Quai des Orfèvres Review
Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair, The Mad Adventures of 'Rabbi' Jacob) is a music hall chanteuse married to her pianist husband Maurice (Bernard Blier, The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe). Keen to get ahead, Jenny leaps at the chance when an ageing wealthy businessman, Georges Brignon (Charles Dullin, Misdeal), offers her the chance of some gigs. However, when she agrees to a meeting at his home and he is found dead later in the evening - Maurice’s untamed jealousy is in the frame. A Maigret-esque detective, Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet, Bizarre, Bizarre), leaves no stone unturned in his exceedingly private investigations of the down-at-heel showbiz couple’s sad, tempestuous life.
After the problems caused by Le Corbeau, which led him to be banned from any cinematographic activity for two years after the Liberation, Henri-Georges Clouzot started working on an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark, a story dealing with the affection of a middle-aged man for a much younger woman, resulting in a mutually parasitic relationship, a theme the author would reuse in 1955 for his famous Lolita. This adaptation didn’t see the light of day, but it was finally filmed in 1969 by Tony Richardson (Tom Jones) with Nicol Williamson (Excalibur) and Anna Karina (A Woman Is a Woman). When Quai des Orfèvres was released in 1947, it was very well received, by critics and the public, and it confirmed Clouzot’s leading position in French Cinema.
Quai des Orfèvres is adapted from a novel by Stanislas-André Steeman, who also wrote the novels which inspired Clouzot’s screenplay for The Last One of the Six and The Murderer Lives at Number 21. The director wrote almost two-thirds of the film recalling most of it from memory, since the novel was out of print by the time he started the screenplay. Under the guise of a rather trivial police procedural, the film is an implacable study of manners coupled with a fast-paced crime thriller. The criminal aspect of the plot is brought into the frame following a clever depiction of Jenny and her pitiful husband’s everyday routine, i.e. flirtation, jealousy, rows and mixing subtle vaudeville and music-hall acts, including Delair’s famous “Avec son tralala” (which can familiarly refer to the male or female organ). Yet, Clouzot pervades this cheerful atmosphere of his underlying darkness through the use of scathing replicas, a darkness that takes over the film following the murder and leads to the appearance of the cynical and disillusioned Inspector Antoine. The police investigation that ensues gives dramatic predominance to the plot, despite the recurring dark humour.
As usual with Clouzot, the cast is absolutely perfect - the director famously knew how to get the best performance from his actors adopting dirty tricks if required, (for example, the slap inflicted to Bernard Blier) - even the smallest role (Pierre Larquey, who had a bigger role as Dr Vorzet in Le Corbeau, manages to bring his customary pathos to the role of the cab driver) and the film is littered with famous faces of French Cinema: Robert Dalban (Fantomas), Jeanne-Fusier-Gir (Marie-Octobre), Henri Arius (La cuisine au beurre) or Charles Blavette (Classe Tous Risques).
In Quai des Orfèvres, Clouzot’s pessimism manifests itself through a sharp description of marital pettiness and baseness of powerful people. However, yet again, after Le Corbeau there is nothing Manichean in this disenchanted world. Love actually becomes an important element of the film, be it between spouses, extramarital, or filial. In this sense, Clouzot’s scenario reveals again a surprising modernity, for instance with the tender relationship between Inspector Antoine and his son, a little black boy he “brought” back from his time in the colonies or with Dora's (Simone Renant, The Adventures of Remi) underlying homosexuality leading to a memorable line from Inspector Antoine. Circumventing censorship, the director even risks denouncing police violence, far from the sweetened representation in vogue at the time, which was the result of Clouzot being the first filmmaker to actually spend time in a police station to observe the behaviour of real policemen.
Beyond the finesse of the screenplay, it is also important to highlight the pictorial quality of Quai des Orfèvres; Armand Thirard's (The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques) exquisite cinematography and the sets created by Max Douy (The Red Inn), play a key role in the fascinating atmosphere exerted by the film.
Quai des Orfèvres is a treat for any fan of Clouzot’s body of work, or Cinema in general really, and a more profound film that it appears.
Quai des Orfèvres is released on Blu-ray disc on 5th March by StudioCanal.
The film is presented in a splendid 4K transfer, respecting the original 1.37 : 1 ratio, which does justice to Thirard’s expressionist black & white cinematography - the amount of grain is perfectly adequate. On the sound side, the Blu-ray disc only offers a great 2.0 DTS-HD (Master Audio) French track, with optional English and French subtitles, which doesn’t present any defect or distortion.
On the bonus side, the disc offers only one extra, Henri Georges Clouzot’s Criminal Height (30 mins, English subtitles) a documentary about the film featuring Noel Herpe (commissioner of “Le Mystere Clouzot” exhibition), Chloe Folens (author of Les metamorphoses d’H.G. Clouzot), Marc Godin and Jose-Louis Bocquet (authors of Clouzot cineaste), Xavier Giannoli (director of, among others, Marguerite) and Bertrand Blier (director of Buffet Froid) in which they discuss how Clouzot was perceived at the end of the German Occupation, his aborted adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s Laughter in the Dark which led to Quai des Orfevres, the differences between the source material and the film, the various settings of the film, its modernity and Clouzot’s attitude towards his actors.