‘Quai Des Orfevres’ or — The Most Visually Dazzling Episode of Columbo Ever Made?
It’s a moment of extraordinary cinematic power. He has returned home in a rage of sexual jealousy. She is waiting for him, letting her dressing gown fall open to reveal a body clad in lingerie. He rushes forward with a scowl. The camera simultaneously pushes in towards her with an unstoppable force as her waiting lips quiver on the cusp of parting and the music swells to a deafening degree. What’s going to be the inevitable result of this irreversible collision?! Death or sex?
Immediate HARD CUT to an unattended saucepan on a stove foaming and frothing over with a broiling creamy substance.
Subtle? No, but by Christ it’s extraordinary to watch.
He is Maurice (Bernard Blier) and he’s a music hall pianist. She is Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair) and is Maurice’s wife and the theatre’s lead singer. Jenny also knows what’s needed to be done in order to survive and so has no problem playing and manipulating her many male admirers, especially the wealthy ones. One such admirer is a seedy businessman (possibly a pornographer) who tells Jenny he can get her a break in the movies and that maybe they could discuss this over dinner at his place sometime?
Furious with jealousy Maurice confronts this lech and publicly threatens to kill him if he even touches his wife. Yet maybe Maurice should kill this disgusting guy after all? All he needs is a convincing alibi. And so Maurice sets out to set one up. However, when Maurice, after some careful planning and alibi building, turns up at the businessman’s home with a revolver and murderous intent he finds the old pervert already dead. Uh-oh. Better get out of here; only with his odd behaviour and his previously over-heard threats Maurice is now the main suspect, even though he’s innocent.
But if Maurice isn’t the killer then who is? Watch ‘Quai Des Orfevres’ (1947) and find out!
What’s surprising about Henri-Georges Clouzot’s thriller is that we discover who the murderer is quite early on meaning that when police Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet) appears on the scene it almost plays out like an episode of ‘Columbo’ as a snooping detective in a raincoat investigates a crime we think we already know the answer to.
Inspector Antoine must now keep his eyes peeled to deduce the possible chain of events leading to this death, but have we also been paying attention as we observe Antoine passing unknowingly through the architecture of Maurice’s alibi for the first time and us for the second? Can he spot the psychological spaces he is moving through and will he know which ones are meaningful? Now you know why that shot of Maurice in the music hall’s mirror earlier on seemed to be bristling with such significance.
The pulpy plot moves everything nicely along but it’s Clouzot’s (along with cinematographer Armand Thirad) technical brilliance that keeps us glued and transfixed with the director constantly dazzling us with moments of spellbinding virtuosity. Hell, you could write several essays on the use of cigarettes and the exhalation of smoke here alone never mind the fluid camera moves, reflections, the breaking and recombining of visual spaces, the stunning cinematography, the churning sexuality, exquisite costumes and the sophisticated use of music and sound (especially to link certain scenes together) and all used in service of pulling us deeper in and firing up our brains. This film feels so modern and fresh!
Clouzot achieves this vitality by focusing on, and exploiting, two specific realms — that of the theatre and that of the camera (it’s not a coincidence Jenny’s a stage performer and her friend, Dora, is a photographer). The world of the theatre allows for discrete units of space to exist — on-stage, off-stage, the wings, a packed auditorium, rear entrances, etc — whilst the camera gives us the means to navigate these spaces, spaces the film then challenges us to reconstruct from memory in our head. Would you make a good detective or end up like poor Maurice? Have you been watching and, if so, what did you see?
‘Quai Des Orfevres’ is so rich, so dense and yet so alive, that I’m finding it impossible (and futile) to succinctly describe everything that’s captivating about it, so I’ll put it this way — it’s the kind of movie that must’ve had directors such as Kubrick or Resnais salivating like ravenous hounds or dumbstruck by jealousy at what they were seeing before them.
If you’re in any way shape or form a sucker for spectacular black and white cinematography and a seriously intelligent use of space then put this on, sit back and secure your socks to your feet as tightly as you can (I used some gaffa tape for mine) because ‘Quai Des Orfevres’ will blow them off with such power they’ll possibly cause structural damage to your home. Mine ended up in my neighbour’s greenhouse.