October’s Film Club presents a classic of French cinema, Quai des Orfèvres, (Goldsmith’s Quay), a 1947 murder mystery directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. Best remembered for his 1950s thrillers (The Wages of Fear 1953, Les Diabolique 1954), Clouzot is one of the few contemporaries of Hitchcock to have given the so-called ‘master of suspense’ a run for his money.
In post-war Paris, piano accompanist Maurice (Bernard Blier) is jealous when he learns that his wife, whose stage name is Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair), has been making eyes at powerful businessman Georges Brignon (Charles Dullin) in order to further her career as a singer. Brignon promises Jenny a role in a film and when she tells Maurice she is going to visit her grandmother, her husband first goes to a theatre to create an alibi then heads to Brignon’s manor during the show. When Brignon’s dead body is found the next day, Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet), a cross between Alistair Sim and a world-weary Maigret, is assigned the case and soon finds himself focusing on Jenny, Maurice – and their photographer friend, Dora Monier (Simone Renant).
Born in Niort in 1907, Henri-George Clouzot was an early fan of cinema and soon moved to Paris to pursue a writing career before working in Berlin on French-language versions of German films. Fired for his friendship with Jewish producers, his return to France was marred by tuberculosis and, after recovering, he found himself in an occupied capital where he began work for the German owned company Continental as a screenwriter and director. His first film (The Murderer Lives at Number 21, 1942) was very popular, but his second (Le Corbeau, 1943) drew heavy criticism for its harsh look at provincial France and he was fired before its release. As a result of his association with a German owned company, the liberated French government barred Clouzot from film-making.
This film was therefore a come-back, marking Clouzot’s return after 3 years’ blacklisting for being too critical of his native France. He found himself adapting an out-of-print novel, Légitime défense by Belgian writer Stanislas André Steeman. The trouble was he did not have a copy of the book! Working from memory, he deviated significantly from the original story and this led the author (unsurprisingly) to complain bitterly about the film’s ending. But Clouzot was less interested in a simple whodunit than in presenting social vignettes, in the creation of psychological tension and in creating wry humour (such as the inspector’s having to conduct his investigation at the top of his voice against a constant din of typewriters in the police station or cabaret rehearsals). The result is an engrossing noir, equal parts crime drama and character study, which explores the conditions of post-war France and the thin line that divided everyday struggle from criminality. It proved popular with audiences and critics (becoming the fourth most popular film in France in 1947) and, on its re-release in the United States in 2002, continued to be praised as one of the director’s best films.
In the late-1930s, Clouzot went to a cabaret show featuring entertainers Mistinguett and Suzy Delair at the Deus Anes Cabaret. Clouzot waited for Delair at the stage door and after meeting her, the two became a romantic couple for the next 12 years.
In the early and mid-1950s, Clouzot drew acclaim from international critics and audiences for The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques. Both films would serve as source material for remakes decades later. After the release of La Vérité, Clouzot’s wife Véra died of a heart attack and Clouzot’s career suffered due to depression, illness and critical views after the French New Wave came into vogue. In later years Clouzot’s career was limited to a few TV documentaries and two feature (in the 1960s).
Clouzot wrote several unused scripts in the 1970s and died in Paris in 1977.