A classic of post-war French film noir, Henry-Georges Clouzot's "Quai des Orfevres"-playing in a newly restored and re-titled 35 mm print at The Music Box-is a detective thriller of unusual psychological intensity, as well as a brilliant portrait of late '40s Paris: its seedy vibrant music halls, its sordid underworlds of thievery and pornography and its cynical, sometimes brutal, sometimes gallant police.
It's the work of a great director-Clouzot was one of the few filmmakers ranked with Alfred Hitchcock as a master of movie suspense-and also a showcase for a great cast, topped by two supreme French actors. The peerless classical thespian Louis Jouvet plays Detective Lieutenant Antoine, a cold-eyed cop who can't be conned and Bernard Blier plays Maurice Martineau, the murder suspect Antoine tries relentlessly to crack.
Despite all that, its American reputation has never matched the fame, among film buffs, of Clouzot's dark '50s classics "The Wages of Fear " and "Diabolique," even though in France, "Quai" is sometimes called his masterpiece.
Perhaps that's because we're slower to catch something the French saw instantly: the accuracy and witty perception of Clouzot's portrait of post-Liberation Paris-the sharp way the film catches the argot, styles, topical allusions, manners and most of all, the unfettered-but-bitter mood of the liberated Parisians. "Quai des Orfevres" (the title refers to the nickname given Paris' Criminal Investigations Division) is about the murder of a rich, degenerate little entrepreneur named Brignon (played by Jouvet's longtime stage colleague Charles Dullin) and the turmoil into which his slaying throws the lives of Martineau, Martineau's sexy music hall star wife Jenny a.k.a. "Jenny Lamour" (Suzy Delair) and Jenny's beautiful lesbian photographer friend Dora Monnier (Simone Renant)-all of whom were at Brignon's house on the fatal night.
Threading through the confusion is Antoine, a cynical-but-honest cop played by the saturnine, piercing-eyed Jouvet (star of Renoir's "The Lower Depths"), who was the French equivalent for Britain's stage-and-film giant Laurence Olivier. Jouvet always radiated high intelligence on screen and rarely more so than as Antoine, whom we really believe as the smartest cop in Paris. We can also fully believe Blier, Delair and the rest of the company, down to the tiniest parts. "Quai" is a movie whose top-notch acting, rich decor and pungent atmosphere will delight any devotee of classic French cinema-and whose taut plot will satisfy mystery and suspense buffs as well. It's a true neglected classic and this pristine, smartly subtitled new version is the right way to discover it.
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
"Quai des Orfevres"
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot; written by Clouzot, Jean Ferry, based on the novel "Self Defense" by Stanislas-Andre Steeman; photographed by Armand Thirard; edited by Charles Bretoneiche; sets designed by Max Douy; music by Francis Lopez; produced by Roger de Venloo. French, with English subtitles. A Rialto Pictures release; opens Friday at The Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:46. No MPAA rating. Adult. Mature themes and language.
Detective Lieutenant Antoine.....Louis Jouvet
Jenny Martineau ("Jenny Lamour").....Suzy Delair
Maurice Martineau.....Bernard Blier
Dora Monnier.....Simone Renant
Brignon.....Charles Dullin Paulo, the car thief.....Robert Dalban
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.