“Un Flic” - Jean-Pierre Melville (1972)

There are various arguments concerning the precise specifications and boundaries of film noirbut few can deny that the supreme virtuoso of the genre was French director Jean-Pierre Melville.  He took this form of cinematic expression and refined it to almost surreal levels of artistic and dramatic abstraction. His last film, Un Flic (aka A Cop and Dirty Money), which was made the year before his untimely death in 1973, is so lost in moody and impressionistic images that its narrative absurdities seem not to matter.

As discussed in my review of Melville’s Le Doulos (1962), the main characters in a film noir are usually disillusioned outsiders and lawbreakers who want to forget the past and have little hope for the future.  They are often caught in some kind of gloomy, urban maze from which there seems to be no escape.  So normally you don’t expect a film noir protagonist to be a high ranking policeman, unless it is someone who has booked a ticket to the dark side.  But in Un Flic, the presumed protagonist is such a cop (that’s what “flic”means in French), and this lead role is played by French superstar and Melville favorite, Alain Delon.  Although he ostensibly upholds the law, he does so with a degree of cynicism appropriate for this noirish landscape, and he has a personal involvement with criminals of similar disenchantment.

In fact that sense of disenchantment, not uncommon to a film noir, is taken to an extreme degree in this film, and it is perhaps its distinguishing feature.  All of the characters seem so alienated, that there is almost nothing for them to say.  Indeed dialogue in the film is kept to a minimum, and much of the time communication is through the exchange of glances.  This pervasive sense of alienation is signaled by an opening title (and later repeated by Delon to a colleague in the story) quoting 18th century French criminologist Francois-Eugene Vidocq to the effect that as far as police are concerned the people they encounter only arouse two feelings, puzzlement and derision.

The principal characters are the policeman (Delon) and the collection of people around a smooth nightclub owner and thief (played by Richard Crenna):
  • Commissaire Edouard Coleman (Alain Delon) is something like a combination detective and inspector of a local Parisian precinct.
  • Simon (Richard Crenna) owns and operates “The Cotton Club”, a Parisian nightclub. He is also the leader of a sophisticated criminal gang.
  • Cathy (Catherine Deneuve) is Simon’s gal, but she also has an affair with Coleman.
  • Paul Weber (Riccardo Cucciolla ) is a middle-aged banker who has lost his job and has joined Simon’s gang.
  • Louis Costa (Michael Conrad, known for his later role in US TV series Hill Street Blues) is another member of Simon’s gang.
  • Marc Albouis (André Pousse) is also a member of Simon’s gang.
  • Gaby (Valérie Wilson) is a transvestite with connections to the criminal underworld, but is trying to clear her record by serving as a police informer.
Actually, one could say that the two adversaries, Coleman and Simon, are on equal footing and are equally protagonists, although on opposite sides of the law.  The narrative focalization of the film is almost exclusively on these two.  There is a significant contrast between the characters played by Delon and Crenna, though, which seems to be related to their innate dramatic personas:

  • Delon, though refined and handsome, projects narcissism: he is self-absorbed and opaque.  He gets his way by coldly beating and torturing his captives, and he appears to be unaffected by death and the pain suffered by others.
  • Crenna, in contrast, projects thought and reflection. He seems more aware and sensitive to the people around him. The viewer can mentally emphathiize, though not sympathize, with his character, Simon. Even though the film title refers to the cop, the actual story tends to follow Simon’s efforts to pull off his heists, and so that character becomes the primary protagonist.
The story goes through four stages, or acts, but an identifiable narrative goal, which is Simon’s big heist, is not really established until the second act.

1.  Establishing the Scene.
In the beginning there is a long (11-minute) sequence detailing Simon’s gang robbing a somewhat remote bank situated right next to the ocean.  It is late in the day, the weather is heavily stormy, and there is almost no dialogue as three of the men, clad in trench coats and fedoras, successively enter the bank, with Costa waiting outside in the car.  The heavy rain and wind, clouded in mist and fog, casts a pall over everything – perhaps even more pervasively than the darkness typical of a film noir. As we struggle to make out who’s doing what in the mist, there is so much attention to incidental detail that it seems as if the “camera” (i.e. the “silent narrative witness”) gets distracted: while the camera is fixed on Costa in the car outside, the gang members inside evidently make their move.  When we cut back inside to the bank, the robbers have already drawn their guns and are demanding the money.  Things go awry when a teller sets off an alarm, grabs a gun, and shoots Albouis, before getting gunned down himself.  Simon and the others get away in their car with the money, eventually burying it somewhere in the countryside.  Then they drive back to Paris and deposit the seriously wounded Albouis at a medical clinic.

Meanwhile Coleman is shown attending to the seedy crime scene in his district.  A beautiful girl has been murdered at one location, and a pedophile has been robbed by his client at another. Coleman shows no empathy for anyone, and he readily punches detainees in order to get them to talk.  He also arranges a meeting on the street with his informer, Gaby, who tells him that a heroin shipment, carried by a drug mule known as “Suitcase Matthew”, will soon be made on the Paris-to-Lisbon train.

At this point of the story, two spheres of interaction have been established: that of Simon and that of Coleman.  And we know that Simon and his gang have, temporarily at least, gotten away with their robbery.  Coleman will probably be their adversary.  But the major narrative quest is yet to be determined.

2.  The Plot Thickens
In the next section, things become much more complicated, to the near bewilderment of the viewer.  It turns out that Simon owns a flashy nightclub and that Coleman is his good friend and often frequents the nightclub.  Not only that, but Simon’s woman, Cathy, is having an affair with Coleman on the sly.  Yet it seems, on the surface at least, that Coleman is unaware of Simon’s criminal activities.

Simon is now worried that a police dragnet of the Parisian clinics will uncover Albouis and get him to squeal, so, in another intricate scheme, he arranges for his men and Cathy to masquerade as medics and to go the clinic to kill Albouis.  Cathy dispatches Albouis with a lethal injection and reveals that she is clearly a trusted member of the gang.  The viewer has to wonder at this point: either Coleman must be aware of Simon’s criminal perfidy or his affair with Cathy must be pretty superficial.

Simon now plots a much bigger caper: he intends to rob the drug haul carried by Suitcase Matthew on the Paris-Lisbon train as it nears the Portuguese border.  Somehow the money from the previous bank robbery is associated with this heist.  Simon is supremely confident that his plan is foolproof and tells the other gang members:
“and when the goods are ours, the very men we robbed will buy them back.  No complaints lodged, no detectives on our heels.”

So Simon and Coleman are now both working at cross purposes to intercept a big drug shipment  undertaken by a shadowy third party about which the viewer never learns much.  But at least the principal narrative quest has finally been established.

3.  The Robbery on the Train
The robbery on the train is totally outlandish, and once more there is very little dialogue over more than 20 minutes of screen time. The Paris-Lisbon train stops at the Bordeaux station, where Suitcase Matthew books a sleeping car apartment and is given his drug shipment.  Then the train departs to the south, while Simon, Weber, and Costa fly in a helicopter above over the train as it moves at speed.  Simon is dropped down by a rope from the helicopter onto the top of a train car and manages to work his way inside.  Again there are long, intricate sequences that suggest detailed planning, and yet the entire operation seems to be so dependent on fortunate circumstance that one cannot believe any level-headed thief would attempt such an operation.  The improbability of the scene showing Simon picking a lock with a horseshoe magnet is particularly absurd.  But this extreme slowing down of the action under tense circumstances a la Rafifi (1955) adds to the melodramatic pitch.

Anyway, Simon’s team pulls off the heist and makes it back to Paris. Coleman, acting on Gaby’s information, had planned to intercept the drug shipment, but finds Suitcase Matthew empty-handed at the next train stop. Angry with his failure, Coleman accuses Gaby of giving him misinformation and slaps “her” in the face.

4.  Closing the Circle
Coleman eventually learns about Albouis, links him to Costa, and has Costa arrested.  After interrogating and presumably torturing Costa, Coleman links everything to Simon.  Simon makes plans to get away with the stolen heroin and phones Cathy to come pick him up in her car.  But that phone call has been tapped by the police and overheard by Coleman.  He arrives when Cathy does, and guns his friend down on the street.
Since the story of Un Flic seems to be categorically unrealistic in many respects, we have to accept the film as almost something like a jazz riff – an impressionistic sequence of colored tones that evoke an overall mood, rather than a story that makes sense.  The mood is ice-cold and lacking in human passion – just tinted by Delon’s ambiguous grey stares.  Perhaps a symbolic evocation of this sense of pale indifference and unreality are the images of blonde hair in the film, all of which have associated interactions with Coleman.  In fact all of these blonde figures stand out in Coleman’s dim grey world like bizarre traffic lights of artificiality and deception.  These are signals of a key film noir aspect: the problem of finding someone to trust in a tangled world of deception.

  • Early on, Coleman contemplates the open-eyed visage of a beautiful dead woman who seems to be staring absently into space.  He looks into her eyes for a moment and then turns away.
  • Suitcase Matthew has a beefy physique and physical manner that suggests the social milieu from which the criminal element commonly emerges. But this contrasts markedly with his bright blonde hair that looks as if it has been artificially colored.  This is bizarre, because as a drug mule, he is supposed to be someone who blends in with the crowd.
  • Cathy, played by Catherine Deneuve in her usual style of aloofness, is utterly cold-blooded. She kills Albouis without a trace of emotion, and when she watches her lover Simon dying on the street, she seems only mildly contemplative.
  • The transvestite Gaby also has vividly blonde hair and is a deceiver on many levels. Yet although she snitches on the criminals she knows and pretends to be female (the viewer is deceived, too, because her true gender does not become evident until late in the piece), she is the only one who seems to have genuine human feelings. Adding further to this deception, at the viewing level, is the fact that this role of a male cross-dresser is played by actress Valérie Wilson. (Of course, having Delon’s presence in the film has its own suggestive connotations of deception, too. Given Delon’s admitted past same-sex experiences and connections with gangsters, the savage scorn he projects towards gays and gangsters in the film is a further deception on the part of Melville.)

One has to wonder about what Coleman knows along the way and what are his final motives. If he is intimate with Cathy, could he be so unaware of Simon’s and her criminal activities?  When Costa indicates that he would never rat on his pals, Coleman expresses utter confidence that he will do just that. So torture seems to be the route that Coleman takes to get the needed information. And when Paul Weber was about to be arrested, Coleman was indifferent about preventing his suicide.

When Cathy shows up in the car at the end to pick up Simon, one might surmise that she is there to set up Simon for the fall, but I don’t think so. Consider Coleman’s response when his colleague suggested to him that he had pulled the trigger too early on what turned out to be an unarmed Simon: “I wasn’t sure if he would commit suicide”. Yeah right. So he killed the man in order to prevent him from killing himself? We don’t buy that.  No, it seems to me that Coleman guns down Simon out of jealous anger that Cathy had made her final choice in favor of Simon and not him. Final evidence of Coleman’s depraved narcissism.

In fact there is no real warmth of humanity to any of the characters in this film, so it is difficult for the viewer to identify with or feel empathy for any of them.  Simon is a ruthless killer.  So, too, are Coleman and Cathy.  It is as if Melville has presented us with just those same two very limited options of how we might feel towards his characters: indifference or derision.

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