THERE'S AN air of delirious nuttiness to "Quai des Orfevres," a noirish, backstage whodunit that throws together a sweet-hearted floozy, the jealous husband from hell and a detective who just might be the funniest Gallic grouch in the history of the movies.
Made in 1947 by Henri-Georges Clouzot, this film was originally released as "Jenny Lamour," the stage name of the aforementioned floozy.
But although Clouzot won the director's prize at the Venice Film Festival that year, and "Quai" has been celebrated as a masterpiece by the French ever since, the movie has never really seen the light of American release.
The black-and-white French-language film is here for a 10-day run at the American Film Institute, rereleased, restored and its subtitles newly and more faithfully translated. You won't get a better opportunity than this to see a true classic.
Clouzot is the dark-mooded genius who made the murder-thriller par excellence "Diabolique" ("Les Diaboliques") and "The Wages of Fear" ("Le Salaire de la Peur"), one of the best suspense movies I've ever chewed my nails through. "Quai," which was made before those films, completes a brilliant hat trick.
A sort of off-kilter companion piece to the movie "Chicago," for its domestic squabbling, tabloid murder, madcap song-and-dance and the sense that justice is a matter of arbitrary luck, the movie follows the tortured lives of Jenny (Suzy Delair) and Maurice Martineau (Bernard Blier, father of Bertrand), a bickering twosome in postwar Paris.
Jenny, a talented, kooky chanteuse, dreams of making it big, no matter how many casting couches it takes. Her husband (picture Bob Newhart with murderous attitude), an accompanist at a music publishing house, is incessantly jealous of her.
So when dirty old financier Georges Brignon (Charles Dullin) invites Jenny for a get-acquainted get-together, Maurice is understandably furious. Impulsively, he chases his wife down at her lunchtime rendezvous and threatens to kill Georges. The restaurant staff are all ears.
Maurice decides to off the dirty old man, planning an elaborate alibi in which he visits the Eden Music Hall. Slipping away in the middle of the show, he goes into Georges's villa, only to find him already bashed and dead.
Inspector Antoine (Louis Jouvet) of the Quai des Orfevres (the Parisian equivalent of Scotland Yard) gets on the case. His prime suspect is Maurice, whose flimsy alibi he easily picks apart.
Realizing he can do nothing to convince Antoine of his innocence, Maurice becomes suicidal. Jenny, who did the bashing (when she rejected his advances) but not the killing, thinks she's the murderer. She has to make a decision as to whether or not she's going to come forward. Turns out she loves the jealous old salt. Also in the mix: Dora (Simone Renant), a blond, slinky photographer with eyes only for Jenny.
With farce-like momentum, things get crazier by the minute. And the less-than-plausible outcome should make it clear that Clouzot isn't particularly interested in "Quai" for its murder mystery. He's infinitely more interested in this world of music halls and holding cells, the quirkiness of his characters and their screwballish battles. Set in 1946, the movie's a precious timepiece, with such rationing-era black-market jokes as "Got any butter?"
Delair, who gives an inspired twittery rendition of "Avec Son Tra-la-la," is unforgettably chirpy as Jenny. But Jouvet, a veteran of French theater and cinema with a profile as angular as Buster Keaton's, is the movie's comedic master of ceremonies. He regales suspects with street slang of the era, jokes with Dora about their mutual bad luck with women and still finds time to supervise the homework of the adopted son he picked up while fighting for the French Foreign Legion. What a character! After watching Antoine, you only wish Clouzot had made his own dark version of the "Thin Man" series for him. But then again, the director had some other pretty amazing movies to make.
QUAI DES ORFEVRES (Unrated, 102 minutes) -- Contains a mild murder scene. In black-and-white. In French with subtitles. At the American Film Institute theater at the Kennedy Center through Feb. 16.