Quai des Orfèvres (Quay of the Goldsmiths)
France (1947) Dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot
The harmony between the husband and wife team of composer and pianist Maurice Martineau (Bernard Blier) and vivacious singer Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair) is threatened when Jenny’s desire for fame and fortune leads her to flirt with well known impresarios and agents including the notoriously lascivious hunchbacked Georges Brignon (Charles Dullin). Maurice’s jealousy explodes upon learning this and, after having already threatened to kill Brignon, heads over to his house to do just that, only to find Brignon is already dead.
And so we have the setting for a great murder mystery – except Clouzot swipes the rug from under our feet early on by revealing the culprit Columbo style, leaving the remainder of the film to our prime suspects trying to cover their tracks in a bid to outsmart pugnacious Police Detective Antoine (Louis Jouvet). Although it isn’t that simple either and therein lies the delightful conceit of this film.
Making a return to movie making after the lifting of a life time ban for his 1943 film Le Corbeau (The Raven) – supposedly an anti-French pro-Nazi outing – Clouzot decided to adapt the novel Légitime défense by Stanislas-André Steeman. However the novel was out of print so, according to legend, he wrote two thirds of the script from memory before a copy sent by Steeman himself arrived, exploiting the vast deviations from the original story. Clouzot also cast his then beau Suzy Delair in the lead role of Jenny, and an ebullient presence she is too.
As the unflattering Piaf-esque vocals of Jenny seem to mesmerise audiences and agents alike while Maurice fumes jealously in the background, Jenny has some portrait photos taken by friend and neighbour Dora Monier (Simone Renant), who is in love with Jenny but everyone assumes it is Maurice she yearns for, meeting the lecherous Brignon when he shows up with his latest starlet for a photo shoot. Discovering a lie by Jenny about a meeting with Brignon Maurice arrives at the venue instead and threatens to kill Brignon if he goes near Jenny again.
Undeterred Jenny arranges to visit Brignon at his home under the pretence of visiting her sick grandmother which Maurice doesn’t believe but uses as an opportunity to act on his threat to Brignon. Both think they are smarter than their spouse and both benefit from Dora’s apparent unconditional help in ensuring their alibis are watertight. Antoine however is a lot smarter than all three of them combined.
Arguably much lighter in tone than most of Clouzot’s later and more celebrated works there are still many bold elements for its time that Hollywood wouldn’t have allowed then, such as the sight of pools of blood and a suicide attempt by cutting the wrists. Meanwhile the story seems to give everything away to the viewer so only Antoine is the one who is left to figure things out, but Clouzot won’t allow things to be that simple.
Suddenly, things that seemed inconsequential or innocuous before take on a new importance when they peak the detective’s interest. Thus we assume the role of detective too, being forced to recall what we see before and pay closer attention to what we see next, providing us with an immersive cinematic experience of a different kind.
The story admittedly takes a little too long to get going, focusing too long on Jenny’s supposed ascension in the night club world than developing the plot but once it kicks in, there is no turning back. There is no denying that some gaping holes exist which threaten to undermine the entire story but chances are some people may have missed this.
It just as well to be ignored though as watching the various lies and deceits unravel and collapse before our eyes at the hands of the gruff veteran detective while the headless chicken couple of Maurice and Jenny trip over themselves to maintain their innocence makes for some riveting viewing, heavy with increasing anticipation as one twist after another is thrown onto the fire.
Amidst this, the seemingly emotionless Antoine shows he true nature by dropping everything for his adopted son, a coloured child who is struggling to fit in. There is also a concurrent subplot involving a robber who is responsible for the death of one of Antoine’s colleagues which initially means nothing until a tenuous connection to the Brignon case arises.
Clouzot is clearly interested in showing police procedure through Antoine’s relentless one man crusade to find the killer as he is the effects on the suspects. It should sound dull, but the taut, rapid fire script and believable performances of the cast ensure this is anything but. The glossy veneer and smouldering noir set ups courtesy of the sumptuous photography along with the intrusive sound track gives this a Hollywood feel at times but there is an earthiness present that quickly dispels such comparison, becoming a progressively darker experience as the film goes own.
Much of the levity of the first act (a pot is shown boiling over at the same time Jenny shows off a sexy Basque to Maurice) is replaced by the panic of the net closing in around the subjugated couple, resulting in acts of stark desperation which are handled with chilling reality.
Quai des Orfèvres was Clouzot’s third film and as we know, his best was yet to come. It may not be as unnerving as Les Diaboliques or as tense as Wages Of Fear but the portent of these future classics is very much palpable in this intelligent deconstruction of a flawed web of deception.