Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Clouzot for Christmas: Quai des Orfevres (1947)

Yes, Quai des Orfevres is a Christmas film.  Read to the end of the review!

Quai des Orfevres
the Inspector is on the case
French director Henri-Georges Clouzot (1907-1977) is a name that ideally should be familiar to all fans of classic mystery and suspense cinema.  In the Anglo-American world he was dubbed, helpfully or not, the French Hitchcock

As a film director Clouzot made a series of important contributions to the crime film genre, most famously Diabolique (Les diaboliques) (1955) and The Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur) (1957), but also, from earlier in his career, Quai des Orfevres (1947), The Raven (Le corbeau) (1943) and The Murderer Lives at Number 21 (L'assassin 21) (1942), and, from later in his career, Les epions (1957) and The Truth (La verite) (1960).  

Additionally, as a screenwriter, Clouzot wrote the screenplays for The Last One of the Six (Le dernier des six) (1941), directed by Georges Lacombe, and Strangers in the House (Les inconnus dans la maison) (1942), directed by Henri Decoin.  These latter two films were respectively based on novels by the French crime writers Stanislas- Andre Steeman and Georges Simenon.

Steeman's crime fiction been far overshadowed by the world famous Georges Simenon, which is  a shame because it is worthy in its own right and often offers more intricately plotted puzzles, for the purist puzzle fan.  (For more on Steeman's crime fiction, see this blog piece by Xavier Lechard.) The Last One of the Six was based on Steeman's 1931 crime novel Six hommes morts (Six Dead Men), one of his few titles that was contemporaneously published in English.  The novel was filmed again in France in 1964 and 1975 and earlier in England in 1935, under the title The Riverside Murder.

Jenny, Maurice and Dora: the three main suspects in Quai des Orfevres

Both Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Murderer Lives at Number 21 and Quai des Orfevres are based on Steeman novels.  Of Quai des Orfevres the liner notes for the DVD by Luc Sante state that Clouzot when writing the screenplay could not find a copy of the Steeman novel on which the film was to be based (Legitime defense, 1942), so he just went by memory, "leaving only faint traces of the original story" in the script. 

I can't address this point, having only ever been able to track down and read one translated Steeman novel (Six Dead Men, reviewed here), but I will say that I disagree with Sante when he declares that the crime plot is of little consequence in the film.

checking out an alibi
Quai des Orfevres--the title references 36, quai des Orfevres, the headquarters of the Paris criminal police--concerns a murder implicating three of the film's main characters: lush music hall singer Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair); her husband and pianist-accompanist, Maurice Martineau (Bernard Blier); and Jenny's childhood friend, austere blonde photographer Dora Monier (Simone Renant).

To advance her career Jenny has been spending some time playing up to a wealthy "dirty old man," businessman Georges Brignon, much to the fury of her hot-headed husband and the concern of her savvy friend Dora, who knows just what Brignon is about: S-E-X. 

Part of Dora's photography business is devoted to taking sexy "art"  pictures of the pretty girls whom Brignon brings to her--legal, but rather on the order, I gather, of some of the 1990s Melania Trump pix publicized in the press this year: Brignon likes the girls to wear only pumps.

checking out a suspect
Of course the sex fiend Brignon ends up dead and the investigation into his murder conducted by Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet) eventually pits him against Jenny, Maurice and Dora, who all happened to be at the scene of the crime on the fatal night, in classic mystery fashion. 

Maurice, in fact, had brought a gun with him to Brignon's mansion, planning to shoot the creep, but he found him already dead.

Having plotted a murder, Maurice had taken time to construct an alibi.  Will it hold up under the relentless scrutiny of Inspector Antoine?

Just friends? Dora at work
Sounds like a pretty plot-driven crime film, doesn't it?  But I certainly agree with Sante that there is a lot of additional interest in the film.  Clouzot brilliantly explores both the Parisian postwar musical theater and police milieus, weaving us an exceedingly rich and varied social fabric.  Not only issues of class but those of sex are dealt with, the latter in a refreshingly, well, frank, manner, in contrast with so many American and English films from the same period. 

Dora, for example, is a lesbian, passionately attracted, in her cool and reserved way--extreme discretion is necessitated by the era in which she lives--to Jenny.  This attraction is hinted all the way through the film and finally made sufficiently explicit in a terrific line directed to her by Inspector Antoine.

father and son
Speaking of the old copper, Louis Jouvet is simply wonderful as Inspector Antoine: what a spectacular detective series he could have given us!  He's very much a sleuthing incarnation that modern crime fiction fans will identify with: a gruff loner who can be very tough on people, but with a heart too. (Fascinatingly we learn he has custody of a young bi-racial son from a dalliance in the tropics, when he served overseas in the military, for whom he cares greatly.) Some of the debates in the film about the role of police in society will sound very familiar to modern ears.

And, yes, on top of all this splendor, Quai des Orfevres manages to be a Christmas film! 

The climax of the movie takes place on Christmas Eve, as snowflakes begins to fall over Paris, making suspects and sleuths alike shiver. Will this be a happy Christmas for our characters, or a tragic one?  You will have to see for yourself.

Quai des Orfevres
was released in a splendid set with English subtitles by Criterion, but the edition has since gone out of print.  Look around though, it's worth taking some trouble to find a copy.  This is a splendid film, easily as good as most contemporary Hitchcock I would say, if not better.


  1. Excellent article - I'm tempted to say, "as always". Steeman didn't like the film, though, as Clouzot had played fast and loose with key elements of the plot, most notably the identity of the murderer, and added several characters that were not in the book. Clouzot, he said, was a talented director but a terrible adapter who - I quote from memory - could only create after having completely destroyed the source material. Needless to say, movie critics and fans don't agree with him...

    1. I'd love to read the book, it's frustrating that so little Steeman has been translated to English. I should have taken more than one semester of French! (By the way, I also have typos to correct.) But I think the film Clouzot came up with still is a legit crime film, a very rich one. Of course Hitchcock changed source material too in his films, do much so that sometimes not much was left from the original source!

      I watched four Clouzot films this week and they were all wonderful films. Hope to write some more about them soon.

  2. Curtis, this is available to rent on Amazon in the US!

  3. A very useful post -- many thanks for it. I too wish there were more Steeman available in English. I know his work only through the movies you mention here.

    I was about to point out the "These latter two films were respectively based on novels by the French crime writers Georges Simenon and Stanislas- Andre Steeman" typo, but I see you've already caught it yourself.

    1. Yes, the post was a tad rushed originally, trying to make it for Christmas! Season's greetings!

  4. Yes, the post was a tad rushed originally, trying to make it for Christmas! Season's greetings!

    And the same to your good self.

  5. Fantastic movie. Saw it years ago at the Music Box on the big screen. So much richer and rewarding than the claustrophobic Diabolique with its small cast and contained settings.

    1. I like Diabolique too, but Quai does have such a rich social setting and it's not nearly so bleak!