Henri-Georges Clouzot surely possesses the darkest heart and most cynical outlook of French crime filmmakers. Sure, Quai des Orfevres (France, 1947) looks downright hopeful next to the poisoned pen misanthropy of Le corbeau (1943) or the icy calculation of Diabolique (1955). But put it next to the doomed tragedies and gangster dramas of the era and Clouzot’s mercenary world of lies, greed, jealousy, and corruption offers a bleak portrait of postwar France.
Quai des Orfevres is ostensibly a murder mystery but our detective, the top-billed Louis Jouvet as the fussy Inspector Antoine, doesn’t appear until well into the film, long after the murder of a lecherous old man who produces his own pornography.
By then the identity of the killer is far less interesting than the crisscrossing shenanigans and web of secrets between shamelessly flirtatious singer Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair), her dull, jealous husband Maurice (Bernard Blier in hangdog patsy mode), and the doting photographer downstairs (Simone Renant) who is, by her own admission, “a funny kind of girl.” All three points of this unspoken romantic triangle have motive and opportunity and trample through the crime scene before the cops are on the case, but they also instinctively protect one another as Antoine picks apart haphazard stories and flimsy alibis.
Freely adapted from the novel “Legitime Defense” by Stanislas-André Steeman, Quai de Orfevres contorts itself to insist that Jenny isn’t really a bad girl, she just acts like one. Delair doesn’t really sell the contradiction but Blier is perfect as Maurice, who could be noir’s eternal patsy if not for the uncharacteristic benevolence of Clouzot.
Love may conquer all but the optimism feels like a compromise on Clouzot’s part; it was his first film since the savage Le corbeau and the director, who had been blacklisted since the liberation, needed a success. He got it: a commercial hit and a critical triumph.
It won the best director award at the Venice Film Festival.
In black and white, in French with English subtitles
Quai de Orfevres features commentary by film critic Nick Pinkerton and a 1971 episode of the French TV show “Au cinema ce soir” featuring director Henri-Georges Clouzot and actors Bernard Blier, Suzy Delair, and Simone Renant discussing the film.