Review: A va-va-voom flirt and a deliciously amoral world in the restored French noir ‘Quai des Orfèvres’
Brooding, beautifully made and drenched in atmosphere, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s knockout 1947 crime thriller/film noir “Quai des Orfèvres” is back in town.
Originally released in the U.S. as “Jenny Lamour,” “Quai” returns in a new 4K restoration with the soul-destroying shadows of its vintage Paris ambience so crisply presented you can almost smell the sweat of its music hall numbers and the cigarette smoke drifting over rain-drenched streets.
Though it’s based on a crime novel, “Quai des Orfèvres” bears the unmistakable stamp of the corrosive sensibility of its director and co-writer Clouzot.
Best known in this country for the international hit “The Wages of Fear” starring Yves Montand and the Hitchcockian “Diabolique,” Clouzot was in all honesty less interested in crime and punishment than in the psychology of human behavior, something he did not have the highest regard for.
In the deliciously amoral world of “Quai des Orfèvres,” everyone is hiding something from someone and no one so much as dreams of being on the level. When one of its protagonists says “life’s no fun, that’s for sure,” you can almost feel the director nodding in agreement.
‘Quai’ couldn’t be a full-fledged film noir without a corpse.
“Quai” is also notable for the almost neo-realistic care it took with production design. Working with designer Max Douy, Clouzot faultlessly re-created not one but two arenas for his story to unfold in.
First is the long-gone world of French music halls, a crowded, chaotic place where animal acts share the stage with singers and magicians. The wages are inevitably low but the camaraderie is strong.
There’s also the cramped, unhappy atmosphere of the Paris police’s Criminal Investigations Division, where the rooms are tiny, the journalists feisty and it’s hard to tell the thieves from the detectives.
That iconic institution turns out to be housed in a building on the city’s Quai des Orfèvres, making the address of the film’s title the French equivalent of Scotland Yard.
Blacklisted after the war because of the savage perspective of “Le Corbeau,” a film he made under the German occupation, Clouzot found a producer who agreed to work with him if his project was a commercial one. The director agreed, but “Quai des Orfèvres,” though it turned out to be a success, did not necessarily have commercial written all over it.
Clouzot starred his then-mistress Suzy Delair as the Jenny Lamour of the old American title, the stage name of an aspiring singer named Jenny Martineau.
A va-va-voom style of entertainer before it was a word, 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, her accompanist Maurice (Bernard Blier, father of director Bertrand).
Though she loves Maurice, Jenny is extremely ambitious and not above playing with fire in the person of a hunchbacked roué of a movie producer named Brignon, impeccably played by Charles Dullin.
Brignon is 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 truly complicated for Jenny, Maurice and their best friend Dora Monnier (Simone Renant).
The lieutenant is the kind of cop who’s seen it all twice and has forgotten nothing.
Dora is a stylish lesbian photographer with a habit of wearing elegant clothes featuring her name on them in big letters. She has a terrible crush on Jenny even though she is Maurice’s closest friend.
None of these people, as it turns out, is as clever as they think they are. That distinction belongs to Det. Lieutenant Antoine, played with great verve 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. When a suspect grouses, “I’ve spent two hours answering dumb questions,” Antoine shoots back “I’ve spent 10 years asking them, do I get upset?”
But Jouvet’s character also turns out to be a doting father who lives with his black pre-teen son, the only thing that remains, he says enigmatically, from his days overseas in the Foreign Legion.
Filmmaker Clouzot, who won the directing prize at Venice for this film, is incapable of making anyone or any situation standard, and that’s a gift this brand new digital version of “Quai des Orfèvres” only embellishes.
‘Quai des Orfèvres’
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles
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