Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Well, it's finally happened: Criterion is the first DVD company to put a cheescake centerfold photo
in the DVD insert pamphlet of a classic film. The subject is sexy Jenny Lamour in one of her
elaborate costumes, in glorious black and white!
Henri-Georges Clouzot, on the basis of Les Diaboliques and La Salaire de Peur, has
gone down in critical history as a heartless, mankind-hating misfit. His unsentimental
examinations of murder and corporate exploitation made him notorious in the 1950s. American movies
tried to imitate his ruthless style, while American distributors censored his acidic political
content. One of first features was called Le Corbeau.
Poison-pen letters in a small town unearth corruption and scandal, and start a feverish rush to
find and silence their source. Filmed during the Nazi occupation of France, it was criticized as
anti-French, and gave Clouzot the reputation of a closet collaborator. Quai de Orfèvres
is the post-war picture that broke that impression.
Quai de Orfèvres is a highly polished murder mystery that's part domestic drama, part
police procedural movie. As a mystery, it's as ordinary as a Perry Mason story, but it compensates
with style and atmosphere, mixing Parisian back streets with the stages of variety theaters. And it
has four very individualized & fresh characterizations. Clouzot's tempers his icy touch - these people
aren't dissected and classified as Victims and Victimizers.
Chanteuse Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair) flaunts herself and flirts, which drives her
husband Maurice Martineau (Bernard Blier) into jealous fits. Hoping for a film contract, she toys
with the attentions of a disgusting industrialist, Georges Brignon (Charles Dullin). Realizing
Brignon has set a secret rendezvous with his wife, Maurice prepares an alibi and prepares to commit
a murder. Observing both sides of the misunderstanding is family friend Dora Monier (Simone Renant),
a photographer who has taken
photos of Brignon's many girlfriends, and has a strong personal attachment to Jenny. After Brignon
is found dead, all of their lives are disturbed by the unwelcome attention of Inspector Antoine
(Louis Jouvet), a bloodhound detective determined to shake the truth from the situation, even if
it means working right through the Christmas holiday.
This atmospheric thriller starts out almost as a musical, with Suzy Delair singing for auditions and
rehearsals, and finally in front of an audience, in a montage sequence much more elegant than those in the
majority of American musicals. The film's fast pace and the variety of its richly-imagined sets - two
theaters, Jenny and Maurice's apartment building, and the police station that gives the
film its title - make this as elaborate as anything made in France at the time. Clouzot is a
very exacting director - the performances reward a close viewing, and there are enough details to
merit a second screening right away.
Quai de Orfèvres isn't as misanthropic as Clouzot's other work, true, but there are
enough nasty edges to offset his sentimental touches. The five main characters are fleshed out with
noir overtones - three are defined by their attraction to Jenny
Lamour. The villain Brignon is a caddish, crook-backed old pervert, a rich man who
hires photographer Monier to shoot his many girlfriends au naturel. He sets his eyes on
Jenny Lamour and dangles the promise of a film career before her. Husband Maurice's obsessive love has
displaced his interest in his composing career - he's content just to accompany Jenny
but goes into a rage when she flirts with other men. Best friend Monier is also clearly in love
with Jenny ... she's always there, ready to take risks to protect her.
When a murder occurs, Inspector Antoine comes into the picture. He's the most interesting of the
group, and his thorough investigation shifts the second half of the picture toward a potential
tragedy. Antoine is a gruff ex-soldier who's convinced his face repels women and keeps him from
advancement. He's adopted a North African boy and is tenderly raising him. His manner with the
people he interrogates is complex enough to make him as interesting as the heroes of hardboiled
detective fiction - he's funny, disarming, tricky, insinuating and sometimes brutally accusatory,
depending on the situation. Considering that nobody offers him the full truth, Antoine's actually very
reasonable, but his men do grill suspects until they break down, and he's not above enjoining a
reluctant cabdriver to turn stool pigeon, by threatening to take away his hack license.
The film's grim touches are more like Zola than James Cain. Monier retrieves incriminating evidence
from a murder scene, and can't resist giving the corpse a couple of swift kicks. She's nervy and
masculine when dealing with the police, but incapable of bringing her attraction for Jenny out in
the open. Jenny and Maurice don't trust each other enough to confide the truth, so much that
Maurice is panicked at being suspected of a crime he didn't commit. The neat thing about the
Inspector Antoine character, is that his contact with so many criminals and deceivers doesn't make
him a cynic or a misanthrope. Antoine has to weather the minor but telling news of his son not
passing Geometry, and being turned down for an academic school. Oh well, life is full of
disappointments. When he brings up Jenny's pre-marital promiscuity with Maurice and Monier, it's
only to gauge their reactions. When the Inspector figures out for himself Monier's adoration
of Jenny, his reaction is both understanding and sympathetic. He's a terrific character, brilliantly
brought to life. Clouzot, who says he wrote the script, didn't make Quai de Orfèvres
one of his statements of Universal negativity.
Behind the main characters are two fully realized worlds - the backstage camaraderie of the variety
stages, and the cops and reporters who hang out at the Quai de Orfèvres, waiting for scandalous
headlines. One amusing old reporter keeps quoting famous cases, to show off. The entire staff at a
theater try to back up Maurice's story, but only get him into hot water. Inspector Antoine barely has
to open his mouth, and people are surrendering useful clues that bring him closer to the truth.
Quai de Orfèvres wraps up very conventionally as a thriller, with a convenient
twist that's far too obvious to come as a surprise. But its rich characters live on long after
the plot is forgotten. Multiple viewings are needed to take in the production's multiple layers of
Criterion's DVD of Quai de Orfèvres is a picture-perfect presentation of this minor
classic, which re-premiered last year in theaters. The b&w image is vibrant and detailed, and the
soundtrack does great things with the variety of music heard, including Suzy Delair's attractive
The extras include a vintage, corny trailer, a poster gallery, and an excerpt from a 1971
French television program that interviews the director and actors Delair, Blier and Renant, 24
years after the film was made. Clouzot seems nice enough, and has really bad-looking
teeth. He deflects questions that there's anything dark or creepy about his work, and this
particular film backs up his arguments. All three of the stars laughingly talk
about Clouzot's directing style being unusually brutal. He slapped them around on the set, but they all
seem to think it was great direction.
Luc Sante offers an extremely good set of liner notes - but don't read them until you've seen
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Quai des Orfèvres rates:
Supplements: trailer, docu interview excerpt
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 23, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson