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When Marguerite (Suzy Delair), a night club
seductress, delicately shakes her petite posterior and sings Avec Son
Tra-la-la, it's easy to forget that Quai des
Orfevres is a murder mystery.
Quai belongs to the early period of Film Noir, before Film Noir became a fashionable term. The usual earmarks of the genre are all present: dark glistening streets, menacing nighttime shots, swirling cigarette smoke, enigmatic and sinister-looking heroes, murderous passion, and jealousy. With such an abundance of emotions and motifs, there is always a risk that the film will sink under the weight of its conventions. But in his starring role as Inspector Antoine, the celebrated French actor Louis Jouvet (Bizarre, Bizarre; Jenny Lamour) under the able direction of Henri-Georges Clouzot (Wages of Fear, Diabolique) balances the films themes and molds them into something more than a continuous stream of images; a thing of beauty, perhaps, to be savored by film enthusiasts and analyzed by film scholars.
Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair, Gervaise, Rocco And His Brothers) is a Paris music hall performer and the subject of her colleagues roving eyes and lustful remarks, which she heartily reciprocates. Jennys sunny personality makes no exceptions for perverts and lechers; her musical accompanist and husband Maurice Martineau (Bernard Blier,Les Miserables, Buffet Froid) becomes intensely jealous and melancholy. Despite the couples enthusiasm, sexual and otherwise, for each other (in one scene, Clouzot shows milk boiling over, a not-so-subtle suggestion of sexual activity), their relationship is continually threatened by Jennys flirtatious ways. Jenny realizes that using her sensuality to entice men is just part of the business of getting ahead. Her strategy comes to fulfillment in the form of Brignon, a powerful old movie producer (Charles Dullin, effective in a leering role). Brignon is a dirty old man who brings girls to Dora Monnier, a lesbian photographer (Simone Renant) and has their photographs taken in suggestive poses. At one of these shoots, Brignon meets Jenny, there for her own publicity photos, and the rest is one sordid history.
When Jenny entertains Brignon for an opportunity at movie stardom, her husband Maurice gets into one of his periodic paroxysms of jealousy. He evens threatens Brignon with dire consequences, and as if to oblige him, Brignon is conveniently found dead. The stage is set for the entrance of Detective Lieutenant Antoine who gradually becomes convinced that Maurice is the killer.
Despite the deliciously plotted mystery, the allure of Quai is not in learning the identity of the killer. The devil is in the details; and in Quai, the charm is in the realistic portrayal of seedy music halls, the narrow rain-swept streets of Paris, and the bureaucracy of the Criminal Investigations Division of the French Police, otherwise known as the Quai des Orfevres. Quai evokes the atmosphere of its settings with artistry-- the exuberance and raw sensuality of the working class music halls, the dark dankness of war-torn Paris, the opulence of Brignons house, the claustrophobia of the French Police Station, and the violence waiting to explode in the interrogation halls.
In one especially harrowing interrogation scene, Maurice is surrounded by Louis Jouvet and his police sidekicks in a dimly-lit room. There is no background score; the only sound comes from the tense back and forth hissing, sputtering and shouting between the suspect and his interrogators. Outside, seen through the window, snow is falling. It is Christmas, and everyone wants Maurice to confess so they can get back to their families. The scene makes real the unwelcome coldness, in the room and outside, but also leaves no doubt that the whole set is just that, a set.
In some minor details, Quai is charmingly archaic, but it has a remarkably contemporary ring to it. Suzy Delair is as saucy as Sharon Stone and Louis Jouvet, while playing the smirking detective, comes across as amusingly smart-alecky as John Travolta or Bruce Willis.
- Nigam Nuggehalli