It is late at night and a couple of motorcycle riders with helmets obscuring their faces are taking down a street sign. As a couple of cops approach, they speed off to a local tavern where a party is being held, and everyone there gets to sign the stolen goods. The assembled sing Auld Lang Syne to the guest of honour, Eddy Valence (Daniel Duval) and he is suitably touched, however, this is not a criminal gang but the police celebrating Eddy's transfer. While they do so, a new armed robbery is being planned by a real gang who have no scruples, and soon detective Léo Vrinks (Daniel Auteuil) is involved and butting heads with Denis Klein (Gérard Depardieu), his rival for the top job.
The deeply sombre 36 Quai des Orfèvres was based on a true story, the experiences of ex-policeman turned filmmaker Olivier Marchal from his time in a French anti-terrorist squad. Everything up to the "seven years later" last half hour was drawn from his life, and if the life of a lawman is as soul-crushing as it is depicted here, Marchal was good to be out of it. Outside of its home country, the film tended to be described as the French version of Michael Mann's Heat, largely due to the pairing of two heavyweight stars in the lead roles.
Yet while the two main characters in Heat were on opposite sides of the law, in this they're both supposed to be fighting for justice, and unlike the American film there is no grudging respect between them. They're markedly different in some ways: Vrinks is popular with his men but not above bending the rules when it suits him, while Klein is a loner, without allies but with a steely ambition. When one of Vrinks' snitches takes him out for a drive one night, the evening ends with the detective as witness to him shooting down some rivals in cold blood - but there's another witness, a prostitute who flees the scene unnoticed by them.
If there's anything that soothes these troubled souls, it's the women in their lives, and Vrinks relies on his wife, Camille (Valeria Golino) to keep him sane when he's dealing with violent robbery (which we see staged at the beginning) and unlovely scoundrels almost every day. This means that when events do come to a head and his law bending catches up with him, Vrinks finds himself tragically without that woman to lean on and help him through his darkest days. And he believes it is all Klein's fault, making the simmering ill-feeling between them apt to boil over.
36 Quai des Orfèvres is filmed in muted colours and in an atmosphere of such gloom that it is a hard production to get excited about. The misery that permeates every minute can make the occasions when the characters find a small oasis of comfort oddly endearing, but for the most part it is the twists and turns that lower Vrinks deeper into his hell which dominate the drama. The thriller aspects, like the gunplay and shootouts, are handled with a ring of authenticity in that there is little romanticised about them, but the plotting offers a sheen of sophistication that might otherwise not have been there. Marchal called it a modern western, as so many thrillers after the mid-seventies were, but it's a more adult, morally shadowy variation rather than a simple black hat-white hat affair. Music by Erwann Kermovant and Axelle Renoir.