There’s a lot going on in the 1947 French noir thriller Quai des Orfèvres (literally “Headquarters”), an early police procedural that has plenty of plot twists and tough, gritty elements to keep viewers glued to the film. It also has a great, if not entirely plausible, ending that will surprise you. Perhaps most interestingly, director Henri-Georges Clouzot presents a rogue’s gallery of somewhat likable, flawed characters who all seem to have motivation for the central murder. So who dunnit?
The story centers around nightclub singer Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair), who is married to mousy pianist Maurice (Bernard Blier) but endlessly flirts with other men to further her career. It’s post-WWII France and there are lots of lonely men in the world of nightclubs, apparently, because she is constantly being ogled by much older men, to Maurice’s frustration. The worst of them is the wealthy and powerful Georges Brignon (Charles Dullin), who is known to be a creep and lecher, but is understandably attracted to the glamorous and beautiful Lamour. For her part, Lamour seems ready to sleep her way to success, something that Maurice cannot avoid, even as he remains in love with her.
When Lamour tells her husband that she’s off to visit her grandmother one evening, he’s understandably skeptical, following clues that reveal she’s actually planning a late-night assignation with Brignon. He won’t stand for it and decides to kill the older man, consequences be damned. Afraid of the consequences, he sets himself up with a complicated alibi. When he arrives at Brignon’s apartment, the scene is not at all what he expected, completely messing up his carefully plotted plans for revenge.
Meanwhile, it’s possible that Lamour herself has killed Brignon after she quite forcefully rejects his amorous intentions, as she confesses to photographer pal Dora Monnier (Simone Renant). Dora is in love with Lamour in a rather sad one-way relationship. Inspired by her affection for the singer, Dora returns to the scene of the crime to ensure that Lamour didn’t accidentally leave any clues.
Meanwhile, Maurice’s car is stolen so he can’t zip across Paris for the second part of his alibi more complicated: he needs to get across town or he will quickly be identified as the most likely suspect. He didn’t kill Brignon, as we know, but will the police believe that? Enter the competent and highly likable Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet), who is assigned to the murder – because, yes, Brignon is dead – and has to puzzle through all of the various relationships, potential murderers, and motives. Was it Dora the besotted photographer rescuing Lamour? Was it jealous husband Maurice? Or was it possibly Lamour herself?
Therein lies the fun of this dark and visually exciting French noir film, an expertly filmed and assembled story that takes place deep in the world of 1940s Parisian nightclubs, cramped apartments, and dark, dark alleys. Unlike Hollywood studio noir of the same era, it offers up a comparatively daring view of sexuality – a lesbian photographer who is a sympathetic character? A shameless flirt who isn’t a femme fatale? – in a matter-of-fact way that highlights the oft-moralistic Hollywood approach to film noir.
What’s most worthy of note technically in Quai des Orfèvres is the staging and remarkable fluidity of the camera. It continually pulls us backstage in a sly nod to the camera’s role itself in cinema, letting us be a part of what’s going on behind the scene. The chaos, bickering, and well-natured teasing of the offstage performers is beautiful, and the lurking presence of the ever-jealous Maurice in the background builds up a completely believable identity for him as the cuckolded husband poised to explode in a murderous rage.
If anything, where the film falls apart is in the actual ending, one that will have you scratching your head in confusion when you learn who committed the heinous crime and why they did it. No spoilers, but if you can forgive the writers being perhaps a bit too concerned with character redemption, there’s a lot to enjoy from this otherwise top-notch 1947 noir thriller. Director Clouzot also made the critically acclaimed films The Wages of Fear and Les Diaboliques, both of which are well worth watching.