- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 8, 2003

While we revisit ad nauseam the subject of the postwar Hollywood blacklist, scarcely known in this country is its European reverse image, the anti-collaborationist purge that took place in the French film industry immediately after World War II.
One of its most prominent victims was the director Henri-Georges Clouzot, made a convenient scapegoat after the war by a French film community that had been more widely infected by collaboration than it cared to admit.
The French pride themselves on their long historical memories, but, fortunately for Mr. Clouzot, in his case it was pretty short. By 1947, he was directing again, and his comeback film was the crime melodrama of that year, "Quai des Orfevres," booked at the American Film Institute Theater through Feb. 16.
An immediate audience favorite in France, the film has sustained an enduring popularity in its country of origin. Imported more or less promptly and retitled "Jenny Lamour," the stage name of the heroine, a saucy music hall and nightclub singer portrayed by Suzy Delair (the mistress of director Clouzot during the 1940s), "Quai" had drifted out of American art-house circulation before its recent rediscovery.
The title refers to a location on the Ile de la Cite in Paris, not far from the cathedral of Notre Dame. In the 17th century, it was frequented by goldsmiths and became known as "Quai des Orfevres," literally "embankment of the goldsmiths." Three centuries later, the most conspicuous professional presence had become the Paris police, whose Criminal Investigation Division (CID) was in the same neighborhood. Think of it as the Parisian equivalent of Scotland Yard.
Jenny, something of a shameless gold digger, becomes one of the prime suspects in the murder of a lecherous, hunchback film producer called Brignon, who aspires to be one of her admirers but doesn't last long enough to get an indecent chance. In the wake of his demise, we're introduced to a CID sleuth called Antoine, played by the great, cadaverous French actor Louis Jouvet.
Antoine's methods involve a style of interrogation that gravitates from the disarming to the intimidating. While applying it to another prime suspect, Jenny's chronically jealous spouse, Maurice Martineau (Bernard Blier), the detective almost provokes a fatality. However, since "Quai" remains an entertainment, the misanthropic tendencies that later governed Mr. Clouzot's most celebrated movies, "The Wages of Fear" and "Diabolique," are subject to merciful and fun-loving restraints. Jenny may be a potential tramp and Maurice a potential calamity, but they are also regarded as a genuinely devoted showbiz match, worthy of solicitude despite their frailties.
You're loathe to see anything dreadful befall Jenny after catching Miss Delair's first ditty, the justly famous "Avec son tra-la-la," in which she celebrates her prize attribute, "a pretty tra-la-la." This is the number that prompted Pauline Kael to quip, "She may make you wonder if the higher things in life are worth the trouble."
"Quai" is sustained by atmosphere and business the atmosphere derived from vividly tawdry theatrical and police settings, the business from diverting character traits and character interplay. For example, the most impressive thing about Antoine as an interrogator is that racket doesn't faze him he persists despite a Gypsy orchestra's mad rehearsal in one sequence, the clatter of a demon police typist in another and the tumult of noisy police reporters in yet another.
"Quai des Orfevres" is a savory and sometimes uproarious time capsule to contemplate at a remove of half a century. At the time, it was a decisive comeback project for Mr. Clouzot (1907-1977), whose directing career had begun with two crime thrillers during World War II. The second of these, "Le Corbeau," a sinister classic about a poison-pen conspiracy in a provincial town, had been a hit during the German occupation, but it had also been reviled in the Resistance press, which claimed that the Germans exhibited it outside the country to illustrate "French decadence."
Francois Truffaut recalled the film's impact years later: "I must have seen it five or six times between … its release (May 1943) and the Liberation, when it was prohibited. Later, when it was once again allowed to be shown, I used to go to see it several times a year. … [It] seemed to me to be a fairly accurate picture of what I had seen around me during the war and the postwar period collaboration, denunciation, the black market, hustling, cynicism."
As the head writer for Continental, the German-owned film company that employed numerous members of the French industry during the occupation, Mr. Clouzot was a conspicuous target for reprisals after the Liberation. He was "purged" by a postwar committee of colleagues and spent a few years in professional purgatory before returning to work with "Quai."
The climate of opinion that penalized Mr. Clouzot's sort of opportunism was summed up years later by the screenwriter Michel Audiard, quoted in "Child of Paradise," Edward Baron Turk's biography of Marcel Carne: "We had to have some scapegoats … so we pretended that only Mr. Clouzot had made pictures and only Pierre Fresnay had acted. That cleared everyone else's name, and we could all calm down … ."
By 1947 the calm was such that Mr. Clouzot could mount a seemingly nonchalant and commercially triumphant return with "Quai des Orfevres." Anticipate a French soul mate of such entertaining Hollywood thrillers of the period as "The Big Sleep," "The Blue Dahlia" and "Laura," and you should be in the proper time-traveling frame of mind.

***
TITLE: "Quai des Orfevres"
RATING:
No MPAA Rating (made in 1947, years before the advent of the rating system; adult subject matter, with occasional profanity, sexual candor and frequent allusions to vice; fleeting violence)
CREDITS:
Directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. Screenplay by Mr. Clouzot and Jean Ferry, based on the novel "Legitime defense" by Stanislas A. Steeman. Cinematography by Armand Thirard. Decor by Max Douy. Costumes by Jacques Fath. Songs by Francois Lopez and Andre Hornez. Musical direction by Andre Lasry. In French with English subtitles.
RUNNING TIME:
102 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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