Clouzot’s 1947 crime film is an apt portrait of the complex and difficult urban life in postwar France.
Quai des Orfèvres was the third film by French director Henri-Georges Clouzot, released in 1947. Clouzot is best known for two films he made in the ‘50s, The Wages of Fear, and Diabolique, classics of suspense, and in the case of Diabolique, horror as well. Quai des Orfèvres gives us an early taste of this unique master of cinema.
Marguerite, played by Suzy Delair, an aspiring music hall singer with the stage name of Jenny Lamour, flirts with everyone she can in order to get ahead, arousing the jealousy of her husband and piano accompanist Maurice, played by Bernard Blier, a sullen, morose songwriter. He reaches his limit when he discovers that Jenny has gone to the home of a lecherous old movie producer. Pistol in hand, he goes there himself, but finds the producer already dead.
Clouzot’s style was dark, and his views on society acerbic. Here we have a vivid portrait of the lower regions of society in Paris after the liberation. The fascinating, seedy world of French music halls and cabarets, in which weary city dwellers gathered in smoke-filled theaters to enjoy singing, rude comedy, and even animal acts, is the perfect setting for the furtive actions of the obsessed sad sack Maurice. It’s a tough life that Clouzot depicts, but not completely without hope—Jenny and Maurice really do love each other, after all.
The murder mystery element is, truth to tell, rather far-fetched, and Clouzot doesn’t put a lot of energy into it. It mainly serves as a device for the introduction of the film’s third major character, Inspector Antoine, played by French theatre legend Louis Jouvet. The unprepossessing Inspector, with his little mustache, bow tie, and hawk-like nose, is a relentless, cunning interrogator with a subtle wit, who says things like, “Shake my left hand; it’s closer to my heart.” We discover that he dotes on his mixed-race teenage son, his one gift from years in the Foreign Legion. Jouvet pretty much steals the picture. The film is at its best in his scenes, and in the claustrophobic police headquarters which gives the film its title, where the chaotic goings-on provide a window into Paris’s sad urban underworld.
Also in the mix is Jenny’s friend Dora (the stunning Simone Renant), a photographer specializing in erotica. In her love for Jenny she goes so far as to try to conceal evidence—it’s the love that couldn’t speak its name, of course, at least not in 1947—but in one of the film’s most intriguing exchanges, Antoine makes the truth clear for those in the audience able to make the connection.
Quai des Orfèvres boasts shadowy, evocative black-and-white photography by Armand Thirard, and impeccable production design by the great Max Douy, whose credits included Renoir’s The Rules of the Game. I need also to mention that from Clouzot one must never expect an expansive poetic style—here as ever, ambivalence and the dark side of human nature are the primary elements in his world view. Quai des Orfèvres is an ideal introduction to his body of work.