From A Star Is Born to How to Get Away with Murder, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Quai des Orfèvres goes through many hats in its hour and forty-six-minute runtime. Murder mystery tends to supersede the rest, but before it’s clear that anyone’s going to be murdered, Quai des Orfèvres is a story about a marriage – one that doesn’t end in divorce, like the recent Oscar-nominee Marriage Story — but one that probably should, all things considered.
A marriage needs trust to survive, after all, and if there’s one thing Maurice (Bernard Blier) is incapable of doing, it’s trusting his wife, the aspiring actress, Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair). While Maurice works as a piano accompanist, the film opens with Jenny on the verge of a big career break.
The reactions to her singing can be confusing at times. While her new gig at a music hall would seem to confirm her talent (we get to hear her sing a few times and there’s nothing wrong with her voice), Clouzot juxtaposes dogs putting their paws over their heads and a baby crying to underscore the point. One guy backstage even implies that she wasn’t hired for her singing ability (another guy gives him a good answer back, so at least there’s that).
What Jenny really wants is to be in the movies and when she catches the eye of Brignon (Charles Dullin), a Harvey Weinstein-type with the power to sign her to a movie contract, she thinks she can handle him and his advances. Maurice (and he would feel this way no matter who Brignon was) does not. After crashing one of their business meetings, Jenny and Maurice have a fight, during which Maurice says he’ll kill them both if she tries to meet with Brignon again.
Whelp, Jenny tells him he’d fail so Maurice decides to find out, except when he shows up at Brignon’s place with a gun, Brignon’s already dead. Somebody killed him and because Maurice was going to shoot him (and possibly his wife, which makes their relationship after this point completely unhealthy), he ends up being questioned by the police as a possible suspect.
Timing is everything, and Maurice isn’t the only one afraid of the police dropping by. His wife, Jenny, has her own reasons for being concerned. In the middle of it all is Maurice’s childhood friend, Dora (Simone Renant), who both Maurice and Jenny confide in about their troubles. A photographer, Dora is the only one with a full picture of what happened that night (and even that picture is limited by what Maurice and Jenny think really happened). Her role in this movie is fascinating, because it’s not a love triangle. Maurice gets jealous, but Jenny couldn’t be more devoted, and any romantic feelings are on Dora’s side alone. She willingly inserts herself in their mess and if Quai des Orfèvres has one fatal flaw it’s that the film acts like no one will care that she’s missing from the ending.
Louis Jouvet also appears as Inspector Antoine, a man who doesn’t mince words or try to protect people’s feelings. “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” is not a philosophy he lives by.
Kino Lober’s new DVD release includes a commentary by film critic Nick Pinkerton and the same 1971 featurette from the now out of print Criterion release in which Clouzot and some of the actors talk about the movie. The interviewer asks some good questions (like drawing attention to a scene where Dora kicks someone) and addresses Clouzot’s reputation for being physically abusive with his actors.
Quai des Orfèvres is available now on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.