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Quai des Orfèvres: Criterion Collection
WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
Much has been made recently of Henri-Georges Clouzot's Quai des Orfèvres, thanks to its release on Criterion DVD. A contemporary (and even somewhat of a rival) of Alfred Hitchcock, Clouzot produced suspenseful noirs (for example, 1955's Diabolique) whose aim went beyond edge-of-your-seat intrigue to explore the darker and weaker impulses of human nature and our innate baseness and ridiculousness. Even more so than Hitchcock, Clouzot was infamously cruel to his actors, spewing outright verbal abuse in his efforts to draw out those sordid impulses in service of his films' performances.
Quai des Orfèvres adapts a ho-hum police procedural by S.A. Steeman, concerning poor cuckolded Maurice (Bernard Blier), bug-eyed and somewhat mad husband to the abrasively shrill French showgirl Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair), who bluntly aspires to seduce powerful men en route to a successful singing career. When Jenny aims her sequined gams at Brignon (Charles Dullin), a disgusting old hunchback, Maurice sees red and vows to murder them both. Constructing an elaborate web of alibis and premeditation, Maurice carefully makes his way to Brignon's mansion, prepared to commit crime. The surprise of the potboiler plot is that his crime has already been done for him. Now, to Maurice's horror, his careful preparation is being undone by the drawling Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet), a cop who doesn't seem to care a wit about the crime he's investigating but manages to make major discoveries in spite of himself.
As much as I wanted Quai des Orfèvres to rope me in with its noir themes and its post-war France setting and mood, I was put off my the slow machinations of the plot—the long talky episodes at the police station as the inspector walks us through his theories, the interminable song numbers dotted here and there, the drawn-out third-degree delivered to Maurice down at the precinct. Although I was pleasantly surprised by the frankness of the film—for example, a supporting character named Dora (Simone Renant) brings an overtly lesbian undertone to the proceedings, and there's a genuine carnality to the central plot—the film as a whole never overcame its dull-police-procedural roots.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Criterion presents Quai des Orfèvres in a clear-but-damaged-looking transfer of the film's original 1.33:1 theatrical presentation. Although detail is solid, reaching into backgrounds, and contrast seems true, the 35mm print used for the transfer is in need of a restoration. You get several jarring splices and breaks, and many imperfections, including running lines, flecks, flaws, and hairs. Considering those detriments, however, this is as good as this transfer can be.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The DVD's Dolby Digital 1.0 track gets the job done, accurately reproducing the film's abundance of dialog and the higher notes of the music.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The primary supplement on this light-on-extras disc is a 17-minute collection of interviews titled Depositions. Director Henri-Georges Clouzet (he of very bad teeth) reminisces about his film and his actors, and actors Blier, Renant, and Blier talk about the director. All of these interviews are taken from the 1971 French TV show Au Cinema Ce Soir.
You also get the Original Trailer and a Poster Gallery.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
A viewing of Quai des Orfèvres is best served by a historical perspective. Get to know the work and motifs of the director before giving it a try. Even then, you might find the standard workings of the surface plot too slow to bear. Criterion has produced a fine—if not excellent—DVD package.