Quai des Orfèvres is nominally a policier—a crime story, less a mystery than a police procedural; its title, referring to the Parisian equivalent of Scotland Yard, announces it. But title and genre are misleading, they are foliage. As a crime picture, it has a flimsy plot, with far too many coincidences for the good of any story and an eleventh-hour revelation that would induce groans if by then you, the spectator, weren’t far more caught up in the emotions of the characters than in fripperies of plot construction. Clouzot himself was not especially interested in the whodunit aspect, as can be seen from the fact that when he couldn’t turn up a copy of the source novel by the prolific Belgian pulp writer Stanislas-André Steeman, he adapted it from memory, leaving only faint traces of the original story. A crime lies at the center of the movie, to be sure, but that crime is infidelity, and in its context murder is more or less an afterthought.
Maurice Martineau (Bernard Blier, whom American audiences might consider as looking like a chubby Bob Newhart) is the resident accompanist for a Tin Pan Alley song publisher. He had been a star pupil at the conservatoire, with a rosy future, but he threw it all over when he met the guileless sexpot Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair). They make an odd pair: he saturnine, tormented, almost aggressively unprepossessing; she ripe to the point of bursting, a walking cheesecake shot. In love with her, too, is their downstairs neighbor, the lesbian photographer Dora (Simone Renant), who is beautiful, chic, unassumingly righteous, and unhappily wise. Jenny truly loves Maurice, but she is ambitious, and not above employing her natural attributes in the pursuit of stardom. She is also sufficiently naive to accept the promises of the rich hunchbacked lecher Brignon (the Parisian stage legend Charles Dullin in his final screen performance). Brignon is murdered, somewhat inevitably, the night of a clandestine rendezvous with Jenny. Maurice, who has previously threatened Brignon in the presence of witnesses, finds the body, and then dutiful Dora visits the scene to clean it of fingerprints. Jenny, meanwhile, claims she was miles away visiting her sick grandmother (who insists, “I’ll bury you all!”). Soon the news breaks, and Detective Antoine (the great Louis Jouvet) is assigned to the case. Before long all three of the principals are brought in for questioning, on Christmas Eve, no less.
Not for nothing did critics cite Balzac when the picture opened in France. Quai des Orfèvres uncovers entire worlds to view, layered and profuse. The panorama of popular entertainment is unrolled, from drafty walk-up offices and rehearsal halls (it is winter, right after the war, so people wear their coats indoors throughout the movie) to the heady rush of success, via a thrilling montage that follows the birth of Jenny’s hit number, “Avec son Tra-la-la” (which would, in real life, remain Suzy Delair’s signature number throughout her career). Along the way are dozens of vignettes of the backstage population, the song pluggers and the elderly coat-checkers, the dog acts and the stagehands, the standees in the dress circle and the black-market procurer in the wings. Contrasted with this is the world of the police station and its hundred shades of cynicism: the permanently exhausted homicide cops, the crooks flaunting their contempt, the unflustered prostitutes to whom an arrest is just part of the grind, the veteran reporter who is forever critiquing and ranking fifty years’ worth of crimes for the ostensible benefit of his younger colleagues. The amount of detail is staggering, but none of it feels like exposition; it glides in an easy, liquid flow, propelled by the drama and a restlessly curious camera-eye.
It was Clouzot’s third movie as a director-screenwriter; he was a true auteur who had apprenticed as a scenarist and wrote or at least reworked, all his scripts. The second, Le Corbeau (The Raven, 1943), is an acknowledged small masterpiece, but it almost cost Clouzot his career—he released it through a Nazi-run company, and its remorseless misanthropy (the plot concerns a French village torn apart by an epidemic of poison-pen letters) convinced many at the time that it was intended as anti-French propaganda. After the Liberation he was only suspended from movie work for six months, however, and Quai des Orfèvres, which among other things cannily employed the irreproachable national icon Jouvet, lifted the cloud of opprobrium. Clouzot, who went on to make such classics as The Wages of Fear (1953) and Diabolique (1955), is often pegged as the French Hitchcock. This is true as far as it goes: he was a tyrant known for bullying actors if he thought the scene required it (he slapped Blier around to get him into the right mood for the police interrogation in Quai, for example), and he meticulously sketched out every shot far in advance of production. But in his work there is a depth, not to mention a profound darkness, that makes even Hitchcock’s more somber efforts appear as light entertainment by comparison. And whereas Hitchcock’s pictures tend to be set, for good or ill, in the world of archetypes, Clouzot always seems bent on recreating life itself with all its contradictions. He represents the supreme manifestation of that well-known pathological profile: the filmmaker as God. We can be glad we never had to work with him, maybe, but we can savor his nearly infinite subtleties.
Given both his hubris and his cynicism, then, the most surprising aspect of Quai is its tenderness toward almost every character, an unsentimental love born of sympathetic understanding, which had this viewer in tears by the end—a first for a crime picture, certainly. Take, for example, Jouvet’s character, the case-hardened Detective Antoine, whom a contemporary critic sized up as “a functionary of Good, as much as the pale criminals he passionlessly fights appear as irresponsible employees of Evil.” Clouzot himself claimed that a shot of Antoine and his prisoner Martineau—seen from the rear as they walk down a cellblock handcuffed to one another, so that the distinction between them is erased—justified the whole movie for him. Antoine is at first glance a not unfamiliar type: Humphrey Bogart in some of his later pictures, for example, and maybe Gene Hackman has played the part a few times. But then Antoine, a veteran of colonial wars, is single-handedly raising a mixed-race son, whom he loves gruffly but bottomlessly. When he learns that his son has failed his final exams, he mutters that the Meccano set bought in anticipation of his success was already wrapped, but he’d get it for Christmas, anyway: with a microscopic movement of the eyelids and a virtually indetectable variation in tone of voice he shows you his heart. Antoine is a Sunday photographer whose repertory of subjects sounds uncannily like the career of Eugene Atget (old houses, shop fronts, deserted streets), but he has more than this avocation in mind when he tells the photographer Dora that they are two of a kind. “When it comes to women, we’ll never have a chance,” he says, in a moment of recognition that would be breathtaking even if the movie had been made four or five decades later. Antoine’s cynicism, a reflex developed as a means of protection that almost conceals its bearer, is emblematic of the movie as a whole. Quai des Orfèvres, which accepts and embraces the world while pretending to sneer at it, is as rich and deep and wily and teeming as a 400-page classic novel, and it demands to be seen again and again.
Luc Sante is the author of Low Life, Evidence, The Factory of Facts, and Walker Evans, and co-editor of O.K. You Mugs: Writers on Movie Actors. He teaches at Bard College.