J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Clouzot’s Quai des Orfevres

Inspector Antoine makes Inspector Maigret look cheerful and chipper. The former was born into mean circumstances and his police career always keeps him close to his rough-and-tumble roots. He is not exaggerating when he claims to often identify with the criminals he investigates, but he still plays a ruthless game of cat-and-mouse with his prey. The flirtatious music hall star Jenny Lamour and her nebbish music director husband will learn that the hard way in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s freshly restored classic Quai des Orfèvres, which opens this Friday at Film Forum.

Jenny Lamour is a hot number, but Maurice Martineau most certainly is not. He is prone to fits of jealousy, but it is always misplaced. Lamour is a flirt, not a cheater—or so she assures him. She is also sure she can handle a cad like Brignon. The movie producer-tabloid publisher is sort of like the Weinstein of his era. The old reprobate frequently brings over naïve starlest for scandalous photo sessions with Dora Monier, a friend and neighbor of Lamour and Martineau. It is shady work, but a single woman has to make a living, especially when she is a “confirmed bachelorette.”

Unfortunately, Martineau made some rather public threats to Brignon before he was inconveniently discovered murdered. Technically, Martineau is the first to find the body, but he keeps quiet, because he had constructed an elaborate alibi with the intention of killing Brignon himself. Somebody just beat him to it. Unbeknownst to him, both his wife and Monier also passed through the crime scene that night, so the Columbo-like Antoine should be able to ferret plenty of inconsistencies in their stories to pester them with.

Quai is a film with a lot of sly noir details, but it is reportedly quite different from Stanislas-André Steeman’s source novel, because in those pre-internet days, screenwriter Jean Ferry did not have a copy handy, so he just adapted it from memory—so the story goes. Regardless, one of them must have had a solid familiarity with the backstage workings of music halls and the Quai des Orfèvres (the French national police known by their former address, 36 Quai des Orfèvres).

Either way, Quai becomes deliciously fun when Antoine ruthlessly sets his sights on Martineau, albeit in an almost sadistic kind of way. Celebrated theater actor Louis Jouvet is absolutely terrific as Inspector Antoine, who looks like a wisp of nothing, but displays guts of steel and the cunning of a fox. As Lamour and Martineau, Suzy Delair and Bernard Blier look like a horribly mismatched movie odd couple, yet we believe they have that weird sort of bickering chemistry that keeps them together. Simone Renant is wonderfully sad and sophisticated as Monier, while Charles Dullin is spectacularly sleazy as Brignon.

Like many of Clouzot’s great films, Quai basically plays us, but we never resent getting played. Entertainingly dark and cynical, it is a perfect example of the suspense auteur’s competitive advantage for film noir. Very highly recommended, Quai des Orfèvres opens this Friday (4/13) in New York, at Film Forum.

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