Quai des Orfèvres

dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot

Fri Feb 28-Thurs March 6 at the Varsity.

The FIrst time I went to Paris, I had only one complaint--aside from crippling jet lag, nasty locals, and toxic dog excrement. The city was everything I'd been led to expect by a short lifetime of watching as many French films as possible, except for one crucial detail: It was in color. The Paris of my imagination ranges in spectrum from coal black to smoky gray; only the subtitles are entirely white. Alas, real life failed to deliver once again, and I had to reconfigure my mental image to accommodate it. Thankfully, there are films like Henri-Georges Clouzot's amazing Quai des Orfèvres--unscreened in this country for more than 50 years--to help take up the fantasy slack.

The first thing we see in this delightful noir leftover is rain splashing on the dirty cobblestones of a Parisian back alley. Bon. From there, it's on to tenements, music halls, garrets, and police stations--all lit with dramatic romance and shaded by endless plumes of cigarette smoke. Like Clouzot's better-known masterpieces (Wages of Fear, Diabolique), Quai des Orfèvres is driven by the elements of tight suspense, dark humor, and offhand sexuality. The potboiler of a plot involves an ambitious wife whose schlubby husband takes the rap for a murder she commits, a zealous but patient police detective, and the lesbian photographer who loves them all.

Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair) is going places, or so she thinks, and plays fast and loose with the come-ons of other men in full view of her husband Maurice, who simmers with impotent jealousy. She's a chorus girl, dancer, and model, with boundless aspirations, but Maurice, she swears, is the only fella for her. One night, her ambitions and flirtations collide in the apartment of Brignon (Charles Dullin, exquisitely sleazy), an impresario whose taste for ladies runs to just this side of porn; next thing you know, Brignon is dead, Maurice is under suspicion, and Jenny has to decide just how much to confess, and to whom.

All this detail really only scratches the surface of a film that's near-delirious with its own energy. Made just three years after France's liberation, Orfèvres is funny, kinky, tough, and cynical, but it swells with love for both cinema and mankind. One gets the sense of Clouzot facing down postwar reality by indulging in sex, politics, race, class, art, and showbiz--all the things that make France worth fantasizing over.