen in rapt attention, proving Jenny’s minor-star status. She plays the attention she gets for all it’s worth. Poor Maurice must tolerate the stage-door Johnnies that hang around and the professional contacts that queue up to give Jenny hugs and kisses of congratulation.

 

To complicate things, the sophisticated photographer Dora is a lesbian equally in love with Jenny. The singer either doesn’t intuit Dora’s infatuation, or she is aware and keeps Dora at a slight remove, as she does her many male admirers. Dora is alarmed that Jenny ignores her advice to stay away from the disgusting, predatory Brignon. As Dora, Jenny and Maurice all keep secrets from one another, their uncoordinated post-killing cover-ups present Inspector Antoine with a choice puzzle to solve.

 

Antoine is a classic philosopher-detective. He analyzes his suspects, using circuitous questions to probe for hesitations and evasions. People hide facts for all kinds of reasons, but is the reason in this case murder?  In one of his best scenes, Antoine unprofessionally declares his attraction to the cautious, controlled and intelligent Dora — under different circumstances, ‘she’d be the girl for him.’ Dora’s reaction can only be ‘positive intrigue.’ Can we assume that Antoine has noticed and accepted her sexual preference?  Or is he trying to put her off-guard, to shake her story?

Inspector Antoine has compartmentalized his life into professional and personal areas. In the warren of police HQ where most of the street crooks are known personally, Antoine trades jokes with a career criminal, and levels dire threats at a taxi driver who holds out on him (Pierre Larquey). In private he worries about the school grades of his son/ward, a cute little fellow who adores his pop. ( → ) Compared to Charles Vanel’s bloodhound-like cop in Les diaboliques, Antoine is a pussycat. Typical Antoine advice, usually addressed to somebody who doesn’t want to listen, is to come forward with the truth before things get worse.

H.G. Clouzot usually observes his characters as if they were specimens in a cage, but Quai des Orfèvres has a basically sympathetic view of imperfect, struggling humanity. None of the main players is a malign villain, and Jenny is not a femme fatale. She isn’t adverse to using sex appeal to advance her career, as manipulating men is her business. But she foolishly believes that she can handle all the men that come her way.

If only Jenny didn’t pull some of the same tricks on her loyal Maurice. A scene in their kitchen has the film’s one moment of obvious editorial symbolism. Jenny invites Maurice to forget his anger. She parts her lips so he can come kiss her, and Clouzot cuts to a shot of the milk boiling over. Was this less blatant in the days before Frank Tashlin’s cartoonish sex metaphors?  I doubt it.

The story has a surprise reveal or two, but its real ‘twist’ may arise only in retrospect. Did Inspector Antoine solve the murder before we think he did?   What did he know, and when did he know it?   Was he hoping that one or more of his suspects would voluntarily come forward with the truth?  Any more compassion, and Antoine would be a police social worker.

 

Quai des Orfèvres is a visual feast, with rich, believable settings that transport us to a long-gone Parisian world. Cameraman Armand Thirard filmed Anatole Litvak’s 1936 Mayerling, Marcel Carné’s Hotel du Nord, Julien Duvivier’s La fin du jour, Jean Grémillon’s Remorques, and Roger Vadim’s …And God Created Woman, as well as at least six H.G. Clouzot pictures. The mobile camera takes us to so many interesting places, we forget how individual scenes are put together. We briefly go backstage at Circus Medrano, which I think appears nine years later as the main setting for Carol Reed’s superb Trapeze. Nothing looks particularly clean, not the streets or the apartments or the nightclubs. Clouzot proved his filmic mastery in Le Corbeau, and this show confirms it.

Although it received a brief 1948 arthouse release in the U.S. as Jenny Lamour, the film remained obscure here until much later, when it reverted to its original French title.


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Quai des Orfèvres is another fine Studiocanal remastering and a fantastic opportunity to plunge into classic French filmmaking. Kino reports that this disc is derived from a 4K restoration. I tried and failed to watch it years ago, because the print then available was so bad. When cleaned up, top-end continental films often prove to be the technical equals and artistic superiors to Hollywood’s best efforts. We have to remind ourselves that a gem like this represents the best of French cinema, not an average production. Clouzot’s Manon (1949) is also out from Kino and on the CineSavant watch list.

Especially good are the songs and the cabaret music — Suzy Delair is a real songbird. The restored audio is free of hiss and pops.

Nick Pinkerton’s commentary is a flood of facts that delves into the careers and personal stories of the mostly unfamiliar French actors, Are French Millennials as ignorant of their country’s filmic heritage, as are most American Millennials?   Pinkerton also gives us the lowdown on where Clouzot’s career was at this time, with the added info that the director carried on affairs with many of his leading actresses.

Kino has unearthed a Criterion-worthy extra, a 1971 episode of TV’s Au cinéma ce soir featuring interviews with Clouzot and his actors Bernard Blier, Suzy Delair and Simone Renant. The original trailer included is an intense item that goes on for three an a half minutes. The title Quai des Orfèvres is spoken about six times … fifty more times and I might be able to properly pronounce it.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Quai des Orfèvres
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio commentary by Film Critic Nick Pinkerton; interviews with director Clouzot and actors Bernard Blier, Suzy Delair and Simone Renant, from a 1971 French TV program; trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
February 24, 2020
(6209quai)

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.