Wednesday, September 22, 2004

DVD: Quai des Orfèvres (1947)

Director Henri-Georges Clouzot is perhaps best known for the suspense masterpiece DIABOLIQUE. (The 1955 French version, natch. Not the hellishly bad quasi-feminist remake featuring Sharon Stone in a series of ensembles based on the wallpaper designs from the old Cal-Neva resort in Lake Tahoe. For some reason, her clothes are the only thing I remember about the remake. Apart from the ‘improved’ ending.) Clouzot also made the nerve-wracking classic THE WAGES OF FEAR, about truckers hauling nitroglycerin. Two great thrillers, made with perfect detached control.

That’s why it’s a surprise and a treat to catch up with a Clouzot film that’s an epic of humanism. It’s structured as a murder mystery – the title is the location of Paris police headquarters – but is so much more. It’s also a portrait of a troubled marriage and an exposé of show business life. Jenny Lamour (Suzy Delair) is an ambitious cabaret singer who’s not above flirting her way to success. Her husband and accompanist Maurice (Bernard Blier) fumes over her infidelities but can’t bring himself to leave her. When the “dirty old man” who showed an interest in Jenny is found dead, the case falls to a crusty detective (Louis Jouvet) and veteran of the Foreign Legion who gained a son in Africa and is struggling to raise him alone.

Clouzot packs the film with memorable characters, starting with the Columbo-esque Jouvet. His staging is brilliant, as when he has the detective interrogate the couple during a rehearsal over the music. Every scene pops ... particularly the one where the lovely Jenny poses for her publicity photos. Yowza. It astounds me that a movie with such bracingly adult takes on love and sex can end with what amounts to a Christmas miracle. The movie is a joy from start to finish.

The Criterion DVD includes excerpts from a 1971 documentary on Clouzot. The director is almost combative in his responses, but considering the oddly pretentious interviewer perhaps he should be. Clouzot was famous for bullying his actors, at times physically assaulting them. On this film he subjected Bernard Blier to an actual blood transfusion on camera under the supervision of doctors. What’s amazing is how the actors laugh over this behavior and swear how they would work with him again. It’s a far cry from George Clooney getting into a fistfight with David O. Russell on the set of THREE KINGS.

R.I.P.: Russ Meyer

You’ll find no better appreciation of Meyer than this one written by his former collaborator Roger Ebert. I watched BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS, one of the films they made together, a few months ago and mentioned it on the blog. I think it’s appropriate that I quote my review in its entirety here:

“Jesus, is this movie nuts.”