Un Flic (1972) (a.k.a Dirty Money) writ & dir Jean-Pierre Melville cine Walter Wottiz edt. Patricia Neny music Michel Colombier star. Alain Delon (Inspector Eduoard Coleman), Richard Crenna (Simon), Catherine Deneuve (Cathy), Ricardo Cicciolla, Michael Conrad (Costa), Paul Crauchet (Paul), Simone Valere, Andre Pousse, Jean Desailly
death is a blonde
You're in France. It's winter, and you want to rob a bank. You're thinking a lonely coastal branch, a place where the seas are heavy and the fog closes in, eliminating the near distance, witnesses, memory. The gulls cry, the rain and wind increase. An Atlantic gale is on the way. The condos are shuttered, the owners invisible, perhaps back in Paris watching a movie about French gangsters who dress like Americans from a previous generation.
Well, it could be you and your three associates, all wearing fedoras and black overcoats... although you wear a trenchcoat, just like Bogart in Casablanca. In this kind of weather you might pass for businessmen, except for the fact that you arrive in a black American sedan, a '62 Plymouth....
From a sociological perspective, there are two questions: is Melville's Un Flic about criminals and cops who take their professional cues from American noir movies and behave accordingly, or is this film simply an example of art for art's sake?
Even though Un Flic was Melville's last film, he wears his influences like a young painter exhibiting for the first time. Besides film noir, there is the unmistakable minimalism of Italian neo-realism: ambient sound, real-time sequencing, documentary validity. The atmospherics of the opening action are brilliant -- the pastel blue tint of the cinematography, the intercutting of the crashing waves with the silent architecture, the fog, the bank, the robbery. It's a dialectic of opposing sensibilities -- the noir acting, the neo-realist action -- which produces a drama that's very beautiful to look at. No psychopathic behaviour here, just the familiar French fatalism, the existential rapprochement of the living with the soon-to-be-dead.
The title suggests that Coleman the cop (Delon) is the protagonist, although his role is a doppelganger with the character of the club owner and robber extraordinaire Simon (Crenna), as they both share a mistress (Deneuve). This appears to be a designed strategy by Simon in order to stay one step ahead of the law, although in the end it does him no good. There's a certain ambiguity about this triangle that leaves you wondering just exactly who is manipulating whom.
Delon's character is tough, often sadistic. He might be a cop, yet he isn't above a little blackmail. One of his informants is a blond transvestite, a dancer from Simon's club. For some reason she's clearly in love with him, yet he treats her as street meat. He drives a 63 Dodge Dart, she a Jaguar with the English right-hand drive (symbol of her reversed sexuality). Their meetings are clandestine, suggesting something, although you just don't know what. He backhands her across the face, blaming her for the "Suitcase Matthew" fiasco: "From now on, dress like a man."
He has a thing for blondes -- the first crime you see him investigating involves a murdered blonde in a hotel room. She's naked, her eyes wide, her expression more sad than fearful. Coleman stares as if he recognizes something... but what? You never see her again, so she becomes symbolism, part of a chain of sexual criminals. "We're doomed victims," says a homosexual art collector, a paroled pedophile on the verge of relapsing. Again, Coleman says nothing, just stares at infinity. While his sympathies are always political on the outside, you sometimes wonder what's going on inside. He has a working relationship with "criminals", yet as he drives the night streets of Paris in Car 8, his destination is always Loneliness.
the boulevard of broken dreams
Simon is a man for whom crime is an art -- typically, a French sentiment. How else can you explain his actions? He has a club, a beautiful mistress, a cash flow, youthfulness... and most importantly, a vibe of cool. His masculinity is predicated on action, whether or not some of these actions make any sense. The robbery of the heroin courier on the Paris-Lisbon train makes little sense. Essentially a set-up by Coleman and his squad, the intricacy of this robbery is pure existentialism at the expense of consequence.
You might laugh when you watch it, but watch it you will. Simon is lowered from a helicopter onto the roof of the train, manages to get into the washroom, where he removes his jump suit, revealing his elegant dressing gown and cravat. No music here, just the rhythmic rattling of the train as it speeds through the night. He makes his way along the swaying corridor, stops for a cigarette. An older gentleman passes, says, "Difficult to sleep..." and Simon murmurs, "How right you are."
Simon produces a large horse-shoe magnet from under his dressing gown, uses it to move the inside chain and break into the carriage of the slumbering heroin courier, a corrupt customs agent by the name of Suitcase Matthew. This ritual -- and everything during the robbery -- takes place in real time which gives an undeniable documentary realism to these absurd events. Suitcase -- himself a powdered blond of suspect gender -- is stunned by a blow to the head, then taped and drugged. Simon removes the heroin from the two suitcases with their false bottoms, puts it into his, returns to the washroom, puts on his jump suit, goes outside where... lo! The helicopter is still up there, still stalking the train. The heroin is winched up, then Simon.
The helicopter lands in a field at dawn, the gang disembarks, speeds off for Paris in a black Mercedees. Crazy? Of course. The magnet trick is schoolboy stuff, adolescent, out of the comics. The helicopter heist? You know it can be done, except here the director is using models. Again, schoolboy stuff. You understand the expense and difficultly for a French director in 1971 trying to stage this, yet you wonder if the whole mise en scene is deliberate, an artistic choice. It's like watching a magician saw a woman in two -- you know it's fake, but the woman is so beautiful, so real, you watch and marvel.
a French kiss, a French death
Like everything French, death has a protocol in this movie. A wounded gang member ("Louis Albouis") surfaces from his coma only to be dispatched by an injection from Cathy (Deneuve) in order to ensure his silence about the bank robbery. Coleman breaks in on another gang member -- previously an assistant bank manager -- just as he's putting a pistol to his head, withdraws, allows the fallen bourgeois the dignity of suicide. When Simon is intercepted on the street, moves as if he's got a gun, Coleman obliges by shooting him. When another detective observes that Coleman was a bit quick on the draw, Coleman says (elliptically), "I wasn't sure if he would commit suicide."
These stagey rituals are rooted in ancient codes, where choice is a matter of honor. When Coleman visits Cathy for a lover's rendezvous, the ambiguity of their situation is acted out. "You're under arrest," he says as he descends the steps into her hotel room. They stare for a moment before she reaches under his jacket, snaps his pistol from its holster, points it at him... then tosses it onto the bed as they embrace, kissing desperately.
When he shoots Simon, Cathy watches from the escape car. Does Coleman arrest her too? Not at all. Their complicity is masked by the symbolism: death is a blond.
theatre of the self
Theatre is always a parody of the self. Thus parody appears as fiction, even if the parody is part of an event. In film, fiction exists but is always hidden in the documentary effect, which you take for the truth. Melville seems to understand this aspect of human behaviour -- conscious and unconscious action -- when he exploits the consciousness of film noir and neo realism. Here, everyone is an actor. Coleman's street informant is a man pretending to be a woman. When Costa is ambushed in the Chez Luce restaurant, the diners are all police masquerading as citizens. As for Simon... he's always pretending to be something to suit the occasion.
You're in France. It's now June, six months since you robbed the Banque Nationale De Paris in St. Jean-De-Monts. You're in the Hotel Splendid with a suitcase of heroin, thinking about escape. Gone is your gang, gone is your nightclub. You pick up the phone, call your svelte blond mistress. How could you know her phone is tapped, your conversation recorded on a Swiss ReVox reel-to-reel for the pleasure of the police, especially your nemesis, Inspector Eduoard Coleman. You tell her to pick you up at the door. She arrives on time in an Austin 1100, scattering the pigeons. You exit the lobby on cue... but Coleman is waiting on the sidewalk, pistol in hand. What was it the wise man Francoise-Eugene Vidocq said? The only sentiments a man is never incapable of inspiring with the police are ambiguity and derision... or something like that.
The woman you both share is across the street. You suspect she has already made her choice, although nothing is certain. Judas might be a man, might be a woman. One thing is certain, though: she's a blonde. What the hell. Existence precedes the essence. You make as if you have a gun below your trenchcoat... Coleman fires and you die as only the cool can, a handsome desperado in a beautifully photographed movie.
© LR 2/02
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