Grim, dark and utterly ambiguous, Quai des orfèvres (literally, Goldsmiths’ Wharf) has had my mind in its grip—my heart slipped out somewhere along the way—since I first saw it. Distributed by Rialto Pictures, which has similarly restored and unveiled Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko (1936) and Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955), this postwar film noir is as strange a film as I have seen. It seems to exist on two parallel planes that in fact, however physically impossible this may be, stunningly converge. The point of convergence is the moral murkiness of self-sacrifice, selflessness, and pure love. On one level, we watch a number of characters whose actions are motivated by love. However, love here is often activated by guilt, for the basis of most of the loving acts that we witness in the film is greed, career ambition, sexual jealousy—not uplifting behavior. Thus another level compels us to question whatever altruism we may glimpse. Indeed, the seedy, vicious environment in which the action unfolds comes to us first, the “loving” acts after, and these acts are never allowed by the filmmaker to transcend the environment. The filmmaker is Henri-Georges Clouzot, who with Jean Ferry adapted Stanislas-André Steeman’s novel Légitime Défense. Clouzot was named best director at Venice for this coldly captivating piece of work.
My imagination prods me to believe something about Clouzot’s Quai des orfèvres. The film’s dim music hall, one of so many elements that invokes Alfred Hitchcock in his prewar British period, perhaps suggests an entertainment venue closer to Clouzot’s—can we use this word with reference to Clouzot?—heart: cinema. Is it possible that the film is somehow about the nearly blacklisted Clouzot, about the burden he bore because countrymen of his identified him with the Germans who had occupied France and with whom he had to deal since it was they—the Germans—who controlled the French film industry during the war? (The principal bone of contention was his 1943 film Le corbeau, whose stinging portrait of provincial French life many viewed as traitorous.) Isn’t it possible that Clouzot, retaliating against assaults on his loyalty, is questioning the altruism of his attackers? So much of the film’s ambiguity, at least to me, seems to derive from the kind of complexity of circumstance and motivation that Clouzot may have felt that others were self-righteously ignoring, even denying, in their attempts to tidy up the national past at his (and others’) expense. (In Italy, Rome, Open City protected Rossellini’s national reputation, post-Fascism, from his previous service to Mussolini’s state, which controlled the film industry. One cannot develop one’s craft without practicing it, and Clouzot and Rossellini thus found themselves in a virtual bind.)
The main character in Quai des orfèvres, at least in the first half, comes equipped with a stage name, Jenny Lamour (in a flamboyant performance, Suzy Delair—an emotionally riotous, larger-than-life version of Simone Simon). Jenny, who sings, is ambitious; she fancies herself Edith Piaf. Certainly there is hanging about the plot two persons who involved themselves in Piaf’s early career: the pimp who, failing to impress Piaf into his stable of workers, nevertheless continued to exert influence on her career somewhere between harassment and blackmail; and club owner Louis Leplée, whose 1936 murder left the singer an actual suspect. However, whereas Piaf emerged a hero of the French Resistance, Jenny Lamour seems incredibly selfish in her career-mindedness—more hawk than sparrow. Despite husband Maurice Martineau’s protestations, she pursues the attentions of Brignon, a licentious industrialist who can advance her career. (Bertrand Blier is splendid as the sadsack spouse; Charles Dullin, the soul of soullessness as Brignon.) Brignon ends up dead in his home. (Much of this film smacks of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 Blackmail.) Jenny, who cracked a champagne bottle over his head to stave off predatory advances, assumes she is his killer. In jealous pursuit of the man he (wrongly) believes has been cuckolding him (Jenny has been too focused on career to be unfaithful), Maurice, packing a pistol, stumbles across the corpse and also believes that his wife is the killer, especially once the couple’s friend Dora, believing it from what Jenny told her, adds conviction to the suspicion. Dora has done more than that; she has entered the crime scene in order to retrieve evidence that Jenny left behind (a tacky fox fur—in one piece of clothing, the confusion of stage life and real life) and to wipe things of Jenny’s fingerprints. She has completely escaped the radar of Maurice’s jealousy, but she is in love with Jenny, and the image of her as triumphant in the bustling city street at night, her shoulders resourcefully wrapped by Jenny’s fur piece, constitutes one of cinema’s most extraordinary instances of sexual sublimation. (Simone Renant brings a glimmer of tragedy to Dora; it’s as close as the film comes to a sympathetic adult characterization.) Maurice is eventually arrested for the murder by the police, but Jenny also is vulnerable to official suspicion; to spare her arrest and imprisonment, Maurice attempts suicide to certify his guilt. He doesn’t succeed, but his action here brings his wife devotedly to his side. (If Clouzot’s film looks back to Hitchcock, it looks ahead to Chabrol, whose La femme infidèle, 1968, and Le boucher, 1969, seem in particular descendants.) The film ends with the revelation of the real killer’s identity—a passer-by. All’s well that ends well, except that Maurice and Jenny’s marriage, continuing to lack foundation, is (for the moment happily) held together by the glue of guilt and tawdry, indeed blaspheming self-sacrifice.
Like John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) and so many noirs, Clouzot’s film is a film of blackness and of night—not the night of romance, even though the scene is set in Paris, but a night of horror and entrapment. (The superb black-and-white cinematographer is Clouzot’s other eye, Armand Thirard, who would also contribute to, among other Clouzot films, Manon, 1948, The Wages of Fear, 1953, and Les diaboliques, 1954.) It isn’t the cobweb of fate, however, that entraps these souls but their own lies, and more lies, to the police, without which the murder might have been solved much sooner. (Alas, the resultant attenuated nature of the film was something of a chore for me to navigate—since it is expressive, a “blemish” that may indeed fade and disappear over the course of future viewings.) These lies resonate with soaring self-sacrificial love and such shabbiness, and the shabbiness redefines the love, trapping it in a barred prison. One of the film’s most potent images finds Maurice bucking the tide of pedestrian traffic as, in tandem with people leaving the music hall after an evening’s entertainment (an image that indeed is borrowed from Blackmail), he tries to return there in order to establish an alibi after coming from the dead man’s apartment. In a panic, he has put himself into this nearly impossible physical situation; amazingly he prevails by getting through, but the alibi wobbles indoors as one of the performers, a magician, is surprised to discover the disaster that he, the magician, experienced onstage that night—a detail he will innocently relay to the police. Maurice’s own magic is bankrupt because he will be telling lie upon lie upon lie; and when you consider that his motive for all this may be as much the façade of his marriage as his love for his wife, virtue again seems to dissolve into shabbiness, seediness and vice. The film ends on Christmas, and the irony stings; it isn’t that we haven’t seen Christian acts throughout, for we have, but the pitilessly analytical examination of them that Clouzot has provided throws into question those Christian acts. An oversized Christmas tree in the Martineaus’ apartment seems to suck the life out of the air and surely cramps the space, creating another image of entrapment.
The second half of the film is dominated by another character entirely: Inspector Antoine, who is the lead police investigator on the Brignon case. Weary though confident, Antoine seems to be fueled by carbon dioxide instead of oxygen; he is inseparable from the seediness of the environment, and he is in fact, rather than a crime-solving hero, perhaps the most ambiguous character of all in the film. (Louis Jouvet is brilliant in this role.) It’s an elusive thing, hard to describe, but the oddly passive, somehow inverted nature of the man makes him almost an accomplice to the lies that those he interrogates tell. (As with Pharaon De Winter, the police investigator in Bruno Dumont’s 1999 Humanité, one can almost imagine that Antoine himself is the killer.) Apart from his work, which, involving homicide, is in itself unsettling, disturbing, his seems almost a secret life, something suspiciously kept from public view. Like Dora, he seems to be an intensely lonely individual, although he has a school-age son, in his beret the perfect image of a little French boy. The boy is black—“. . . all I have left from my time in the colonies,” Antoine explains. But the boy is very dark-skinned, and it’s possible that Antoine has adopted the boy off the street. Theirs is a loving relationship and, indeed, the film ends with father and son in a public embrace after the latter pelts the former with a snowball outside the Martineaus’ window. Why bother with a misgiving then? (The absurd swell of music would seem to cut off ambiguity.) Well, there’s the nature of the rest of the film, with lie on top of lie hiding not only actions but, also, motivation. Moreover, the interplay between this parent and offspring involves much of the same self-sacrificial nonsense that underpins other activities in the film. The boy is currently home from boarding school; he has just failed his mathematics test, so he won’t be returning to school; it is math that he and his father had been concentrating on, giving rise to the suggestion that the boy failed the exam deliberately so that he might rejoin his father, and his father somehow seems accomplice to this pint-sized deception. Combine this with the predatory nature of Brignon, and with something else besides, and a phantom suggestion takes elusive shape. The “something else” is a fleeting shot early on of two overripely buttocked boys in clinging shorts—a very brief kind of attention that will come rather to the full with images of the boys at the boarding school in Les diaboliques. One can accept Antoine, surely, as a doting and devoted father; but pedophilia isn’t out of the question. It certainly would be of a piece with the environment that Clouzot’s film as a whole portrays.
In conclusion, I feel that Clouzot intended to prick virtue’s façade to sound out whatever rottenness lay behind it. My guess that this had something to do with the “virtue” he felt was arrayed against him is just that: a guess. But it makes for a sad and haunting fit—and a film more harrowing, perhaps, than the one that it superficially appears to be.
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.