Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973) made eight iconic, very personal, strikingly original crime films between the mid 1950s and the early 1970s. As the French Nouvelle Vague unfolded around him (he had a symbolic role in Godard's epoch-making A BOUT DE SOUFFLE) he maintained his focus on highly stylized crime films which reflected his view of life and human relations. He also directed Cocteau's LES ENFANTS TERRIBLE (1950), the Nazi era themed LE SILENCE DE LA MER (1949) and L'ARMEE DES OMBRES (1969), with the same purity of style as his better known crime films. But one sensed that he understood the crime "milieu" and its inhabitants and had to keep returning to them until he got it right. Paul Schrader wrote in his famous essay that Film Noir is not a genre. It's perhaps something different to each viewer. It's a feeling to me. A feeling of despair perhaps illustrated by a look. Although UN FLIC is technically a Eurocrime affair it could also be experienced as a Film Noir.
Opening with a quote about how "men" [human beings] give rise to feelings of ambiguity and disdain, the remainder of the film sets out to illustrate that ambiguity and disdain. Those anxiety provoking feelsings are all bound up in the tense guts of Inspector Coleman (Alain Delon), the titular Flic (cop), as he makes his rounds in Paris, driving a budget American sedan while his boredom, barely repressed fear and contempt are apparent in his interior monologue. It's significant that his introduction interrupts the very first scene over which credits roll. A group of robbers, who unlike Coleman operate on trust and drive a large, luxury American vehicle (Melville had a fetish for all things American, especially films, clothing and cars), approach a small BNP branch located near the seashore in a tiny coastal hamlet which is being battered by hurricane force wind and rain. They target the bank, entering looking like invaders from another dimension, emerging from the storm wearing Spaghetti Western style dusters and surgical masks. The heavy weaponry and sense of order in their deportment suggest this is an esoteric ritual. Crime in Melville films is always a ritualistic affair, something almost holy, to be practiced by seasoned professionals and everyone else get out of the way. A haunting, extended, dialogue free sequence scored with the natural sounds of wind gusts, the roar of the breakers crashing on the beach and eerie cries of seagulls, this is Melville at his best. There's no other bank robbery like this one in crime film history, only the armored car robbery in his LE DEUXIEME SOUFFLE (1966) is of equal power.
Back in Paris, Simon (Richard Crenna), the gang leader, greets his girlfriend, Cathy (Catherine Denueve) in his upscale nightclub. She seems like his loyal manager and she's in on the plan, which will also include a second stage involving a payroll heist, conducted via a helicopter hovering over a high speed train. And the payroll belongs to the Organization! All of this is hardly believable and that's the point. Why is a successful club owner robbing banks? It doesn't matter. Crime isn't for the weak of heart or those content with everyday reality. There's an unreality to the heists and the entire film is highly stylized in terms of camera placement, deportment of players, staging and use of sound. This is a closed, private world. One of trust, friendship and daring deeds. But trust invites betrayal, friendship is always a dangerous proposition and sometimes loyalty means sending out your girlfriend to perform a mercy killing on a hospitalized comrade. Everyone has a role in this deadly play.
As in LE SAMOURAI (1967)and LE CERCLE ROUGE (1970), Delon's previous films with the director, the actor seems committed to focusing on the internal clock which runs the character. His frozen face and haunted eyes only soften when gazing into the dead eyes of a murder victim. He beats and humiliates his transgender informer because he knows she really loves him and can't accept a luxury like love. He is already on the way and as a professional goes through the motions, knowing only a quick bullet will end his painful journey. It's typical of Melville's wanting to involve American actors like Crenna (RAMBO, BODY HEAT) and Michael Conrad (HILL STREET BLUES), who internationalize the deadly company along with the excellent Riccardo Cucciolla, the quietly desperate driver in Mario Bava's RABID DOGS. All the characters here are men of quiet desperation and there is absolutely no question of escape.
At the heart of the film is the love triangle between Cathy, Simon and Coleman. Denueve's specialty is playing inscrutable women who can't be manipulated or even approached and the fact that Simon and Coleman are friends only makes the situation more ambiguous. The silent play of glances between the three when together speaks volumes without a word of dialogue or any melodramatic "acting" needed. The only certainty is personal and professional betrayal, punishment and... death.
The final confrontation between Coleman and Simon is played out like a transposed Spaghetti Western set in the empty streets of a Paris dawn as Simon peers up and down the stone cold boulevards, finally opting for a form of suicide when he goes for a nonexistent gun. But Coleman is the fast draw, the Angel of Death. The look in his eyes in the last shot confirms that by killing his friend he has sealed his own fate. Incapable of love or happiness, he is doomed to live.
(C) Robert Monell, 2015