Directed by: Jean-Pierre Melville | 98 minutes | crime | Actors: Alain Delon, Richard Crenna, Catherine Deneuve, Riccardo Cucciolla, Michael Conrad, Paul Crauchet, Simone Valère, André Pousse, Jean Desailly, Valérie Wilson, Henri Marteau, Catherine Rethi, Louis Grandidier, Philippe Gasté, Dominique Zentar, Jako Mica, Jo Tafanelli, Stan Dylik, Georges Florian, Léon Minisini, Roger Fradet, Jacques Galland, Jean-Pierre Posier, Jacques Leroy, Michel Fretault, Gene Moyle, Nicole Témime, Pierre Vaudier
Jean-Pierre Grumbach took his surname as a tribute to the American writer Herman Melville – known for ‘Moby Dick’, among others. The French director had a predilection for America, because he saw that country as the great liberator of France in the Second World War. A war that left deep impressions on him – he not only had to serve, but also fought in the resistance – and inspired him to make one of his best films, ‘L’armee des ombres’ (1969). The stories of heroes and villains of the American directors John Ford and Howard Hawks appealed to him. Film noir was also one of his sources of inspiration, although he gave it his own twist. This predilection for America and American cinema is reflected in many of his films, most concretely in ‘Deux hommes dans Manhattan’ (1955), his tribute to New York. In 1972 he made his last print, ‘Un flic’ (‘Dirty Money’), a stylish gangster film starring Alain Delon. A year later, Melville would die of a heart attack at the age of 55.
The ever-cool Delon plays Edouard Coleman, a tough cop who knows his trade very well. To keep up with what’s going on in the underworld, he befriends the notorious nightclub owner Simon (Richard Crenna). The men even sleep with the same woman, the icy but beautiful Cathy (Catherine Deneuve), who does not feel real love with either of them. She is a spider in Simon’s web, who has a double life as a gangster. The savvy and crafty Coleman knows about this, but does not want to risk the friendship at first. In addition, he has no concrete evidence against Simon. However, when Coleman learns that the nightclub owner has planned a major robbery, he is initially unable to intervene. However, when the robbery – a meticulously prepared train robbery – is committed, the trail leads directly to Simon. However, it denies in all keys. And so Coleman must turn to other means to solve this crime.
Melville’s latest film is the ultimate style exercise in minimalism. The sets may be stylish and modern, but they are also bare and immaculate – they seem almost sterile. Melville does not like to keep his characters with needless dialogue, and the spoken word is therefore kept to a minimum in ‘Un flic’. The few sentences that are included in the film are short and often only consist of a few words. This works out fine, since Melville and his actors can often say more with images and looks than other filmmakers with endless dialogues. The scenes are generally short and calm; this film has no flashy camera movements because they could distract the viewer from the chilly, cold world that Melville is trying to create. Even the score is sparse and only serves to suggest that ominous things are about to happen. Everything about this film is subtle and suppressed. Even the largest action scene, in which we witness a train robbery by helicopter (with disturbing – because moderately executed – special effects), is a showcase of restrained tension, instead of a spectacle where the adrenaline rushes through your body.
Even in the most exciting moments in the film, a surreal calm prevails. Or is it perhaps dullness? The chill and sterility is further emphasized by the blue-gray haze through which Melville allows his audience to watch the events. The acting is equally suppressed and cool. Even in a film where little is spoken, Alain Delon keeps his lips tight as Edouard Coleman. His character is a tough and sometimes tough cop, but so completely extinguished that there is no passion in his face. Nevertheless, his steel gaze is powerful, as can be seen during the taciturn yet compelling interrogation of one of the suspects. Richard Crenna’s portrayal of Simon is a bit more vivid, but his character remains a typical resident of Melville’s Spartan, terribly calm world. The beautiful Catherine Deneuve has built her entire career around playing aloof, inaccessible ice queens and in ‘Un flic’ she is at her cool best.
Melville was undeniably an innovative filmmaker who managed to make his own mark on films. It is not without reason that people like Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and John Woo are big fans of his work. However, if you pierce through the stylistic layer of ‘Un flic’, you will discover that the story is actually about nothing. It is primarily a style exercise. The excess of business and coldness almost breaks up the film in the end. Compassion with characters like Coleman and Simon is very difficult, as they lack any trace of human warmth. ‘Un flic’ is cleverly made, but lacks a catchy story and captivating characters. In ‘Le Samouraï’ (1967), ‘L’armee des ombres’ (1969) and ‘Le cercle rouge’ (1970) Melville succeeds better in drawing his audience into his story, even though those films also have its typical taciturn and hypothermic atmosphere. Nevertheless, ‘Un flic’ is a remarkable viewing experience and a beautiful piece of craftsmanship. Albeit for the seasoned film lover.