During the course of a conversation in the crime drama Quai des Orfèvres (1947) between the photographer Dora Monier (Simone Renant) and the investigator Antoine (Louis Jouvet), he discourses upon how the demarcation between the law and the lawless often becomes altogether tenuous. Antoine remarks that during his career he has learned certain practical skills from those who used them to abrogate legal sanctions: accounting from embezzlers, for example. Antoine continues that the technical complexities of Dora’s profession were introduced to him by a poisoner named Barnivel, who happened to photograph his victims, which included his wife, two daughters and brother-in-law, on their deathbeds.
This passing comment illustrates, albeit in a black comic mode, how porous the supposed separation of the tame and the tawdry can be, and, furthermore, that familiarity can breed not so much contempt as companionship. Such a set of paradoxes seems virtually inbreed to the procedural narrative, as some identification between the pursuer and the pursued emerges in the course of each and every investigation. The erasure of supposedly indelible moral precincts colours the whole of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s body of work. Virtually each and every one of his films is imbued with a vaporous atmosphere of inalienable ambiguity that lingers even in the most banal of details. Think of how he conveys a remarkably fetid evocation of the human condition through the image of an un-cleaned pool in Les Diaboliques (1955). One might arguably speculate that this cynical predilection is endemic to the Gallic consciousness, and yet Clouzot comes across as particularly sour-minded. David Thomson characterises him as in possession of “a consistent vision that is more jaundiced than any other in the French cinema”, and adds that his environment “disintegrates through mistrust, alienation, and a wilful selfishness that’s like an illness” (1).
However, Quai des Orfèvres seems somehow to exhibit a failure to fully enact these impulses. Superficially, the film is imbued with Clouzot’s particular brand of jaundice, yet that remains tempered, though not fatally, by a pervasive interrogation of the bonds of community, both those established by familial associations as well as those institutionalised in a common professional milieu. Murder, mendaciousness and mean-spiritedness might pervade the narrative, but what remains in the viewer’s mind at the final credits is a world tenuously yet irrevocably bound up in mutuality and emotional dedication. Quai des Orfèvres may not be a sentimental film, yet certain sentiments supersede the proclivity for corrosion that has become attached in the public’s mind to Clouzot’s career.
Superficially, Quai des Orfèvres (named for the location of the police department) might be thought of as a backstage musical with a murderous subplot. Its depiction of life behind the show curtain conjures up the mood of certain pre-code American musicals, particularly Warner Bros.’ Gold Diggers series. The plot’s victim, Brignon (Charles Dullin), might well be played by Guy Kibbee in an American remake, even if the results would invariably soft-pedal the character’s repellent lasciviousness; Brignon’s hunched-over figure comes across as though weighed down by his lust for under-aged women. Clouzot does not sugar-coat the rundown precincts where his female protagonist Marguerite Martineau, aka Jenny L’Amour (Suzy Delair) plies her saucy trade nor does the film cover up how her chronically suspicious husband, Maurice (Bernard Blier), has traded in a conservatory degree and an upper-class pedigree for her affections. Neither does the worn-out appearance and gape-mouthed adoration of her audience do much to impress the viewer that the rewards of this profession balance out the denial of any effort on the performers’ part at subtlety or sophistication.
However, over the course of the concatenated plot, the murder and subsequent investigation take an emotional backseat to the undeniable bond between Jenny and Maurice as well as the unspoken attachment to the singer by their downstairs neighbour and childhood friend of Maurice, Dora. Clouzot deftly and delicately indicates how fervent that devotion is without regressing to any clichés of the period regarding lesbians. That clear-minded attention to emotional detail carries over into the home life of Antoine. One of the most memorable details in the narrative must be his mixed-race young son. The policeman indicates how he served in the Foreign Legion in Africa as a young man and brought back with him this boy and a case of malaria. His dedication as a single parent is conveyed in their brief scenes together; a gesture as potentially maudlin as Antoine’s covering up the sleeping adolescent reinforces their attachment. At the same time, Clouzot does not magnify the mood, as it comes across that the boy is only of average intelligence and Antoine fears for his future in a demanding work environment.
The bulk of the narrative does not, however, attend to the domestic, as the nuts and bolts of the criminal investigation dominate the action. One wonders if Clouzot had seen the Louis de Rochement-produced semi-documentary features that integrated their procedural plots in real-life settings, such as The House on 92nd Street (Henry Hathaway, 1945). Like those films, he vividly conveys the bureaucratic procedures of investigation as well as the institutional dullness of the police station offices. At the same time, Clouzot does little to elevate either into the kind of almost mythic arena for moral and philosophical jousting that one finds in the work of his contemporary Jean-Pierre Melville. If anything, Clouzot succeeds in embedding his characters in the undeniably mundane. The case under consideration lacks much of any resonance, for as an elderly reporter ensconced in the hallways awaiting a headline admits, compared to other renowned investigations he has covered in the past, this one amounts to diddly-squat. The actual killer of Brignon turns out to be a minor character, and Antoine is forced to admit he was misled by the interpersonal machinations of his show-biz suspects. The solution arrives through accident rather than assiduous deduction.
Quai des Orfèvres encompasses, therefore, very little of the harrowing disassembly of a morally and psychologically unhinged universe typical of Clouzot’s work, as was the case in Les Diaboliques or its predecessor, the acidic treatment of small-town treachery Le Corbeau (1943). Perhaps, Clouzot, for the moment, drew back his jaundice in order to mollify those elements that forced him out of circulation for almost five years, in punishment for the insult to national pride embodied by that earlier film. Instead, we find ourselves re-installed in a grubby but nonetheless gratifying universe in the final moments of Quai des Orfèvres, where one survives the throes of daily life armed with the virtues of domestic custom and familial bonds.
- David Thomson. The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 5th ed., Little Brown, London, 2011, p. 184.
Quai des Orfèvres (1947 France 102 mins)
Prod Co: Majestic Films Prod: Roger de Venloo, Louis Wipf Dir: Henri-Georges Clouzot Scr: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jean Ferry, adapted from the novel Légitime défense by Stanislas André Steeman Phot: Armand Thirard Ed: Charles Bretoneiche Prod Des: Max Douy Mus: Francis Lopez
Cast: Louis Jouvet, Simone Renant, Bernard Blier, Suzy Delair, Charles Dullin, Henri Arius