Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Aug 07, 2005 12:46 pm 
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A last gasp in character, the old economy still there

In Melville's last film, Alain Delon is a cop who pursues a small group of fortyish men who first rob a bank and then later intercept a large supply of drugs en-route to somewhere via a bag man on a train. The bank is beside a ruthless sea and the memorably bleached-out and forbidding opening scene is full of mist, rain, and wind that turn everything a sickly pastel. One of the robbers is wounded and they drive away with him -- a sequence that may have influenced Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. But these men are as laconic as Quentin's are garrulous.

Nobody is morally pure in this story, or wholly evil. One of the robbers is a bank executive who's out of work and hides his wrongdoing from his worried wife. The cop, Edouard Coleman, whose ride is American, as is the robbers', is involved with crooked nightclub owner Simon's accomplice girlfriend, Cathy (Catherine Deneuve), who helps Simon clean up the mess when the robbery goes wrong. Edouard has to look the other way about her involvement. Her first appearance is ravishing: she slides sideways out of a doorway and pauses, framed there, looking perfectly beautiful. She slowly breaks into a smile as Coleman picks out a jazz ballad on the nightclub piano.

The drug mule who's intercepted is called "Matthew the Suitcase." The operation to steal his cargo is long and complicated and is Un flic's Rififi episode; it's more absorbing than the manhunt in Le Cercle rouge and more original than Cercle's jewelry store robbery, but the several plot strains of Un flic are a bit disjointed.

Despite the ingenious train heist, being a cop and being a crook are in a way just a job -- a "boulot" -- in Un flic. Delon has some dash and dresses sharply, but lacks the doomed panache of his character in Le Samouraï. The robbers are dreary, determined fellows without the charisma of Yves Montand in Le Cercle rouge. They're totally middle-aged and middle-class. This puts them on a par with most of the cops and perhaps illustrates Melville's epigraph, from pioneer French private eye (and former thief) François Eugène Vidocq, "The only emotion men awaken in a policeman are ambiguity and derision." This harmonizes with the viewpoint of the chief of police in Le Cercle rouge who repeatedly insists that everyone must be assumed to be guilty.

While that earlier chief of police worked out of a dark but cozy Victorian office, Coleman is in a bright modern building and has a phone in his car, but his well-lit office has a window on a brick wall. The dull routine of police work is signaled by the verbal rituals of the car-phone calls: His assistant always answers and says, "I'll pass you to him." Coleman listens, then says "Where's that?" and "We're going, I'll call you back later." The words never vary. And this flick about a "flic" never wavers from its economical unreeling that's worthy of the best Fifties noirs, despite being in faded blue-gray Technicolor. Melville got back one last time to the old brilliance. Even if the "noir" isn't quite noir, the mood is right, full of resignation and irony.

The plot doesn't quite parse, but neither did Le Doulos'. If it's true as Jack Mathews of the Daily News wrote about the reissued Le Cercle rouge that Melville's crime movies are "really about wearing raincoats and lighting up Gitanes and saying very little while being very loyal," then plot inconsistencies and even visual disparities not withstanding, it's still all good. And even if some of the earlier freshness and pungency were gone, in his last two films Melville showed even greater skill at editing and setting up his scenes. So if not canonical, Un flic is nonetheless another valuable work by this prince of darkness, this splendidly moody minimalist and inspirer of the French New Wave.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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