Un flic isn't his greatest crime film; that would probably be Le Cercle rouge (1970) or, some would say, his influential Bob le flambeur (1956), but Un flic is nonetheless captivating, even fascinating. It's almost a distillation of everything Melville's crime films were about. My colleague CineSavant didn't care for the film much, citing its mediocre special effects, no doubt referencing the exceedingly obvious miniature effects shots of a speeding train with a helicopter flying above it. But that's missing the point: Melville seemed enamored of Hollywood's artifice as much as its stylized grit. Throughout Un flic are sets with forced perspectives and painted backgrounds, which all seem part of the director adoration of the make-believe aspects of classical Hollywood films, and as if challenging his audiences not to suspend disbelief. Save the realism for movies about the Résistance, he seemed to say, and embrace the unreality of his neo-noir.
The picture opens with a visually stunning bank robbery, at a rain-swept seaside resort town, its beach-long hotel (apparently) shuttered for the season, leaving one lone business open, seemingly for miles around, a bank. A big Plymouth pulls up a block short of the bank, and one-by-one well-dressed gangsters emerge, walking toward the bank as it prepares to close for the day. Simon (American actor Richard Crenna) is the leader of the successful heist, though one of the men, Marc (André Pousse), is seriously wounded by a teller with a gun. The other two, Paul (Riccardo Cucciolla) and driver Louis (Michael Conrad, later of Hill Street Blues), along with Simon and the wounded Marc, return to Paris.
Meanwhile, police commissaire Edouard Coleman (Alain Delon), with his stoic partner, Morand (Paul Crauchet), work the night shift, Coleman often picking up tips from a transgendered informant, showgirl Gaby (Valérie Wilson). Coleman frequents a nightclub owned by Simon, and is having an affair with his mistress, Cathy (Catherine Deneuve), but she's actually faithful to Simon, not Coleman.
Simon's heist, it turns out, was merely an effort to raise cash to finance an even more daring job, to steal two suitcases stuffed with heroin that's being smuggled out of the country by a rival gang.
To say Un flic is primarily concerned with visual storytelling would be an understatement. The opening heist, running perhaps 15 minutes, has virtually no dialogue beyond "This is a hold-up!" A later job aboard a speeding train, estimated to take 20 minutes, takes 20 minutes to unfold, and it's riveting, too, though barely a word is spoken. Catherine Deneuve, in her role, says hardly anything at all. Neither does Richard Crenna's Simon, of whom the audience knows little more at the end of the film than they did at the beginning, except, maybe, that he's an honorable thief, looking out for the other members of his gang, though cutthroat when he needs to be. Only Paul, an unemployed bank worker, is fleshed out a bit, telling his wife he's interviewing for a management job when he's actually committing felonies. The older couple engender what humanity Un flic has.
Nor do we learn much about Alain Delon's cop, far less than cat-lover Bourvil in Le Cercle rouge. Delon had previously played criminals in that film and Le Samourai for Melville, and some took exception to Delon play the cop and Richard Crenna the thief, as if they mixed up their parts on the first day of shooting. But Melville states quite clearly the picture's theme: that "the only feelings mankind has ever inspired in policemen are those of indifference and derision," that is, the cop and the crook are more or less undisguisable. Anyway, by this time Delon's boyishly handsome features had given way to a profound world-weariness. In his ‘70s films he always looked bleary-eyed and exhausted, his third-shift cop called to one depressing crime scene after another and suits his persona of the period just fine.
The minimalism of Melville's later crime films is also reflected in his use of color and in his sets and settings. They took on a blueish hue, so that scenes not set after dark always seem to be taking place in pre-dawn or twilight. In the opening scenes, this harshness is reflected in the crashing surf, the shuttered resort, and the pounding rain that gives way to an impossibly thick fog. Inside the bank, and indeed most interiors, are taken to modern austere extremes, all stainless steel and glass, as if Melville had been influenced by the cold impersonal modern Paris that Jacques Tati created for his masterpiece Play Time. (Two of Tati's adult children worked on Un flic.)
Video & Audio
Licensed from Studio Canal, Un flic is presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and looks sensational, the subdued color and high-def clarity really "popping" from the screen. The DTS-HD Master audio, French mono only with English subtitles, is also very good. Region "A" encoded.
Supplements include an audio commentary track by film historian Samm Deighan; interviews with Jean-Francois Delon (Alain's brother) and Florence Gabin (Jean's daughter); a long, 60-minute documentary called "In the Mood for Melville"; and a trailer.
Really dazzling, and the kind of picture one likes to recommend to Americans normally put off by subtitled movies (watch it - you'll be surprised), Un flic is a DVD Collectors Series title.