Quai des Orfèvres (1947)
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
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French director Henri-Georges Clouzot -- who sometimes signed his films "H.G. Clouzot" in the tradition of D.W. Griffith and F.W. Murnau -- is best known for his two mid-'50s thrillers, Diabolique and The Wages of Fear.
Even though those superbly crafted movies had worldwide success, they're part of an unappreciated genre; as a result, Clouzot has been wrongly excluded from list of the century's great French directors.
But the current re-release Quai des Orfèvres from 1947 should right that wrong. Though it deals with crime and suspense, Quai des Orfèvres -- the title is more or less the same as "Scotland Yard" -- is less self-consciously thrilling than its successors. It's more about humans than thrills. (If we were talking Keanu Reeves movies, Quai des Orfèvres is to River's Edge as The Wages of Fear is to Speed.)
Quai des Orfèvres concerns a married couple: Maurice is a composer (Bernard Blier) for the theater, and his wife is a flirty actress stage-named "Jenny Lamour" (Suzy Delair) with a yen for advancement.
Early in the film, Jenny visits a blond photographer friend, Dora (Simone Renant), for some new publicity photos. While there, a sleazy movie financier (Charles Dullin) turns up, hiring the photographer to shoot some nudie pics for him. In the waiting room, he comes on to Jenny and invites her to his home to discuss her career.
Unfortunately, by the end of the night, the financier will turn up dead, and the three remaining characters will be suspects. They all look guilty; the jealous Maurice actually goes to the financier's home with the intention to kill his wife, whom he suspected of having an affair.
Jenny brains the financier with a fire poker to ward off his advances, and Dora -- a lesbian madly in love with Jenny -- goes later to retrieve the actress' forgotten wrap and to wipe away any fingerprints.
Clouzot really turns on the pressure, showing Maurice on the night of the crime trying feverishly to set up his own alibi.
Enter Detective Lieutenant Antoine (Louis Jouvet), a laid-back flatfoot. Antoine has his own spotty past; he has a mulatto son from his days spent in the colonies, and his detective work is half-baked and sleepy. He asks questions while complaining that he wants to go home.
But he sure gets the job done.
Poor Maurice sweats the pressure the worst, while the two women remain cool as cucumber salad.
But we actually become most interested in Antoine. His odd personality and his unusual outlook on life make him different from most jaded movie detectives, and he ends up commanding the film.
Yet the other characters don't fade away. Post-crime, with things newly in perspective, Maurice and Jenny try to reconcile their rocky marriage, while beautiful Dora pines away unrequited for Jenny.
For once, the character flaws are genuine human foibles instead of a screenwriter's idea of easily solved psychoses. These twitchy characters are pleasingly three-dimensional.
To risk using an advertiser's cliché, Quai des Orfèvres has something for everyone. Now that it has finally received its first proper release in the United States, it can claim a spot on the list of the 10 best pictures of 1947 along with: Monsieur Verdoux, Out of the Past, Black Narcissus, Pursued, T-Men, Nightmare Alley, John Ford's The Fugitive, Germany Year Zero and Miracle on 34th Street.