Never mind if you can't pronounce the title of Henri-Georges Clouzot's marvelous 1947 noir "Quai des Orfèvres" — for those with a taste for classic movies, it's like finding a buried treasure. The film, released in the United States as "Jenny Lamour," has been absent from screens for some 50 years. Now, thanks to StudioCanal (which supervised the restoration) and distributor Rialto Pictures (which brought in Lenny Borger's jazzy new subtitles), it's back, in a sparkling black-and-white print as crisp as a sunny winter morning.
Clouzot, best known for his '50s hits "The Wages of Fear" and "Diabolique," was honored at the Venice Film Festival for "Quai," and it's easy to see why — it's a deliciously naughty noir about a music-hall floozy with a heart of gold. Jenny (Suzy Delair, with big '40s hair framing her rosy-cheeked moon of a face), who hopes to drag herself and her accompanist husband (Bernard Blier) into the big time, finds herself in a sticky situation: A hunchbacked sleazebag of a movie producer is dead, and Jenny and Maurice are suspects in the murder, investigated by a wisely wary detective (Louis Jouvet).
Complicating matters is Dora (the exquisite Simone Renant, with her blond eyebrows permanently arched), an elegant lesbian who pines for Jenny. In trying to help her friend, Dora — who wears sweaters with her name monogrammed on the front, like a very literal subtitle — becomes a suspect in the crime.
It's a familiar whodunit story, with a number of twists. This femme fatale truly loves her sad-eyed husband — as she embraces him, swoony music soars (and a pot of milk overflows on the stove — wink, wink). Dora and the detective find themselves bonding, but not in the way you'd think. And the music-hall atmosphere gives it all a tart, slightly seedy flavor — even the mirrors in this beautifully shot film are a bit freckled. In one scene, a chanteuse warbles a tune without bothering to remove her cigarette, which bobs up and down in a lackadaisical way.
As snow falls in the Paris streets and Christmas bells ring out, "Quai des Orfèvres" (the title translates to the French equivalent of Scotland Yard) reaches a perfectly crafted ending that nonetheless may raise a few sighs from the audience. In the way of all great movies, it just leaves you wanting more.
In "Quai," Clouzot's camera lovingly showcases Delair — herself a music-hall performer — trilling cabaret songs like a full-throated bird. Now 86, Delair is still a joyous force of nature. In a telephone interview from her Paris home, she laughs merrily upon the mention of "Avec son tra-la-la," which became her signature piece. "Wherever I'd perform," she recalled, "people would scream for that song."
Through a translator, Delair spoke of her 12-year relationship with Clouzot, who wrote the role in "Quai des Orfèvres" for her. She was performing at the Chanson Deux Anes cabaret when they met — he was trying to cast a role in another film, their eyes met, and it was "coup de foudre" (love at first sight). "I didn't get that role," she said, "but I got him as a man."
Delair remembers Clouzot (who died in 1977) as an actor's director — very demanding of the actors, but creating a family-like atmosphere on the set. "Everyone just listened to him," she said, even the great Louis Jouvet. With a strong team around him, he created "a perfect movie." "Quai des Orfèvres" was a huge hit in France and made Delair — who throughout her career combined film work with cabaret performing — a well-known name.
Though Delair retired from movies and the stage some years ago, she's still singing, and recently recorded a CD. Looking back, she speaks glowingly of the "beautiful gift" that Clouzot gave her. As I told her how much I had enjoyed the film, a silvery laugh filled the telephone line. "Up somewhere in the sky," she said, "Clouzot would be happy to hear that."
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org