Yesterday we looked at Melville’s Bob le flambeur – a film that saw the French crime maverick developing the style and motifs he’d eventually refine in his classic gangster cycle. Today we’re jumping forward in time to his final film, Un flic (A Cop), which was released in 1972 – one year before the filmmaker’s premature death. Here Melville seems to be fetishizing and embellishing the trademark touches he developed late in his career: meticulous heist sequences, minimal dialogue, long glares, homoerotic undertones. All these elements are presented to an almost absurd degree. The result is a visually fascinating caper that frustratingly lacks the emotionally engaging sacrificial gut punches of his classics.
Melville favorite Alain Delon plays a brooding cop (or, flic) for once, rather than a brooding gangster. Edourd Coleman is a demoralized homicide investigator on the trail of four criminals who held up a bank (one teller died in the process, hence the homicide boys). One of the crooks happens to be his friend Simon (Richard Crenna), a criminal mastermind who fronts as a nightclub owner. The film jumps back and forth, comparing Coleman’s life and that of the crooks.
In the middle is Cathy (Catherine Deneuve), a woman shared between Simon and Coleman. I’d say “stuck in the middle,” but she seems to enjoy the attention from these suave s.o.b.s. Again, Melville wasn’t particularly interested in writing women with depth, so Cathy is essentially a set-piece, a wedge to come between Coleman and Simon.
When Simon isn’t sipping champagne in his club (the cleverly named “Simon’s”), he’s executing heists with painstaking precision. Their first caper opens the film. They hold over a bank, which in the hands of any other filmmaker may take a few minutes. This is Melville we’re talking about here, so the heist unravels over the course of about 15 minutes. Three men enter the bank, one at a time, while the driver idles in the car. The men pretend to fill out deposit slips while the other customers trickle out. They put on surgical masks, pull up their collars, and pull their pieces out. As always, Melville is able to wring suspense out of small gestures, patient camera movements, and silence.
The second heist started to wear on my nerves a little bit though. Here Simon is robbing two briefcases full of drugs from a moving train. They go in by helicopter, Simon descends from a pulley, crawls his way to a compartment entrance, and changes into a robe in the bathroom. This scene takes nearly 20 minutes. He washes up in the bathroom for about 10 of those 20. Slicks his hair, washes his face – does everything but shaves and brushes his teeth. It delves into the absurd side. The way he unlocks a train compartment is pretty cool though, and it’s a technique I’ve not seen in a film yet. The length and meticulousness of the piece wore my patience though, I’m sorry to say. 20 minutes? 10 of washing up? C’mon, man.
As Coleman, Delon barely blinks through the entire film. Those mournful blue eyes of Delon, goddamn. Coleman’s masculinity is put to task several times in the film. His confidential informant is a transvestite who he seems to have a thing for. But when he/she feeds him what he believes is false information, he slaps he/she around and tells he/she to “Dress like a man.” Earlier, Coleman stares into the eyes of a dead hooker, who looks remarkably like the transvestite and Cathy. The homophilic relationship between Coleman and Simon never particularly feels romantic or sexual, but like most masculine relationships in Melville’s films, it’s a fine line.
I wouldn’t call Melville’s swansong a disappointing film. Un flic flexes many of the director’s strengths, including patient camerawork and cool, minimalist dialogue. Delon is as elegaic and captivating as ever. And Simon’s an interesting bloke to watch as he schemes the next caper. Overall there’s an emotional void in the film that prevents it from reaching the heights of his classics Le Doulos, Le Samourai, and Le Cercle Rouge. Melville died of a heart attack, at the age of 55, after Un flic was released. Total bummer. To say that Melville pretty much invented the French gangster film would be an understatement.