AFED #18: Quai des Orfèvres [Quay of the Goldsmiths] (France, 1947); Dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot

I'll be the first to admit that when it comes to my film viewing habits I'm a bit of a snob. In the early years I was inclined to seek out the critically acclaimed rather than populist cinema, and although my tastes expanded to include more idiosyncratic material as a rule it's tended to be haute cuisine over meat and potatoes.

The drawback of this philosophy is one grows so accustomed to the good stuff it's not always possible to appreciate the value of what you're watching relative to the bigger picture. I suspect this may be why the work of French writer/director Henri-Georges Clouzot has failed to capture me.

Clouzot is best remembered for the high-tension truck adventure Wages of Fear and seminal psychological thriller Les Diaboliques; neither of which which lived up to their reputation. Strangely enough I prefer some of the Hammer studio's shameless rip-offs of Les Diaboliques, such as Scream of Fear, to the original. Seen retrospectively Clouzot's films are perfectly adequate but whatever stood them apart has been appropriated and assimilated into film grammar. In my opinion there aren't the technical flourishes and manipulation of the medium's language that make even an average Hitchcock film eminently watchable.

Perhaps this is why the Cahiers du Cinema critics (I promise I'm not going to prattle about them every week) were anti-Clouzot, or simply that he represented the mainstream establishment of French cinema they were bent on overturning.

After serving a two-year ban for the contentious charge of collaborating with the Nazis during their occupation, Clouzot to the cinema in 1947 with the detective story Quai des Orfèvres. It's a fairly routine example of the genre; impecunious composer/pianist Maurice and his chanteuse wife Jenny are implicated in the murder of a sleazy businessman who's been attempting to seduce the Jenny with promises of a career break. The investigating detective, Inspector Antoine, slowly unpicks their respective alibis and uncovers what really happened.

What distinguishes the film from its contemporaries is a more considered, thoughful approach to the story. Time is spent developing the characters of Maurice and Jenny and the ups and downs of their melodramatic relationship before the murder takes place. In fact to the point that both become rather irritating. Unusually the identity of the murderer is indicated early on, even if crucially it's not depicted on screen, allowing for an emphasis on the investigative procedure rather than the mystery of who did it. Inspector Antoine, a jaded but phlegmatic ex Foreign Legionnaire, is a little like a proto-Columbo and superbly played by Louis Jouvet.

There is also a sense of authenticity to the depiction of the police; the ambivalent attitude in which they're held by the general public and the symbiotic camaraderie they share with the criminal fraternity, as too with the press. They're not averse to using unorthodox means to extract the truth and outwit their quarry.

The artistic design and cinematography are as well realised as you'll find anywhere during this period and Clouzot's sharp and witty dialogue has aged well; characterisation is one area in which he excels. But again, my main criticism is there's nothing I haven't seen or grown accustomed to elsewhere. It lacks that little bit extra to elevate it above the merely very good.


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