Thursday, January 9, 2020

The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville: Un Flic (1972)

Un Flic (1972)
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Melville.
Written by: Jean-Pierre Melville.
Starring: Alain Delon (Commissaire Edouard Coleman), Richard Crenna (Simon), Catherine Deneuve (Cathy), Riccardo Cucciolla (Paul Weber), Michael Conrad (Louis Costa), Paul Crauchet (Morand), Simone Valère (Paul's wife), André Pousse (Marc Albouis), Jean Desailly (Distinguished gentleman who was robbed a statue), Valérie Wilson (Gaby).
There are many sad things about Jean-Pierre Melville dying early – at only 55. Just looking at his career accomplishments, he died before most people realized what a master filmmaker he was – his masterpiece, Army of Shadows had been buried, and little seen, and during his career he never quite seemed to be in favor – always a little ahead of the curve. Another career aspect that is somewhat sad is that Un Flic was Melville’s final film. It’s a fine film as far as it goes – although by this point, he could pretty much do this type of thing in his sleep, and to be honest, there are moments when he seems to be doing that in Un Flic. It is another crime drama, another film about the thin line between cops and criminals, with long stretches without a lot of dialogue as master professionals go about their business, and criminals either violate, or refuse to violate, the code of ratting on each other, etc. I said about Le Cercle Rouge, his previous film, that it was masterfully done – but having watched so many Melville films over a few months’ span, I wondered if there was enough different about it to make it one of his very best. With Un Flic, I know there isn’t. There are still sequences here that are great – and it’s still very much a Jean-Pierre Melville film – which means there are things here most directors couldn’t do at all. So even minor Melville is better than a lot of films – but it’s still undeniably minor.
There are two main set pieces in Un Flic – and they are both wonderfully staged, and show Melville’s fascination with the small things that go into pulling off a job. The four main criminals, led by Richard Crenna’s Simon, pull off two heists in the movie. One is at a bank, and another is aboard a moving train, on which he is dropped from a helicopter. And yet although Melville could clearly make robberies look exciting, he spends more time setting up the heists, than the heists themselves. In the first, the criminals sit, minute after agonizing minute, for just the right moment for the heist to begin – they spend longer waiting, then they do in the robbery. For the train robbery, it almost feels like we spend more time Simon as he prepares a disguise for himself on board the train – changing into pajamas and an overcoat, slicking back his hair, etc. – so that he will appear to any witnesses as a passenger with insomnia. That Melville spends more time on this than he does with Simon get onto a train from a helicopter, committing a robbery, and then getting back on the helicopter, tells you something.
Simon is only one half of the coin here though – in fact, Un Flic means cop, and that would be Alain Delon’s Coleman. He is investigating the bank robbery – which he suspects may or may not involve his friend Simon, but as with everything else in the film, he is doing so half-heartedly. We see him investigate other crimes, and not really care. He is sleeping with Cathy (Catherine Deneuve), who is also sleeping with Simon (which is odd since Delon and Crenna look and act the same, you think she may want some variety, but I guess not) but even this love triangle doesn’t inspire much passion in any of the three participants. They cannot be bothered to get worked up over much of anything.
So ultimately ends up feeling like a crime drama about a cop and a criminal who have lost their passion for everything, and are just going through the motions – made a filmmaker who is going through the motions. Like his characters, Melville is so good at his good that even just going through the motions is still pretty darn good. And his trademark style, and the way he liked to drain the actors of emotions anyway, means its less noticeable for Melville than it would be for many other filmmakers. And yet, that’s still what it feels like just the same.
I do wonder what Melville would have done had he not died at 55. For a filmmaker who was able to make Le Deuxième Souffle in his late 40s – a film that feels like an old master’s final statement on something – I think it could have fascinating. Of course, we will never know how Melville would have evolved – or not evolved – had he lived longer, and we didn’t get the grand final statement from him. We got Un Flic – and film that is undeniably the work of the same filmmaker who made all those masterpieces – but a film that feels like perhaps his heart was no longer in making those films anymore.

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