Like all of Melville’s films (or at least the films I have seen), Un Flic is nearly impeccable in form. Melville’s world exudes cool – from the dapper outfits worn by the cast and the impossibly effete dialogue spoken by them, to the blue light that bathes everything in a composed azure. His heist sequences (two in Un Flic) are thorough in every detail. So much so that one gets the impression that, had Melville chosen larceny as his profession, he would have been equally adroit at his metier. Form aside, the spine of a Melville film is character. His characters, both the pursuing and pursued, are rounded – fully formed and developed individuals who have clear motives, rational or not, for their actions. In this aspect, Un Flic falters slightly.
Un Flic was Jean-Pierre Melville’s final film. He made it directly following Le Cercle Rouge, the paradigm exercise in style and substance within the heist genre. Whereas Le Cercle Rouge features the single greatest heist sequence in film history (better than Rififi‘s, dammit) without sacrificing character depth or plot, Un Flic seems mired in its centerpiece heist. The robbery itself consists of a pretty ingenious set-up: a train traveling to Bordeaux is unwittingly carrying a man, Suitcase Matthew. In his suitcases, Matthew is carrying a great deal of cocaine. The goal of the four heistmen is to board the train via helicopter (!), break into Matthew’s personal suite (slide-locked and dead-bolted, mind you), apprehend the coke, and escape from the train without any of the passengers or personnel aware that the robbers were ever on board. The idea is perfect – if you are stealing something already illegal (cocaine), the victim of the robbery cannot inform the cops that anything was ever stolen. The most inventive bit is when Melville shows Simon (Richard Crenna, leader of the gang) using an ACME sized magnet on the outside of Matthew’s door in order to jimmy the slide-lock open. Melville is too thorough though. Of course, he contends, we have to use some type of establishing shot to show the heli in proximity of the train. For some reason or another (probably financial), rather than using a real helicopter and a real train, Melville resorts to a model train and helicopter, complete with miniature, plastic beige-colored people, stand-ins for the actors proper. This is a minor quip, but one uncharacteristic of Melville and his usually unimpeachable technique. Moreover, where Le Cercle Rouge‘s heist has a purpose for every character involved, this heist seems to be a lark – outside of “to get more money”, no reasoning (excepting for one character) is presented. The result is a very stylish centerpiece merely for the sake of style.
My major quip with the film, as I hinted at before, is Melville’s unusually arbitrary character development. The story hints at a possibility of several different avenues:
1) The professional divide between two men. Edouard Coleman (Alain Delon) is the police inspector and Simon is his nightclub-owning friend who, unbeknownst to Coleman, is also a dabbler in larceny. This story also hints at some type of relationship between Coleman and Simon’s girlfriend, Cathy (Catherine Deneuve.)
2) The “One Last Score.” Paul Crauchet plays Morand, a sixty-year-old former banker, down on his luck and deemed useless by society because of his age. If he can just make this one heist work, he will be set for life, never needing to worry about supporting himself or his spouse.
3) The rote mechanistic nature of professional life. Throughout the film, Coleman (the only true working stiff in the main cast) is characterized by his routine. One slightly humorous (and also slightly despondent) motif involves him answering a phone and carrying out the same conversation over and over and over. The most intriguing bit has his face match-cut with the face of dead woman, essentially saying Simon, because of his job, is a walking corpse.
All three of these ideas are fantastic. Each one could make, and has made, a very good film. Perhaps Melville was spot-on and I am missing some unifying element, but I feel as if he tackled too much. Each idea is dabbled with, but not taken to its logical endgame. For instance, we see Simon and Coleman interact only a few times; enough to establish them as acquaintances, but not nearly enough to implicate their relationship as anything dear or important.
In spite of its faults, Un Flic is a satisfying film. Even the major fault – its lack of cogence – is forgivable on account of the overwhelming panache shown everywhere else in the film. For many directors, Un Flic would be a masterwork, for Melville it is merely another good film added to his infallible body of work.