Alfred Hitchcock considered one film director to be his equal in terms of suspense, and that was the French filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot. Most famous for his film Les Diaboliques about a dead master at a boarding school, he predated the French New Wave and was largely discarded by them. It was an unfortunate situation because Clouzot is easily one of my favorite French directors. His command of suspense really is on par with Hitchcock’s, and he created a marvelously twisty mystery that seems straightforward in Quai des Orfevres but is never quite so.
Named after the location of a police station in Paris, Quai des Orfevres tells the story of Jenny Lamour, an up and coming singer, and her husband Maurice. They love each other, but her dreams of making it big collide with his bourgeois values. She’s happy to flirt with anyone around in order to help advance her career, including the creepy old M. Brignon, a dirty old man who brings young women to Maurice’s childhood friend and neighbor, Dora, to photograph nude. Jenny listens to Brignon’s promises of connecting her with movie producers, and she’s happy to have dinners alone with him. However she must lie to Maurice who simply won’t understand what she’s trying to do. Of course, Maurice finds out, threatens Brignon in front of a cadre of waiters, and storms off, breaking off their date.
When Jenny disappears one night with a thin excuse that she’s off to see her grandmother, Maurice knows exactly where she’s gone. He finds his gun and heads off to Brignon’s address, ready to kill them both. He establishes an alibi, showing up to a nearby theater where he’s seen by several people before slipping out the back and driving away in his car, before showing up to discover that Brignon is dead on the floor of his house already. Confused, he leaves, only to have his car stolen in front of his very eyes, forcing him to run back to the theater on foot, creating a gap in his timeline that he will never be able to explain even though he didn’t kill Brignon.
In comes Inspector Antoine. Antoine is a tired former soldier who’s just there to do his job, bemoaning that it interferes with the few spare moments he gets with his son. There’s a bittersweet quality to Antoine because he is essentially the antagonist of the film, trying to pin the murder on Maurice whom we know for a fact didn’t do the murder, but he’s just trying to do his job as best as he can.
The key for the audience is that we know who did the murder. It was Jenny. She came home the night of the murder and confessed to Dora. Having left her fox fur at the murder scene, though, Dora offers to get it for Jenny since Jenny can’t bear to go back to the scene of the crime. All three are linked to the murder scene, but Antoine ends up focusing in on Maurice because of his outburst in front of the waiters.
The actual mystery really isn’t a mystery because we know what’s happened from the start (though there’s a twist to that as well). What buoys the film for its final hour is the ever-encircling grip of Antoine as he goes from lazily questioning Maurice and Jenny as just another in his list to becoming determined that Maurice was the one who did it. It’s the combination of strong character work going into Maurice, Jenny, Dora, and Antoine along with the tense filmmaking going on around every scene, every interaction, as we understand the reasons why people can’t communicate with each other. We understand that some simple sentences could clear up parts of this entanglement, but we also don’t want the characters to do that because we know how much damage to the whole group any of the individual reveals will cause them.
This delicate balance never comes undone. It’s incredibly well handled by Clouzot who manages both incredible feeling and tension all at once for an extended period of time. I suppose the only thing I hold against it is a pet peeve of mine. I don’t think information owned by point of view characters should be withheld from audiences, and Antoine knows something that doesn’t get revealed until late. It completely reshapes the audience’s perception of the investigation, providing an extra dimension that we’re not thinking about and would remold the tension into a less all-encompassing nature. However, that being said, the technique works really well here. I don’t think the technique should be used generally, but if it’s going to be used, do it like this.
Clouzot was a real talent, bringing the same kind of tension filled filmmaking as Hitchcock but providing an even stronger sense of character from which to hang the tension on.