The air of compelling melancholy that hangs over all of Jean-Pierre Melville's classic policiers is especially inescapable while watching his 1972 "Un Flic." This was the last film the director finished before dying of a heart attack at age 55, and it has many of the traits that have made him a favorite for fans of crime films in general and the French variety in particular.
Melville had a celebrated cameo in Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless," playing the literary celebrity interviewed by Jean Seberg who says his ambition is "to become immortal and die," a state his 13 films, including such gems as "Le Samuraï," "Army of Shadows" and "Bob le Flambeur," have enabled him to achieve.
If there is such a thing as the typical Melville film, "Un Flic" (A Cop) — playing for a week at the Nuart in West Los Angeles in a new 35mm print struck from the original negative by Rialto Pictures — isn't it.
For one thing, it features Richard Crenna, the veteran American actor whose work included TV's "The Real McCoys" and the first three "Rambo" films, as Parisian club owner and master criminal Simon. (Crenna apparently studied French and spoke his lines in that language but was dubbed in post-production.)
For another, it features Catherine Deneuve, a more glamorous actress than Melville usually used, in the kind of supporting role she was already too big of a star to ordinarily accept. But this was Melville, after all, one of the French film industry's iconic figures.
Melville's crime films are best viewed as a heady combination of seeming realism and extreme stylization, and the sequence that opens "Un Flic" (which got a desultory American release in 1975 as "Dirty Money") is one of his best.
The scene is St.-Jean-de-Monts, a French seaside town in the deserted dead of winter. An enormous American car, four hard men in soft hats inside, rolls down an empty street and stops near the only bright light in sight — a branch of the BNP (Bank Nationale de Paris). The skies open up, the rain pours down, the car's red taillights look spectacular against the blue haze, and the men head toward the bank, robbery on their mind.
This treatment of crime as a ritualistic venture on a par with the Japanese tea ceremony is another Melville trademark. Naturally, everything doesn't go as planned and ringleader Simon has to figure out how to deal with the consequences.
This seaside robbery is intercut with the introduction of "Un Flic's" namesake and other protagonist: Paris police inspector Edouard Coleman, played by Melville veteran Alain Delon.
A cop who prowls the city by squad car from dusk to dawn, always responding with a curt "on my way" to the persistent radio calls he gets, Delon's Coleman is young and handsome with ice in his veins. Ruthless with everyone he deals with, from a trio of uncooperative pickpockets to a glamorous cross-dresser (Valérie Wilson), Coleman doesn't hesitate to use the third degree when he feels it's necessary. Which is a lot.
The only time Coleman relaxes at all is when he visits Simon's, one of Melville's typically glamorous small Paris nightclubs, where showgirls dance and Simon's girlfriend, Cathy (Deneuve), looks glam in a stunning Yves St. Laurent black gown. Coleman is clearly interested in Cathy as well, so much so that Simon's criminal activity is not something this implacable, inscrutable cop suspects.
Simon, for his part, is not content to sit home and count his money. He plans another, even more complicated robbery, a 20-minute caper that is both a model of exposition (the whole thing takes place in real time) and curious to modern eyes in its use of unmistakable model trains and helicopters rather than the real thing.
Though not among Melville's classics, "Un Flic" is a pleasure to experience. As with all the director's works, it believes in the connection and complicity between cops and criminals and introduces us to individuals with names such as Matthew the Suitcase, hard guys who haven't smiled since Paris was liberated. In other words, it takes us to Melville's particular world and makes us glad to be there.
MPAA rating: Not rated
Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
Playing: Landmark's Nuart, West Los Angeles
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