“Quai des Orfèvres” – A.J. Hakari

Sin City aside, they just don’t make film noirs like they used to. It seems that movies the likes of The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity that laid out the genre template first, packing in equal doses of conflicted characters and shadowy atmosphere, were also the ones to have done it the best. 1947’s Quai des Orfèvres (don’t even think of asking me how to pronounce that title) is a bit nontraditional in its storytelling, not so much focused on being a whodunit as it is a dramatic thriller that gets its tension by tailoring the plot to surround those who had nothing to do with the crime at its core. This might not make for a very suspenseful hour and 46 minutes, but Quai des Orfèvres has a couple of thematic tricks up its sleeve that make this French slice of noir deserving of a good watch.

Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair) is the shining star of a drab Parisian music hall, her talents packing in onlookers night after night. She’s recently even gotten the attention of a salacious old movie producer (Charles Dullin) who promises to make her a cinema star. Not so much a fan of all the attention Jenny’s receiving is Maurice Martineau (Bernard Blier), her husband and piano accompanist, who gets enraged whenever another man so much as glances in his spouse’s direction. The producer is no exception, and after Maurice learns of a secret meeting between him and Jenny made behind his back, he goes to give the lech a piece of his mind — only to find him dead as a doornail upon arrival. In no time, the police, led by the world-weary Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet), are on the case, and thanks to a little run-in with the producer before that resulted in some incriminating words thrown about, Maurice is the prime suspect. But not all is as it seems, as the producer’s real killer is still out there, with the forces of fate complicating the situation to the point that an innocent man may end up being locked behind bars.

It’s difficult to discuss Quai des Orfèvres without giving a big portion of the film away. There’s a secret that’s made known about 30 minutes in that, in retrospect, is part of the main story and doesn’t exactly spoil the bigger mystery at hand, but if I were to spoil it here, the film would be infinitely less interesting. All I will say is that Quai des Orfèvres sort of jumbles up the usual whodunit turn of events, in which you know both that the main character is innocent as well as the identity of the killer (or at least who believes themselves to be the killer), and yet you always have a feeling that the mystery isn’t quite solved yet. Admittedly, this approach isn’t an entirely rock-solid one, as it leads to a couple of those lagging points at which the plot stalls because the characters refuse to just talk things out, not to mention a last-minute revelation that would be a stretch to Sherlock Holmes.

But as I mentioned before, the driving factor behind Quai des Orfèvres isn’t coming up with a satisfying resolution but rather coaxing viewers onto the edge of their seats with the investigation. The viewer is put right into Maurice’s shoes, following him and becoming enraptured by the constant twists that land him in an increasingly sticky situation. We know he’s not guilty, but gosh, he’s certainly done a lot of stuff to make him seem that way, and the key to the film’s suspense is in trying to figure out whether he’ll snap or find a way to prove his innocence in time. Blier’s performance as the befuddled and continuously strained Maurice provides the right sort of lead for this sort of story, a guy who may fly off the handle way too easily but still earns the viewer’s sympathy. Delair is very much easy on the eyes and, in the occasional music hall number, the ears, as well as delivering an all-around solid turn as the fame-hungry Jenny. Jouvet does a good job as the rumbled cop in charge of the investigation, and Simone Renant’s character, a photographer with some subtle eyes for Jenny, adds a particularly intriguing angle to the proceedings.

Quai des Orfèvres isn’t one of the highlights of the film noir genre, not by a long shot; its pacing is a little too wonky and plot mechanics a little too clunky to run completely smoothly. But for those a little bored with following Humphrey Bogart or Joseph Cotten down their umpteenth dark alleys, it provides an interesting enough alternate to the usual grind.

Rating: ★★★☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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