Quai des orfèvres (France, 1947)

Unusually obvious lesbian character for the time

As Jeremy Carr’s excellent article suggests: “Quai des Orfèvres is an appeasing palate cleanser, an amusing diversion, still within the confines of social realism but generally free from a climate of widely-ravaged despair.” The despair refers to the world of Le corbeau (Clouzot’s previous film) and post-war France. Despite this characters are often wrapped in coats even when they are inside and although it is generally light-hearted there is much heartache as go-getting, in the world of Music Hall, Jenny (Suzy Delair) worries husband Maurice (Bernard Blier) about her fidelity. Their friend Dora (Simone Renant) looks over the couple benignly but obviously holds a flame for Jenny; as she says, ‘I am a woman of strange loves’. The machinations of the plot lead to murder and then Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet) arrives on the scene along with the police procedural genre.

As in Le courbet there is much comic dialogue; I particularly like the Inspector’s: “If you were murdered then you would be pleased the cops were around.” There is also Hitchcockian humour such as when he lights his pipe with vital evidence and the band rehearse vibrant gipsy music in the background as Jenny and Maurice argue. During the 1950s Clouzot and Hitchcock were rivals for the sobriquet ‘master of suspense’ and the latter made Vertigo, based on a French novel, as a counterblast to the former’s Les diaboliques (1955).

Clouzot wrote the Quai des Orfèvres, based on Stanislas-André Steeman’s novel, with Jean Ferry but gets sole credit for dialogue which is often in excess of narrative requirements. It’s not only often funny but elaborates on character; we learn that Antoine has a mixed race child he fathered when in the Foreign Legion and for whom he is the sole carer. There a few touching scenes between the two, touching because it is unusual to see a male single-parent in such a loving relationship. The fact that the child is ‘black’ shows Clouzot’s progressiveness as does the sympathetic portrayal of Dora; an antidote to his working for the Nazis (see Le corbeau)? I wondered, on the basis of Le corbeau, whether he might be a misanthrope: the answer’s clearly ‘no’ in this film.

Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue works in a similar way, though he was inspired by French New films such as Shoot the Pianist (Tirez sur le pianiste, 1960), however he doesn’t know when to stop and his witty dialogue (for me) palls quickly.

Clouzot won Best Director honours at the 1947 Venice Film Festival and he shows himself as a skilful manipulator of large to small groups of people. He choreographs their movements beautifully, reminding me of Jean Renoir; praise doesn’t get any higher.

Apparently the iconoclasts of Cahiers du cinema didn’t like his films, which is surprising given he wrote as well as directed. I can’t judge on what I’ve seen whether he qualifies as an auteur or not, however the dialogue, at least, is distinctive and there is certainly a Gothic undertone to his mise en scene. Maybe as the Cahiers critics were railing against French cinema there was no room for Clouzot in the polemic? Or maybe his association with the Nazis was the issue. The title, by the way, refers to the address of the main police station in Paris though that doesn’t sum up what the film is about.

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