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Quai des Orfèvres: The Criterion Collection

Respected as a masterful suspense technician, but often reviled for his dim, misanthropic views on man's innately venal nature, it is not surprising that Henri-Georges Clouzot is often referred to as the French Hitchcock. The two were rivals of a sort — legend has it that Clouzot's 1955 Diabolique drove Hitchcock to up the suspense ante with Psycho — but their aims could not have been more disparate. Though both were obviously afflicted with a pronounced pessimism, Hitchcock was a more eager entertainer, who, when he did give into the loftier artistry of Vertigo and Marnie, dove headlong into deliriously stylized psychological studies. Clouzot, despite the well-documented cruelty he heaped on his actors, was much more interested in the human element. Rather than use his performers as props in a bent psychological profile, he hectored and abused them on set, purposefully (and, it goes without saying, unacceptably), impressing upon their own psyches in order to convey greater human truths on screen. And nowhere did Clouzot succeed at this more sensationally than in Quai des Orfèvres. Made after a four-year government-imposed ban incurred by his scandalous Nazi-financed film, Le Corbeau, Clouzot adapted (since the book was out of print, from memory!) the pulp police procedural by S.A. Steeman about a nakedly ambitious showgirl named Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair), who intends to make it big by boldly intoxicating powerful old men of industry — in this particular instance, a lecherous, leering old hunchback named Brignon (Charles Dullin) — with her irresistibly carnal flirtatiousness. This doesn't sit so well with her husband, Maurice (Bernard Blier), a covetous cuckold who lives in perpetual suspicion of his wife's possible infidelities. What's wonderful about Clouzot's film, however, is how the director undercuts the audience's suspicions of Jenny with an early scene in which she professes to her friend, and surreptitious lesbian admirer, Dora (an impossibly glamorous Simone Renant), that she could never betray husband: "Maurice is my flame. He may not burn bright, but he lights my way." She's not kidding. As hilariously embodied by a balding and waddling Blier, Maurice is the Schlub of Schlubs. When, in a fit of jealous pique, he resolves to murder Jenny and Brignon, there's never any real sense of danger because Clouzot has so effectively emasculated this poor man, making the obligatory prelude to a murder sequence all the more suspenseful, but in a much different manner. Genre convention dictates that someone is going to die before Act I comes to a close, but it's certainly not going to be at the hands of Maurice. When Brignon is already dead by the time Maurice arrives at his estate (felled, it appears, by a wine bottle to the skull), the film becomes a tragic comedy of errors, with mistrust and weakness the prime culprits. Everyone is in trouble because they suspect the worst of each other.

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And yet, what really knocks Quai des Orfèvres up into the noir stratosphere is the emergence of Inspector Antoine (the legendary Louis Jouvet), a weary, workmanlike detective who is almost the inverse of Jenny in his lack of ambition. For Antoine, this is an unwanted case unluckily fielded while pulling night duty when he'd rather be spending time with the young boy he adopted after serving in France's colonial wars. But his lack of enthusiasm is dangerously deceptive; Antoine is a crafty sleuth who thoroughly follows every lead no matter how much he despises the work involved. As he pieces together the crime, and the story draws inexorably to its bad end for one, or maybe all, of the crime's conspirators, the picture threatens to become another drudging treatise on man's failings — which, for all of Clouzot's filmmaking brilliance, would render it nothing more than an exceptional genre exercise. But this old devil has something more on his mind. Indeed, the final minutes of Quai des Orfèvres constitute perhaps the most ineffable denouement in the history of film noir: a breathtaking, humanistic, and possibly even tear-jerking conclusion to an overlooked masterpiece. Criterion presents Quai des Orfèvres in an original full-frame (1.33:1) transfer struck from a 35mm fine grain print with monaural audio on a Dolby Digital 1.0 track. The transfer looks and sounds wonderful, particularly with the movie's ecstatic musical interludes, which feature Delair giving fine voice to "Avec son Tra-la-la" and "Danse avec moi." Supplements include 17 minutes of interviews with Clouzot, Blier, Renant, and Blier, all culled from a 1971 French television program titled "Au Cinema ce soir" (in which the actors surprisingly recount their rough handling by Clouzot rather fondly). Also on board is a poster gallery, an essay by Luc Sante, and a theatrical trailer. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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