Fired by passion for 85 years

Special to The Times

From her apartment in the 17th arrondissement, the spiffy neighborhood flanking the northern periphery of Paris, Suzy Delair answers her phone in a lively voice.

"Welcome to Paris!" she says in her native tongue, and laughs. It is the joyous, well-disposed laugh of a woman who seduces with ease, but also that of someone who has done a lot of living, has known a lot of people, and has grown all the more generous for it.

The former French comedian and onetime vaudeville star turned 85 on New Year's Eve. This week, though, she is her youthful self on screen at the Nuart as the foxy, bewitching Jenny Lamour, the protagonist of "Quai des Orfevres." The 1947 film noir classic has been restored and brought back for a second spin in theaters more than half a century after its initial release date, and despite a conventional plot inspired by a police procedural, its raw ingredients--sex, tears, filth, wit and redemption -- still pack a punch.

"Quai" was the sixth film directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, France's maestro of the thriller genre. It was also his third starring Delair, a muse and lover for 12 years.

In a recent phone interview, the retired actress does not hide her enthusiasm for the picture. "It is a great film. For me, it is flawless. Clouzot pulled it off marvelously. The small parts, like the important parts, are all well acted. Working on it was like having a great love affair."

Set in recently liberated Paris, the film was shot on location in the winter of 1947. Realistic touches convey a locale sallow in appearance but boisterous in spirit. It is not the pastel Paris of cinematic cliches, but rather the mecca Henry Miller famously saw sprouting "like an organ diseased in every part," throbbing with life. The city's postwar weariness is rendered palpable, the scent of throngs hungry for spectacle.

Great small characters populate the movie -- pretty cigarette vendors, music-hall girls hoping to make the cancan line, merchants rattling their wares in the street. Prostitutes, fiends, mangy journalists and cops rub elbows in the bowels of the film's titular establishment, where the city's Judiciary Police Department is quartered to this day.

At the center of it all, like a sum total of the film's ethos, is Delair's Jenny Lamour. She may be the stock film-noir vaudeville singer who gets mixed up in a nasty murder, but she is also a working-class heroine with a fearsome temper and a will to match.

The parallels between Delair and her character would have been apparent to those who knew the temperamental singer-turned-actress in real life: "I suppose I've always been the kind of person you might call difficult. They'd all say, 'Oh, her! She's so difficult!' But I'm not. I am sincere. I love the truth. And I am not tactful, though I wish I was. It would have been much better for me. Sometimes what I say rattles people, but I love to get to the bottom of it all, always."

Her character in the film is equally unapologetic. Perpetually wrapped in furs, with a Minnie Mouse face at once sweet and sexy, Delair's Jenny is the eternal Parisian coquette. But she's also tough: She protects her irascible husband, whom she loves even as, or maybe because, he torments her with jealous reproaches for cultivating the favors of powerful men.

It is precisely such a scheme designed to advance her career that lands Jenny in a jam and sends a pestering cop--played by French theater star Louis Jouvet -- on her tail.

In one of the film's most fabulous scenes, Jenny replies angrily when he accuses her of being an arriviste, a go-getter. "What is that supposed to mean?" she fumes with hands thrust deeply into the pockets of her backstage robe and Cupid-bow lips curled into a fierce pout. "I was born in the dead of winter in a two-room flat. Six of us lived there for 12 years. That's 12 years of the landlord yelling for rent, of lousy pork meat, of washing in the sink. Is wanting to leave that 'go-getting'?"

Her monologue cut close to the bone because, says Delair, similar realities permeated the production of the film. The shoot got off to a chilly start in early February. "The studios were not heated and it was cold --something terrible," Delair recalls today. She is greatly amused by the memory of her shivering in only a lace corset, stockings and a garter belt in several scenes. "One didn't mind it much, because there was such a wonderful ambience on the set."

Delair grew up in Montmartre, Paris' original bohemian neighborhood and current tourist trap, as the daughter of a dressmaker and an artisan father who made a living upholstering the interiors of luxury automobiles.

She studied singing at La Scala of Milan and starred in the operettas of Jacques Offenbach before landing movie parts. A passionate performer, she was capable of invoking an array of visceral emotions. Her extravagant trills as Jenny Lamour in one "Quai" scene prompt a toddler to sob hysterically in his mother's arms, a teen to lasciviously finger the wad of chewing gum in his mouth, and grown men to ogle with breathless adoration. "When this voluptuous slut sings," critic Pauline Kael once wrote about Jenny, "she may make you wonder if the higher things in life are worth the trouble." "Even before I was even born, I wanted to do this job," Delair says. "It came true, and along the way I had the fortune to meet Henri-Georges Clouzot, who became my companion." The two met when Delair was doing a cabaret show in Montmartre and Clouzot, an assistant director at the time, sauntered in looking to fill a part. "He came, he saw me, he told me, 'The part I had in mind is not right for you, but I'd like to have a drink and get to know you anyway.'

"And then it lasted 12 years," she adds in a deadpan tone.

Clouzot, she says, was not only a great director -- "He knew how to do everything! He had done editing, had ghostwritten scripts, had done cinematography, he was a great dialogist. He was formidable, a complete artist!" -- but also an erudite lover who taught her a lot about music, filmmaking and life.

She chalks up her success -- her career lasted several decades -- to being a rebel, someone who refused to fit expectations and readily dropped acting when she no longer felt passionate about it. "I have always lived passionately. I am an enthusiast, and when I like something, I give myself wholeheartedly to it. I fall in love with a bird that sings, with a little flower that blooms. They just delight me -- everything that is beautiful does."

She spent much of her life in the company of talented and often famous friends, like silent film siren Lillian Gish, dramatist Noel Coward and couturier Hubert de Givenchy. "I knew important people, you see. And I had the chance to be recognized by the great directors, great actors, great orchestra conductors, great composers."

Besides friends, these days the most likely diversions for Delair, who lives alone, are books or her favorite songs.

"I am mad about Barbra Streisand, for example. I adore her. And Frank Sinatra -- I was nuts about him."

She does see movies "and plays too -- if they are good. But in fact," she says, "I don't go out much these days. There are few things, in all honesty, which interest me these days."

Is French cinema one of them? "No, no!" she protests with a sonorous exclamation that dissolves into cascades of laughter. "These days, I'd rather keep a low profile."

To modern filmmaking she has "not awakened yet," she says. "There are sometimes things that surprise me; there are actors that I discover and fall in love with.

"But it's a style of working completely different than what I was accustomed to. One just didn't used to come up this way. It was a more rigorous craft.

"An actor was expected to be a complete artist, well-rounded in many disciplines."

At the end of the day, Delair's joie de vivre is as intact as that of the saucy and unforgettable Jenny Lamour in the final frames of "Quai des Orfevres."

"And why not? You see, everything happened during my lifetime. I lived well."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World