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Quai des Orfèvres

Quai des Orfèvres
Criterion 193
1947 / b&w / 1:37 flat full frame / 106 min. / Street Date May 27, 2003 / 29.95
Starring Suzy Delair, Bernard Blier, Louis Jouvet, Simone Renant, Jean Daurand, Pierre Larquey, René Blancard
Cinematography Armand Thirard
Production Designer Max Douy
Film Editor Charles Bretoneiche
Original Music Francis López
Written by Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jean Ferry from the novel Legitime Defense by Stanislas-André Steeman
Produced by Roger De Venloo
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot

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 sophistication.

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 singing voice.

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 the show.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Quai des Orfèvres rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer, docu interview excerpt
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 23, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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