Reflections on “Quai des Orfèvres” (1947),
directed and written by H.G. Clouzot ,
starring Louis Jouvet, Suzy Delair,
Bernard Blier and Simone Renant
Ostensibly an investigation into a murder in post-war Paris, “Quai des Orfèvres” is rather an investigation into human nature, character, motivation, responsibility and guilt (or lack of it), morality (or lack of it), justice (or lack of it), ambition, love and survival.
While the immediate context is post-war Paris and a murder in a fairly seedy and run-down area littered with entertainers trying to make a living and underworld figures also trying to survive, the broader thematic context is, in fact, far more telling.
“Film noir” is a term often used to define detective thrillers which challenge or flaunt the traditional view of morality and right and wrong. However, this film is part of a much broader challenge to the traditional view of the fabric of society – existentialism, and Clouzot’s film certainly contains many observations on relationships, human nature and responsibility which entitle it to be considered an existential work.
We are not dealing with high-minded social values in this film – the police are less concerned with justice, than with simply solving another case. There is little or no regret or outrage over the murder of Brignon – he is considered a dirty old man by both the public and the police investigating his death, who may even have deserved his premature end. Characters do what they can to survive and remain fairly detached from the murder and the subsequent investigation, feeling little remorse or involvement.
Jenny Lamour is an ambitious but small-time singer and entertainer who is clearly willing to use her feminine charms to flirt and manipulate her way to success. She is knowing and uses flattery to play on men’s weaknesses, but she discovers she cannot cross a line. She treats life and her career rather like a game or a performance, willing to use a variety of tactics to succeed, but is unwilling (in the end) to do any real harm to achieve success.
Jenny’s husband Maurice is immensely jealous and disapproving of Jenny’s game – he is a straightforward and uncomplicated fellow who sees (along with others) potential risks and dangers that Jenny fails to recognise as she does not take the “game” seriously enough.
Dora Monier is a professional photographer who is a good friend of Maurice, but who clearly has romantic feelings toward Jenny.
Dora does occasional work for Brignon, a dubious character who has many suspicious business interests and who has a liking for semi pornographic photos of young ladies, photos taken by Dora. Jenny sees Brignon’s connections as a means to furthering her career, while Brignon clearly hopes to gain his own advantage from working with Jenny. Understanding Brignon’s intentions, Jenny’s husband Maurice warns Brignon off, threatening him in the process.
The scene is then set for a complex series of interrogations and revelations as Inspector Antoine investigates Brignon’s murder, and we discover the motivations, actions and their consequences of these three main suspects, as well as a car thief named Paulo.
As they are questioned, we see that none of the various characters is keen to inform on the others, accentuating the existential point that each person is entitled to their freedom to act as they wish, provided they do not infringe the freedom or rights of others. Even Brignon, though considered low and unpleasant, is entitled to act as he wishes if others are willing to go along with his schemes. To inform would be to contribute to judgement and perhaps condemnation, something all appear keen to avoid.
Having said that, the main characters’ stories are all interconnected as each character acts to help or protect another and the “truth” would only cause harm to the one they love or care for. The objective truth, and therefore responsibility or guilt, is barely recognised or even considered as each character shields another. Love and friendship, then, count for considerably more than morality and fact.
People simply try to get by or survive in this world. Many of those we encounter belong to the world of the theatre or entertainment – actors who set out to please or appeal to people in order to make a living or get by. Could this be extended to include other members of the community? Do we not all try to please others in order to get by, whether in our everyday jobs or in our lives in general?
Another group of people focused upon are numerous shady underworld characters, people who reject society’s laws and mores to live by their own wits and skills. All appear to be following their natures and do the best they can to survive, using the character and skills with which they were born.
Everyone is innocent and guilty – no-one is seen as outright evil, but each may be open to human weakness, vanity or emotion, all of which cloud reason and clarity of mind leading to muddled or confused acts which they may regret.
In any case, there is no recourse to God, morality, right and wrong or even plain truth – all are willing to twist stories to suit their own ends. Perhaps as a result of this, there appears to be a global dislike and distrust of the police who seek to identify criminals and bring them to “justice”. Not that the police themselves appear devoted to the ideal of justice – Antoine thinks little of the murder victim, but pursues the murderer anyway as he wades through complex layers of lies, deceit and protection. Although hardly fulfilled by his job (he has not been promoted because he has a big mouth and is unwilling to go along with superiors merely in order to gain advancement, thus displaying the socially unpopular trait of independent thought), Antoine persists in seeking the truth – perhaps he also is merely following his nature and is doing what he needs to do to survive.
Everyone is connected as lives and events cross one another and impact on one another, usually because of emotion and humanity.
Even the hardened detectives encourage Maurice to plead guilty and claim a crime of passion, thereby diminishing the gravity of the offence (or at least offering compassion and understanding). They all understand his motives and want to close their case – they just want to go home and get on with their lives.
All appear worn down by life, yet retain the capacity for humanity. Antoine is “humanised” and fulfilled by his son, the result of his time in the colonies, yet he appears to hold Jenny in contempt for her uncontrolled ambition and the resultant consequences for all involved. He walks past a semi naked show girl without batting an eye, but appears to hold Dora in high regard. When Maurice is at his lowest ebb and chats with a girl in the cell next door, she seems hardened, uncaring and disillusioned, yet screams when she realises he has attempted suicide. Maurice and Dora acted to protect Jenny despite being treated relatively badly by her – we are all capable of acts of humanity and kindness despite being worn down by life, but ultimately it is our humanity that motivates us, not thoughts of religion, morality or God.
In the end, we discover the truth behind the murder but in fact we have discovered a great deal more about human nature, relationships and motives along the way.
You may also be interested in my pages on "Le Corbeau" and "Le Salaire de la Peur".
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