Brooding, beautifully made and almost impossible for Americans to see (or, for that matter, to correctly pronounce), Henri-Georges Clouzot's knockout 1947 film noir "Quai des Orfevres," makes a triumphant reappearance on theatrical screens after an absence of about 50 years.
Originally released in the U.S. as "Jenny Lamour," "Quai" returns with the soul-destroying shadows of its vintage Paris ambience so crisply restored in 35 millimeter by France's StudioCanal that you can almost smell the cigarette smoke drifting over rain-drenched streets.
Distributor Rialto Pictures, previously responsible for such reissued gems as "Rififi" and "Pepe le Moko," has once again seen to it that the film's slangy dialogue is accurately translated by Lenny Borger, who also did the first-time-ever subtitling of the lyrics that make this one of the few noir films with musical interludes.
"Quai des Orfevres" is also notable for the care it took with production design, re-creating not only the long-gone world of French music halls, where animal acts shared the stage with singers, but also the cramped, unhappy atmosphere of the Paris police's Criminal Investigations Division. That institution is housed in a building on the city's Quai des Orfevres, making the address of the film's title the French equivalent of Scotland Yard.
What gives life to all this careful filmmaking is the corrosive sensibility of co-writer-director Clouzot, best-known in this country for "The Wages of Fear" and the Hitchcockian "Diabolique." But Clouzot also did 1943's "Le Corbeau," a savage dissection of the French character made during the German occupation that was so unsettling that the director was blacklisted for four years.
"Quai des Orfevres," the film that ended his enforced idleness, partakes of Clouzot's characteristically misanthropic view of human nature, a cynical insistence that individuals are pawns in God's cruel jest that is so strong that not even the film's denouement can completely dissipate it.
Clouzot starred mistress Suzy Delair as the Jenny Lamour of the American title, the stage name of an aspiring singer named Jenny Martineau. Jenny has a way with a tune, but she's also a world-class flirt, something that infuriates her jealous sad sack of a husband, Maurice (Bernard Blier, father of director Bertrand Blier).
Although she loves Maurice, Jenny is not above playing with fire in the person of a hunchbacked roue of a movie producer named Brignon. He's a desiccated and dissipated creature, pure Clouzot in his leering lust and accurately described by film historian David Shipman as "the dirtiest old man on celluloid."
"Quai" couldn't be a full-fledged film noir without a corpse, and when someone shows up dead, things start to get complicated for Jenny, Maurice and their best friend, Dora (Simone Renant). She's a lesbian photographer with a habit of wearing elegant clothes with her name on them in big letters (there's a fashion trend waiting to be reborn) who has a terrible crush on our Jenny.
None of these people, as it turns out, is as clever as they think they are. That distinction belongs to Detective-Lieutenant Antoine, played by one of the great names of French theater and film, Louis Jouvet. Cranky, irascible, Columbo-rumpled despite his bow tie and plastered-down hair, the lieutenant is the kind of cop who's seen it all twice and has forgotten nothing.
But Jouvet's character also turns out to be a doting father who lives with his black teenage son, the only thing that remains, he says, from his days overseas in the French Foreign Legion. Filmmaker Clouzot, who won best director at Venice for this film, is incapable of making anyone or any situation standard, and that's a gift not even half a century on the shelf can tarnish.
'Quai des Orfevres'
Where: Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles
When: Daily, 5, 7:30 and 10 p.m.; plus, Saturday-Monday, noon and 2:30 p.m.
Price: $6.75 to $9.25
Contact: (310) 478-6379
Running time: One hour, 43 minutes