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French Cinema, Melodrama

Quai des Orfèvres (France 1947)

Dora photographs Jenny in Quai des Orfèvres

I picked this up in a bargain bin of DVDs — pleased with myself because I’d been wanting to watch it for a while. Later I was deflated when I noticed that a trio of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s most famous films (this one plus Le Corbeau and Le Salaire de la peur) were on offer at a better overall price in an online store. C’est la vie! But I wasn’t disappointed by my purchase, even though it was a dodgy DVD that kept crashing during the opening menus. Optimum are to be applauded for releasing French classical cinema, but they don’t offer much in the way of extras – only a trailer on this DVD.

Quai des Orfèvres came to my attention after I’d watched 36, Quai des Orfèvres (France 2004) the policier starring Daniel Auteuil and Gérard Depardieu. Several commentators made reference to the earlier film and some suggested that the newer film was a remake. The title of both refers to the address of the headquarters of the most important French police organisations – something like the equivalent of ‘(New) Scotland Yard’ in the UK. However, the title is the only direct link between the two films and the title of the earlier film is not particularly revealing since although the narrative does feature a lengthy interrogation at police headquarters, it is primarily a film noir melodrama.

Clouzot has suffered in retrospect from his decision in 1942 to work for the German ‘front’ studio Continental during the Occupation. One of the films he made then, Le Corbeau (The Raven) was named as ‘propagandist’ and Clouzot was denounced as a collaborationist. I saw the film a couple of years ago during the Leeds Film Quarter experiment and it is clear now that the film was much more ambiguous (it concerns a flurry of poison pen letters that gradually undermine a small town community).

A useful essay by Fiona Watson on the Senses of Cinema site gives a clue to Clouzot’s influences and importance as a filmmaker. She tells us that Clouzot began working for Ufa at Babelsburg in 1932 dubbing films and this was where he developed an interest in the work of Fritz Lang. Later it became clear that whilst Clouzot had learned much from Lang, his competitor in the 1950s would be Hitchcock and the two would vie for the title of ‘Master of Suspense’. Many of the American reviewers of those Clouzot films available as subtitled DVDs begin with the Hitchcock comparison, but this might not be the best place to start with Quai des Orfèvres.

My own interest in French films of the late 1940s and early 1950s has always been fuelled by a desire to test out the criticisms contained in the polemics by Truffaut and the other Cahiers writers. Was the French ‘Quality Cinema’ of the period as hidebound and stuffy – ‘le cinéma du papa‘ – as they maintained? Watson points out that Truffaut was obsessed with Le Corbeau as a teenager, memorising whole chunks of dialogue, and I did start thinking about one aspect of Truffaut’s own work – his interest in French popular culture – as I watched Quai des Orfèvres.

The film focuses on an unusual ménage à trois. Maurice is a trained musician reduced to working as an accompanist. At the same time, his rather dim but attractive young wife, ‘Jenny Lamour’, is beginning to gain attention as a chanteuse. The couple live in a flat and below them is the studio of a ‘glamour photographer’, Dora, who is in love with Jenny. When Jenny accidentally kills an aging lecher (who sends young women to be photographed in ‘erotic poses’ by Dora) the other two both become involved in trying to avert Jenny’s arrest. Although Dora is not an ‘out’ lesbian, the inference is clear and I was reminded of the representation of the lesbian relationship in Rossellini’s Rome Open City, which must have shocked American audiences around the same time as Quai des Orfèvres was released in France.

As well as the music hall scenes of the chanteuse and the glamour photography shoots, the film also offers the auditioning rooms of a showbiz agent and the backstage of a circus in its overall representation of Parisian popular culture. The second half of the film involves the investigation of the death by an eccentric (but effective) police inspector. There is an intriguing mixture of comedy, suspense and detail of procedure in the investigation and the presence of a pack of hungry newshounds made me think of His Girl Friday. The other factor in this mixture of emotions is that the later action takes place in a snowstorm on Christmas Eve and as if to emphasise a Dickens connection, the inspector’s adopted son (an African boy from the Inspector’s time in the army) turns up at the police station almost like Tiny Tim. This delirious concoction is beautifully staged and photographed, echoing both pre-war French and Langian noirs and also the similar noir melodramas being produced in both the US and the UK in the late 1940s. In one respect it confirms the Cahiers view of ‘quality cinema’ being based on a 1942 novel. What it lacks in comparison to some of the American and British films is the new sense of ‘street realism’ that was introduced around this time.

The critic who really despised Clouzot was Jacques Rivette who described him as “sickening”, whereas Godard merely rated Clouzot as not as interesting a filmmaker as Roger Vadim. Clouzot’s crime was, like Réné Clément and Claude Autant-Lara, to be interested only in ‘style’ and to disavow ‘social cinema’. Sometimes, the New Wave critics do seem very precious and it seems to me that a film like Quai des Orfèvres is stylish, entertaining and, if not a comment on the ‘reality’ of its period, at least populated with interesting and richly detailed characters.

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