Quai des Orfèvres

Jenny Lamour and the inspector

“Quai des Orfèvres” means “the cops” in France in the same way that “Scotland Yard” does in the UK. So it’s no surprise that this classic from 1947 is a crime thriller. It’s a peculiarly knotty one, directed by the masterly Henri-Georges Clouzot, who also did the adaptation, from Stanislas-André Steeman’s original novel Légitime Défense.

Clouzot did not have the novel in front of him as he worked, and had not read it for years, but he took Steeman’s basic idea and fleshed it out using his own characters, getting all sorts of plot details “wrong” as he worked. The result appalled Steeman, who discovered that Clouzot and writing collaborator Jean Ferry had changed the settings, altered the identity of the killer and introduced a lesbian photographer as a key element in “his” story, which is as much character study as policier.

Steeman might have been right to be annoyed about the identity of the killer – Clouzot’s “solution” to the mystery is a bit rubbish – but the setting is a masterstroke. The whole thing takes place inside the world of the Paris vaudeville, where alongside the performing dogs and horses, dancers, comedians and singers, old guys with wandering hands haunt the backstage area in the hope of finding pretty young women in various stages of undress.

This is the world piano accompanist Maurice (Bernard Blier) finds himself in, along with his pretty young wife, Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair), an ambitious singer who’ll do god knows what to advance her career. As a result of Jenny’s incessant coquettishness every time something in trousers is in sight, Maurice spends most of his life boiling with jealous fury and the rest of it being reassured by his wife that she only has eyes for him. This may or may not be true.

Things come to head when notorious “dirty old man” producer Georges Brignon (Charles Dullin) invites Jenny over to his place to discuss a movie contract. He winds up dead. Maybe Jenny did it and maybe she didn’t, but it’s Georges who’s discovered the body and, knowing the police appreciate nothing more than an open and shut case, realises a jealous husband is obviously going to be the prime suspect. Meanwhile, Clouzot’s invention, the lesbian photographer Dora (Simone Renant), who has the hots for Jenny, helps her construct an alibi and, realising the police will probably finger Maurice, subtly nudges them in the direction of the poor husband.

Jenny and Dora
Jenny and Dora



It is a dark bit of plotting relying on a bleak view of human nature and once the chatty, humane, amused and amusing Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet) arrives on the scene, Dora, Jenny and Georges only work themselves into the mire at an even faster rate.

This was Clouzot’s first film since 1942’s Le Corbeau, which he made for a German studio. Le Corbeau is also a darkly plotted movie (the first French noir, some claim) and is capable of being read in several ways, at least one of them condoning the Nazi occupation of France. It got Clouzot banned from making films for five years. Delair, his star and partner at the time, had also been accused of being over-friendly with the Germans. (Delair, remarkably, only died in 2020, aged 102).

Perhaps feeling he and his partner had something to prove, Clouzot turned out a beautiful looking film – all those gorgeously photographed night-time streets. It’s also light as air, moves at speed and finds time for little comic moments all the way through, often in the background, Hitchcock style (Clouzot also storyboarded the whole thing out, Hitchcock style, the first time he’d worked that way). Thanks to the vaudeville setting, musical numbers can be dropped in naturally without straining credibility. Delair can really sing.

Clouzot adds yet another layer by setting the whole thing in the run-up to Christmas (Joyeux Noël was an early title), contrasting the pleasure at the prospect of the festive season with the increasing desperation of the three suspects as the net tightens. Snow falls outside the window of the police station. Ironic snow.




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© Steve Morrissey 2022









Les Diaboliques

Christina and Nicole

Les Diaboliques is the film that Alfred Hitchcock missed out on making after getting pipped to the post by another master of suspense, Henri-Georges Clouzot. If the story is true, Clouzot stayed up all night reading the original novel, Celle qui n’était plus, and then called writers Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac the next morning, desperate to have the rights. By the time Hitchcock rang a few hours later they were sold.

Hitchcock did not walk away entirely empty handed. Boileau and Narcejac went on to write D’Entre les Morts for him, which he turned into Vertigo, currently ranked at number one in the Sight & Sound 100 Greatest Films of All Time poll. Boileau and Narcejac also wrote the adaptation of Eyes without a Face for Georges Franju, so clearly between 1955 and 1960 all their guns were firing.

Les Diaboliques is the story of two female teachers – wife Christina (Véra Clouzot, wife of the director) and mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret) – who decide that the best way to deal with Michel (Paul Meurisse), the bullying brute of a husband/lover who is also their boss at their school, is to kill him. The film isn’t so much about the killing, which comes fairly early on, but about dealing with the body and the psychological effect the murder has on the two women.

Complicating things slightly in Boileau and Narcejac’s original story was the fact that girlish, pigtailed Christina (Clouzot) and worldly, coiffed Nicole (Signoret) were also lovers. That’s gone in the adaptation, though a hint of a relationship is hinted at. It adds transgressive spice but HG Clouzot isn’t really interested in that side of things. Instead, Hitchcock style, he’s keener on tormenting his characters, and by extension the audience, as Michel, a bastard while alive, proves to be even more of a problem when dead. Spiriting his body away from the scene of the crime isn’t easy. Then it somehow disappears entirely. Then suggestions start to emerge that Michel isn’t really dead at all, even though we’ve seen the man drugged, drowned overnight in a bathtub and then deposited for several days at the murky bottom of the school’s swimming pool.

Nicole weighs down the body
Nicole weighs down Michel’s body



There is a shock reveal at the end, which won’t shock modern audiences because it’s been borrowed and re-borrowed so many times since, but at the time it was considered so crucial to the enjoyment of the film that there’s an entreaty to the audiences in the closing credits asking them not to be “devils” (“diaboliques” in French) and ruin the film for people who hadn’t seen it.

The plot is great fun but actually much of the enjoyment comes from HG Clouzot’s control of his actors and the gothic mis en scene. There’s no music. The school where much of the action is set is austere in the extreme, and populated with shady characters, and regular Clouzot DP Armand Thirard underlights it the entire way through, so that in one dark room after another the women’s faces, lit ghoulishly from below, loom out of the murk, first as scheming conspirators, later as guilt-ridden sinners.

It’s all very Catholic, emphasised by the arrival of Commissaire Fichet, a retired policeman dressed in dark clothes like a cleric, who has a Columbo style faux naive approach to detective work, as much father confessor as cop on the case.

Much of the burden of the acting falls on Véra Clouzot, who only made three films, all of which were directed by her husband, and though he’s obviously instructed his DP to light her as flatteringly as can be managed, Véra needs no following wind and comes up with the goods as the trembling, religiously-minded soul who’s having second thoughts now the deed is done. Signoret, as the tough-nut mastermind, takes great care not to stand in Mme Clouzot’s light. She can do this sort of thing in her sleep, and in several different languages.



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© Steve Morrissey 2021









Les Diaboliques

Simone Signoret and Vera Clouzot in Les Diaboliques

 

 

 

If you’re working yourself towards film-buffery, you really need to have seen something by master of suspense Henri-Georges Clouzot – “the French Hitchcock” he is often called, when Jacques Deray or Claude Chabrol aren’t using the sobriquet. You may already have seen the masterful The Wages of Fear, Clouzot’s 1953 tale of gelignite being driven across the South American jungle. It’s well worth adding Les Diaboliques, 1954’s tale of the murder most horrid – drugged, drowned – of a brutish husband by a fragile wife (Vera Clouzot) and his scheming mistress (Simone Signoret, none better). Job done, except the body keeps disappearing. Less a whodunit, more a wheresitgone, Les Diaboliques also strongly prefigures films like Thelma and Louise – where women do the dirty work and carry the drama. And watch out for the performance, as a shabby detective, by the brilliant French character actor Charles Vanel – pure Columbo, at least 20 years before Peter Falk ever fixed his glass eye on a suspect. Here in restored, silky monochrome glory and boasting a soundtrack heaving with pregnant silence, Les Diaboliques is the blueprint for so many suspense films to come.

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

Les Diaboliques – at Amazon