Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Zaftig bombshell

Quai des Orfèvres 1947 Majestic, France (91 minutes) directed and cowritten by Henri-Georges Clouzot; the DVD set includes a 1971 interview for French television with Clouzot and three of the stars.
The French classic Quai des Orfèvres combines a plain man’s violently obsessive jealousy over his voluptuous music hall singer/actress wife with the murder of a powerful but nasty old hunchback.
Quai des Orfèvres is the location of police headquarters in central Paris. The murder investigation actually functions more as a vehicle for the chief inspector and his associates to crack wise about the victim, suspects and human nature in general, with each other, the suspects and a troupe of minor characters.
A large and lively cast of music hall performers, crew and management, cops, criminal detainees, reporters, performing dogs and a variety of men- and women-in-the-street all get to toss in their sou’s worth of snappy comments and eye rolls as the story develops.
As in Hollywood pictures of the same era, dramatic studio lighting heightens the mystique of this long-ago time and place; the milk bath of light gives the actors’ skin a warm, rosy glow.
The story takes place in December 1946: the coats, scarves and hats worn inside and an unconscionable lack of cars on the streets all speak to the fact that this is Paris in the first year after the war.
The film opens with the zaftig bombshell Jenny Martineau/Lamour (Suzy Delair), a kind of French Mae West, listening to a middle-aged musical talent agent singing a song for her. Her pianist husband, Maurice Martineau (Bernard Blier) seen through a glass door, is playing the piano in the next room. The agent keeps time by patting Jenny jovially on her fluffy fox-furred knee, a liberty which enrages Maurice. Jenny and the agent dismiss his jealous outburst—the silly boy knows she flirts with middle-aged sugar daddies who she thinks can help her career—and she sings what turns out to be her hit song, ‘Avec son tra-la-la,’ pushing the story along from the agency to the Paris music hall where she and her husband perform.
Enter Dora Monnier (Simone Renant), a photographer with a studio and apartment near the Martineaus’ apartment, who is the couple’s best friend. We see Dora taking publicity photos of Jenny in a frilly black bustier and an oversized hat with a large white plume, her shapely legs in black nylons.
Jenny rebuffs Dora’s physical interest in her, and the session is cut short when another client, Georges Brignon (Charles Dullin), the rich hunchback, arrives with a lovely young ‘starlet’ he wants photographed in nothing but her shoes for his ‘personal collection’. As Jenny leaves, the grotesque Brignon proposes meeting her for lunch ‘with his director’ to discuss a film role for her.
Maurice disrupts the subsequent lunch meeting in jealous rage, with a passionate death threat heard by all the restaurant staff; Jenny later manages secretly to meet Brignon in the evening; the housekeeper discovers him dead on his hearth the next morning. Now it is the job of Detective Lieutenant Antoine (Louis Jouvet) to work out whodunit.
Very little surprises the droll Antoine, a gravelly voiced ex-legionnaire who served in the colonies and is raising a mixed race adolescent as a single parent. The pipe-smoking Jouvet, a fixture in French detective movies along the lines of Humphrey Bogart, has a manner that is appealingly direct and I’ll-be-damned! that makes him and his interactions with the other actors fun to watch.
The result is a classic: a sexy and entertaining French detective movie deftly narrated in pictures with an appreciation of human frailty and a wry sense of humor.
This was the first film Clouzot made after serving a two-year professional ban for purportedly having collaborated with the Nazi occupiers during the war. Clouzot made Le Corbeau (The Raven) in 1943 in occupied France for a German production company set up in France under the auspices of Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels.
This wartime film examined human nature by showing the residents of a small town reacting to the scurrilous accusations of an anonymous poison pen writer.
The work was taken to have cast the French people in a negative light, in line with the Third Reich’s characterization of the subjected French as a craven and emotional people. It angered the French Left and Right, the Catholic Church—and the Nazis themselves evidently were not all that happy with it either.

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