"Quai des Orfèvres" feels like a drastic turnabout for director Henri-Georges Clouzot.
His previous film, "Le Corbeau," got him banned from making films in France because of its cynical point of view (the government thought it was too harsh toward provincial peoples). The film went out of its way to emphasize how everyone has skeletons they'd rather have remain hidden in their closets. "Quai des Orfèvres," Clouzot's third film as a writer/director, takes an almost opposite approach in its examination of human nature.
There aren't many (if any) squeaky-clean characters in "Quai des Orfèvres." Jenny (Suzy Delair) is a talented singer with a thirst for the spotlight. She thinks she's found her way to the big time when a lecherous old media mogul named Brignon (Charles Dullin) offers her a prime spot in a film, but only after she meets with him for a "private lunch." Of course, her loving but fiercely jealous husband Maurice (Bernard Blier) gets wind of said lunch and publicly threatens to kill Brignon.
The twist is Maurice eventually does go to kill Brignon, only to find that the old man is already dead in his hotel room. Jenny claims she's killed him, but the truth isn't so clear, it would seem. Enter Inspector Antoine (Louis Jovet) as he starts rounding up suspects to get to the bottom of things.
The plot is actually pretty straightforward and the reveal at the end isn't difficult to guess. It's a police procedural, all things considered, one that isn't terribly concerned with the intricacies of its narrative. This is likely because Clouzot and his co-writer are adapting from a book that was out of print and had to write based strictly on memory.
No, what Clouzot cares about is bringing out the fragile, human side of his characters. Each of them is left wanting in some way, whether it is for fame or affection or validation. The moments Clouzot serves often have little to do with advancing the central "mystery" and more with simply digging deeper into the minds and hearts of these wounded characters.
It's Maurice I found myself most sympathetic toward. Sure, he's jealous and was literally only minutes away from murdering a guy, but he genuinely loves his wife and has little idea of how to deal with the fact she is quickly surpassing and outshining him as a performer. He's adrift and knows he's married out of his league (even though his wife came from a lower societal strata). It's affecting stuff.
This wasn't anything spectacular, but it certainly was interesting to watch Clouzot's choices in action here. He basically doesn't care about the plot that moves this thing along and you almost get the sense that he'd have gotten away with just showing his characters in a series of interviews if he could have.
Next week, I'll continue my series on Clouzot with a review of "The Wages of Fear," followed by " and "The Mystery of Picasso."
Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in "Catching Up On…" an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.