Bernard Blier, Suzy Delair, Louis Jouvet, and Simone Renant in Quai des Orfèvres (1947)


(director/writer: Henri-Georges Clouzot; screenwriter: Jean Ferry/based on the book “Legitime Defense” by Stanislas-André Steeman; cinematographer: Armand Thirard; editor: Charles Bretoneiche; music: Francis Lopez; cast: Louis Jouvet (Inspector Antoine), Simone Renant (Dora Monier), Bernard Blier (Maurice Martineau), Suzy Delair (Jenny Lamour), Jean Daurand (Detective Picard), Pierre Larquey (Emile Lafour, cab driver), Robert Dalban (Paulo, Car Thief), Charles Dullon (Georges Brignon), René Blancard (Police Commissioner); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Roger De Venloo; Janus Films/Criterion; 1947-France, in French with English subtitles)

“One of the great film noirs. It reaches the heart.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Henri-Georges Clouzot in this very satisfying early film from his opus, before he became noted for his darker 1953 “The Wages of Fear” and his 1954 “Diabolique,” directed this more traditional police thriller. Known as the French Hitchcock, it must be said that this work stands second to no one else’s and shows Clouzot to be capable of mastering the lighter touches of a thriller. The ordinary crime story could have sunk with far too many coincidences and an unlikely last minute confession if it weren’t for all the emotions generated by the main characters that were more interesting than the whodunit story. All the main characters had strong points and vulnerabilities. The viewer couldn’t help but to be drawn into their problematic situations.

Clouzot had a reputation as a very demanding director, who bullied his actors and was filled with hubris. But he was a truly remarkable filmmaker, whose distinct films manifested subtleties and life’s quirkiness and a voice for the human condition.

Quai des Orfevres returns after over 50 years on the shelf restored in 35 millimeter by France’s StudioCanal, and the DVD version has been given new readable subtitles and crystal clear B/W visuals. It is something the people at Criterion should be proud of putting out. Clouzot has re-created the nostalgia from the shaded atmosphere of post-war Paris and its long gone smoke-filled French music halls, food shortages, menacing darkly lit streets, squalid apartments, and cramped police stations. The title refers to Paris police’s Criminal Investigations Division, a police station that is the key one in Paris for handling homicides (a pale imitation of Scotland Yard). Jean Ferry co-wrote the script with Clouzot, and was inspired by Belgian pulp novelist Stanislas-André Steeman’s 1942 “Legitime Defense.” It was originally released in America as “Jenny Lamour.”

Marguerite is the ambitious daughter of a laborer who changed her name for showbiz to Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair, the mistress and muse of the director). She’s a music hall chanteuse married to her jealous piano-accompanist Maurice (Bernard Blier, the father of director Bertrand Blier). Maurice had a promising future in the conservatoire, but threw it all away for her. They are opposites with him being tormented, brooding and gloomy, while she’s a ball of fire and loves using her seductive powers on men to get ahead. Dora Monier (Renant) is an attractive blonde and downstair’s neighbor, who stylishly wears elegant dresses with her name written on it. The seductive Jenny, whose many affairs before marriage and her present flirtatious demeanor irks her hubby, is herself jealous of Dora’s close but platonic relationship with her husband. Jenny never realizes that the chic Dora is a lesbian and has an unmentioned crush on her. Jenny loves Maurice in her own way, as he gives her the support and comfort she can’t live without. But more than anything else, she’s driven to succeed because memories of her poor childhood still haunt her.

In Jenny’s music hall routine she shakes her ass and loudly sings “Avec Son Tra-la-la,” to an appreciative audience looking for middle-brow entertainment. While taking photos for a magazine at Dora’s, Jenny meets a lecherous hunchbacked old rich man named Georges Brignon (Dullon). He has come to take a pornographic photo of an aspiring actress. But upon meeting Jenny as she was leaving, he lures her with an offer of a movie deal. Dora tells the displeased Maurice, who breaks up the restaurant meeting and threatens to kill Brignon in full earshot of the restaurant staff if he doesn’t stay away from his wife. This does not deter the determined to get ahead at any cost Jenny, as she lies to hubby by telling him she is visiting her sick grandmother. Instead she meets with producer Brignon in his house. When Brignon tries to seduce her, she angrily fights off his advances by conking him on the noggin with a champagne bottle. She runs out leaving her fur coat, thinking she killed him. Rushing back to Dora, she tells what happened and is surprised that Dora agrees not to tell Maurice and furthermore taxied to Brignon’s to retrieve the coat and wipe off the fingerprints. What the women were not aware of, was that Maurice knew about the secret meeting and showed up at Brignon’s. He arrived finding Brignon dead on the floor, but when he went to get his parked car it was stolen. Maurice’s alibi was that he was at the Eden Club during the murder, as he left after the opening act by slipping out of a backstage exit and returned before closing time the same way.

When crusty veteran Detective-Lieutenant Antoine (Louis Jouvet) is put in charge of the murder investigation, the film really starts humming. He’s wonderfully gruff, as a grouch and persistent questioner. He’s a Maigret-like cop, who stumbles on clues through his dogged line of questioning. He has all the film’s best lines. I liked the one where he tells the attractive suspect: “Shake my left hand, it is nearer to my heart.” The detective is also a doting single father to a teenage mulatto son, a result from his stay in the colonies during his French Foreign Legion colonial war days.

Detective Antoine brings the three suspects in for questioning on Christmas Eve, and this gives Clouzot a chance to examine a long list of characters who frequent the nightlife of post-war Paris from the cynical cops to the hungry for a story reporters to the brazen criminals and prostitutes who are not flustered by an arrest.

The film was engulfed with tragic moments, but while it seems to be put off with the same old tired world it at the same time warmly embraces. This is one of the great film noirs. It reaches the heart. Also, cinematographer Armand Thirard’s shadowy chiaroscuro tones contrast the sympathetic feelings Clouzot had for the characters.

In the film’s most memorable line, Antoine acknowledges why Dora has risked so much for Jenny by stating: “You and I are two of a kind—we’ll never get lucky with women.”