‘Un Flic’ is a film that I want to like more than I actually do. And it’s infuriating that I don’t have the big love for it that I do for Melville’s other crime dramas. That, in fact, it leaves me a little bit cold.
All things considered, it ought to be the ultimate Melville movie: a perfect distillation of his thematic and aesthetic preoccupations. After all, it blends the iconic tropes of the strand of American crime cinema so beloved of Melville with an existential inquiry into loneliness and fatalism that could only be the work of a French director. The casting reinforces the point: Melville’s ice-cool alter ego Alain Delon shares the screen with one of American cinema’s quintessential tough guys, Richard Crenna.
The opening sequence, as Simon (Crenna) and his cohorts execute a bank robbery in a rainy coastal town only for one of their number to be wounded in the ensuing shoot-out, is terrific. Its juxtaposition with Commissaire Edouard Coleman (Delon)’s world-weary film noir style voiceover as he cruises neon-lit city streets, sets up the antagonists effectively. The establishment of Simon and Edouard as unlikely friends recalls the relationship between Bob and Ledru in ‘Bob le Flambeur’. Their rivalry over the same woman – Cathy (Catherine Deneuve) – promises to ramp up the tension.
And yet … and yet …
My main issue with ‘Un Flic’ is how “by rote” it feels. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Delon or Deneuve give such lacklustre performances. There is very little chemistry between the leads. The procedural elements of the narrative are by the numbers. The supporting characters are one-dimensional, particularly Edouard’s transvestite informant – a touch of misogyny permeates their scenes.
The other main problem is Melville’s decision to use model work for the film’s major set piece, a twenty-minute heist that plays out in real time involving an express train, a helicopter, some daring business with a winch and a pared-down-the-nails window of opportunity in which to carry out the operation before the train reaches an open stretch of track and reaches full speed, at which point winching the heist man off becomes too perilous. Granted, this is the kind of thing that adds a lot of zeroes to a film’s budget, and a certain degree of back projection could be expected for a movie made in the early 70s (certainly Melville was no stranger to splicing howlingly unconvincing back projection into his movies – check out the cops’ drive around the nocturnal streets of Paris in ‘Le Doulos’; it makes freakin’ ‘Genevieve’ look like an exercise in documentary realism), but – sacre bleu! – surely we should expect something better from one of the masters of the crime movie than this:
And it’s not just the Gerry Anderson-style model work (“Uh, m’lady, there appears to be a robbery in progress in the next couchet.” “Very good, Parker. Now refresh my G&T.” “Yes, m’lady”) that tips the whole sequence into artifice. There’s nonsensical stuff like Simon’s use of a magnet to draw back a door chain. Never mind how he can manipulative the movement of the chain so accurately when he’s on the opposite side of the door and can’t even see it, take a look at the magnet itself. WTF? Have we wandered into an episode of ‘Inspector Gadget’ by mistake?
This sequence just kills the film for me. I can’t settle back into its melancholic portrayal of Edouard’s life, or the aftermath of Simon’s heist. I can’t get involved with the eternal triangle shenanigans, even though the luminescent Catherine Deneuve is at the centre of it. I can’t latch on to any emotional nuances in the final scene, a non-showdown that simply brings the film to an end rather than a conclusion.
And the devil of it is, I really want to.
(ADDENDUM: there’s an excellent piece on ‘Un Flic’ by Lawrence Russell on the Culture Court website.)