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QUAI DES ORFEVRES

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Louis Jouvet, Suzy Delair, Bernard Blier, Simone Renant, Charles Dullin
Director:  Henri-Georges Clouzot
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Television interviews, trailer, poster gallery
Length:  106 Minutes
Release Date:  May 27, 2003

“You expect a good case…”

“…and it all boils down to the usual:  diddley-squat.”

Film ***1/2

My first experience with Henri-Georges Clouzot began inauspiciously…being bored one night, I rented a copy of the Criterion DVD of Diabolique.  The description on the box sounded interesting, and it was a Criterion disc, so I took a chance.  It turned out to be the most suspenseful film I’ve ever seen, with a nerve-wracking climax that had me just about pulling hair from my head!

Alfred Hitchcock may be cinema’s master of suspense, but I personally think Clouzot could go the distance with him.  I later saw Wages of Fear, where four men drove two trucks filled with nitroglycerin across some of South America’s most unforgiving terrain and nearly went out of my mind for the duration of the film’s running time.  I knew I had to see more. 

Now, Criterion has released a third Clouzot film to disc.  Quai des Orfevres is a 1947 bit of noir about a murder and a police investigation.  And interestingly enough, we know early on who did the murder, so there is no whodunit mystery to follow.  The film instead rests on the process of following the clues, where perfect alibis collapse, where carefully constructed lies come apart, and where an innocent man begins to crack under the pressure.  In other words, if you think suspense can’t be created in a film where you know who’s guilty and who isn’t, think again.

The movie begins with a theatrical married couple having some problems.  Maurice (Blier) is a piano accompanist married to sexy but dim showgirl Jenny Lamour (Delair).  She loves her husband, but is spirited and flirtatious by nature, and Maurice is constantly suspicious and jealous.

When a hunchbacked perverted movie producer named Brignon (Dullin) takes an interest in Jenny, she doesn’t see any harm.  But when Maurice learns she has agreed to meet him at his home after he has forbidden her to, he flies into a rage.  He plans a murder, right down to carving out a perfect alibi for himself.

The problem?  When he gets to Brignon’s house…he’s already dead.  Jenny resisted his unwelcome advances with a bottle to the head.  Begging her photographer friend Dora (Renant) to keep it a secret, Dora (who’s actually in love with Jenny herself), agrees to return to the murder scene to clean up a few fingerprints and to retrieve Jenny’s fur stole.

Enter Detective Lieutenant Antoine (Jouvet), who has a murder on his hands and three people with alibis who all visited the crime scene.  The most likely suspect is Maurice, who threatened to kill Brignon in public once before and who had the best motivation:  a crime of passion.  However, we know Maurice didn’t do it.  Yet when his alibi starts to unravel, and because of the coincidental theft of his car that night, Maurice may find that innocence isn’t shield enough!

Compared to the two later Clouzot films I mentioned, Quai des Orfevres has a less sinister tone.  It’s filled with characters that the director has both sympathy and empathy for.  While he may have had empathy for the scheming women in Diabolique or the drivers who place a dollar value on their lives in Wages of Fear, there isn’t sympathy, for these are characters who clearly chose their own destinies.  Poor Maurice tried to choose, but found fate had other plans for him.  All characters have moments that draw us to them…even the rugged detective, who worries about his young son in the midst of all the chaos around.  There are even moments of comedy and sexiness that help contain the tension a bit.  Clouzot was a few years away from when he would allow his audiences no reprieve from the suspense.

The only real complaint here is that Clouzot kept an ace up his sleeve until the final call.  It turns out we didn’t know everything we thought we knew.  Perhaps it’s good that the characters were handed a somewhat happy ending that they couldn’t find on their own, but modern filmgoers will have to call it for what it is…a major league deus ex machina.

Still, I can’t quibble too much.  The film is marvelously constructed, with terrific camera work and editing that give it Clouzot’s typical sense of pent-up energy and tight pacing.  And the story unfolds well up to a point where to keep it going in the same direction might have seemed cruel…but then again, Clouzot had that deliciously wicked sense of cruelty in other pictures.

His cast is terrific, from noted character actor Louis Jouvet as Antoine to the superb Bernard Blier as the pitifully hapless Maurice.  Both leading ladies Suzy Delair and Simone Renant bring vim and energy to their roles…not to mention quite a bit of radiant sex appeal.

Quai des Orfevres is terrific early entertainment from the only director I’ve ever experienced capable of out-Hitchcocking Hitchcock.  First time views of Clouzot will enjoy this work in and of itself, and then be more than ready for his more brash and relentless later pictures.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Quai des Orfevres is roughly the French equivalent to Scotland Yard.

Video ***

Criterion is the studio I trust most for care and presentation of classic films, and they’ve done well again with a crisp and detailed black and white transfer for this 1947 French film.  Images are sharp and well defined, and the palate renders all tones from deep blacks to pure whites with integrity.  The print itself is in good condition, with only minimal instances of specs or dinginess noticeable here and there…well within acceptable limits for a film this old.

Audio **1/2

The mono soundtrack is in agreeable condition.  Though in French, dialogue seems rendered well enough, and that’s the main attraction.  Apart from a couple of songs, musical cues are minimal (save for the crucial ringing of the Christmas bells near the finale, which adds a little punch).  There is some slight unavoidable background noise noticeable only in the quietest scenes, but again, well within acceptable limits.  Unspectacular by nature, but still nicely done.

Features **

The main feature is a 1971 French television program Au Cinema ce soir, which discusses Quai des Orfevres with Clouzot and his three main actors, Blier, Delair and Renant.  It’s an interesting look back at the film, with the actors sharing a fascinating story or two about the director who earned a reputation for being brutal with his casts!  Rounding out are a poster gallery and an original trailer.  I also have to point out that the still shot Criterion selected for the main menu screen is brilliant, and the playing of Suzy Delair singing “Dance With Me” is a welcome touch!

Summary:

After the likes of Luis Bunuel, Powell and Pressburger, Akira Kurosawa and others, Henri-Georges Clouzot is joining the ranks of important directors whose works are being preserved on DVD for modern audiences by The Criterion Collection.  Quai des Orfevres is a terrific and welcome addition to their blossoming Clouzot library.  If you’ve never experienced his films before, this is a good starting point.  Then quickly add Diabolique and Wages of Fear to your library for a trio of suspense masterpieces that you’ll not only want to experience again yourselves, but introduce your friends to as well.