Quai des Orfevres is a terrific, old-fashioned good time at the movies. It combines two fully flushed-out worlds – the chaotic mill of the french dance halls and cabarets, with singers, dancers, bicycle and dog acts, roughhousing stagehands and predatory producers, and the police headquarters of the title – cynical detectives, worldly beat reporters, a whole hierarchy of middle-managing captains, lieutenants, clerks and lawyers. There’s a depth of surrounding characters here that may only be rivalled by the best Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks movies. It’s an early postwar work by Henri-Georges Clouzot, who later went on to make ‘Diabolique’ and ‘The Wages Of Fear’, two legendary masterpieces of suspense.
The start of the film introduces us to Jenny Lamour, Paris’ premier hot tomato good-time chantoozie. She’s married to Maurice, a mousy, browbeaten piano player who gave up a conservatory career to devote himself to her. Naturally, as these things go, he also has a fierce but endearing jealous streak, and is in constant fear of being cuckolded, despite the clear fact that they love each other dearly. Their best friend and neighbor, Dora, is a photographer who happens to, reluctantly, do a little side work for a lecherous and grotesque big-name producer named Brignon. Jenny happens upon Brignon at Dora’s one day, and her ambition overwhelms the warnings from Dora about Brignon’s darker habits. She sees him a few times, is encouraged by his seemingly earnest professional tutelage, and agrees to have dinner with him to ‘sign a contract.’ Things go badly, a crime is committed, and the police start their investigation.
This is where the seemingly standard soap-opera plot really starts to deepen, as we spend the movie confident that we know what happened and we’re just waiting to see how it will be resolved, not unlike a Columbo episode. We also find ourselves pleasantly surprised at how much interest and sympathy we’ve invested in Jenny, Maurice and Dora, despite the obviousness of the melodrama, and are anxious and somewhat fearful of what their fates will be. Now the film adds Inspector Antoine (played by the great Louis Jouvet), a character who would be right at home in an Elmore Leonard story – a fascinating regular mug who just happens to be very good at this particular thing. I was completely and shamelessly hooked. The basic plot and characters are entertaining enough, but I’d like to watch it again just for all the stuff happening in the backgrounds – the beautiful black-and-white photography employs many reliable show-biz-flick and film noir elements, but is also admirably deep-focused; the story happens in a full, substantial, and believable real world.
Do yourself a favor next time your working the Netflix queue or are browsing in one of the three or four good video stores this country has left. You won’t find this baby at Blockbuster, I’m afraid.