The final film of French director Jean-Pierre Melville, a specialist in postmodern hard-boiled cinema, Un Flic has enough style for a dozen movies, even though the plot leaves something to be desired. Starring suave Alain Delon as a Parisian police superintendent, the picture is a methodical, sleek examination of the title character’s investigation of an armed robbery that turns out to have larger implications. The picture soars when presenting a twilight world filled with amoral people and wicked schemes; Melville treats actors and objects as colors in his deliberately minimal palette. Yet the picture falls short in characterization, since Melville is obviously more interested in mood than in psychology. Still, with Paris as the primary backdrop and the beautiful faces of Delon and leading lady Catherine Denueve at his disposal, it’s hard to blame the director for getting preoccupied with surfaces.
The movie begins with a brief introduction to Edouard (Delon), an unflappable detective who spends his evening prowling the Parisian underworld to resolve cases that flummox other policemen. Then the movie shifts to a bank robbery overseen by Simon (Richard Crenna). The robbery ends with one bystander murdered and one accomplice wounded. While the injured crook is hospitalized, Edouard cleverly connects the man to the crime; then the policeman works informants and discovers that the robbery was merely the prelude to an elaborate train heist. Concurrently, Edouard spends time with his glamorous mistress, Cathy (Deneuve), who is also Simon’s lover—although Edouard initially has no idea that Simon is involved with criminal enterprises.
While the procedural aspects of the story come together well, culminating in an deliciously ambiguous finale, the romantic-triangle thread fizzles after too many excessively cryptic scenes. Plus, the nature of the principal Gallic performances creates an inherent storytelling obstacle—Delon and Deneuve transfix with their looks, but neither actor communicates much emotional heat. Meanwhile, the valiant Crenna’s work is hampered by dubbed dialogue, for although the Hollywood star spoke his French lines on set, a performer with better diction was hired to loop the role during post-production.
These shortcomings aside, Un Flic has an utterly unique look that communicates Melville’s themes beautifully. In addition to employing such playfully artificial tools as miniatures for train scenes and process shots for driving scenes, Melville presents the whole film in a cool shade of blue—it seems likely he shot daylight film without adjusting for artificial light, and vice versa, so even the whites in Melville’s images (with a few exceptions) feel slightly azure. This offbeat visual device makes Un Flic seem as if it exists within a universe all its own. Better still, the most effective sequences do more than merely cast a spell with visuals. The centerpiece of the picture, for instance, is a real-time staging of the audacious train heist, an impressive 20-minute sequence almost entirely bereft of dialogue. Similarly, the opening robbery sequence and Edouard’s final scramble to capture fleeing criminals are studies in economy.
Un Flic: GROOVY