Is it a murder mystery? Is it a police procedural? Is it a back-stage look at seedy French music halls? Quai des Orfevres is all of these, but more than anything else it's an amusing comedy of infidelity, jealousy and love, set in post-WWII Paris.
It may be surprising that Henri-Georges Clouzot, the director of such grim films as Le Corbeau or such suspenseful nail-biters as Diabolique and The Wages of Fear, is the director of this one. Clouzot, however, was a shrewd film-maker. "In a murder mystery," he tells us, 'there's an element of playfulness. It's never totally realistic. In this I share Hitchcock's view, which says, 'A murder mystery is a slice of cake with raisins and candied fruit, and if you deny yourself this, you might as well film a documentary.'" Quai des Orfevres is a wonderful film, and it's no documentary.
Jenny Martineau (Suzy Delair) is an ambitious singer at music halls and supper clubs. She's a flirt, she's sees nothing too wrong with using a bit of sex as well as talent to get a contract. Her stage name is Jenny Latour. And she really loves her husband, Maurice Martineau (Bernard Blier). Martineau is something of a sad sack. He's her accompanist and arranger. He's a bit balding, a bit chubby and jealous to a fault.
Then we have their neighbor, the photographer Dora Monnier (Simone Renant). She's blond, gorgeous (think of Rita Hayworth) and capable. She and Martineau have been friends since they were children together. Dora, however, is definitely not thinking just of friendship when she looks at Jenny.
Then comes along Georges Brignon (Charles Dullin), a wizened, rich and dirty old man, who often has Dora take "art" photographs of his young female proteges whom he poses himself. He offers a contract for a film to Jenny, and suggests a dinner at his home to discuss the details. Jenny is more than willing. Maurice is furious and forbids it. Jenny shouts right back at him, "You're jealous of the rich! Well, I want my share of their dough. I'm all for royalty!" "You're dad was a laborer," Maurice shouts back. "So what? Under Louis XV, I'd have been Madame de Pompadour! I'd have heated up their tights!"
And after Brignon is found dead with a smashed champagne bottle next to his bleeding skull, there's Dora to try to make things safe for Jenny.
But wait. Then Inspector Antoine gets the case. Antoine (Louis Jouvet) is a tall, tired, middle-aged bachelor with sore feet. He has seen it all. He served in "the colonies" with the Foreign Legion and returned with an adopted baby and malaria. The child is now about eight-years old and Antoine dotes on him. One of the first things Antoine discovers is not only did someone brain Brignon with a bottle, someone shot him in the heart. Who did it? Before long Jenny, Maurice and Dora all are making up alibis, lying and, at one or another point, confessing. How will Antoine discover the murderer? Will we have a chance to see some great music hall songs sung by Jenny Latour? Everything becomes clear, but only with time and Detective Antoine's persistence. We are left with many kinds of love leading to all kinds of motives, from hair-trigger jealousy to longing glances...and all played with a nice mixture of Gallic amusement.
Clouzot takes us to a Paris of seedy but not threatening neighborhoods, to downtrodden music publishers where tunes are played on the piano for buyers, to restaurants with discrete private dining rooms. Most of all, Clouzot takes us to the music hall where Jenny Latour often performs. We can see Jenny as she sings, with couples in the seats and single men wearing their coats and hats in standing room. And everyone smokes. The first third of the film, in fact, takes place largely in this milieu. With Jenny singing about "Her petite tra-la-la, her sweet tra-la-la," we follow her from trying out the song at the publishers to a rehearsal to a saucy performance with Jenny in a feathered hat, a corset, gartered stockings and not much else. It’s a clever, charming sequence.
Delair, Blier and Renant all do wonderful jobs, but it Louis Jouvet who holds everything together. He was a marvelous actor who disliked making films. The stage was his world, and he took on films only if he happened to like the director and to make money to finance his stage work. Jouvet was tall with a long face and broad cheekbones. He was not conventionally handsome but he had what it takes to dominate a scene. For a look at how skillfully he could play comedy, watch him in Drole de Drame. He's a fascinating actor. At one point he says, "I've taken a liking to you, Miss Dora Monnier." "Me?" she asks. "Yes. Because you and I are two of a kind. When it comes to women, we'll never have a chance." Jouvet brings all kinds of nuances to that line, from rueful regret to a gentle amusement.