Philippe (Maurice Ronet), a corrupt politician, is being blackmailed by the mysterious Serrano, who keeps a diary full of juicy details on several of France’s most prominent figures. When Serrano is murdered, Philippe panics and goes for help from his best friend Xavier (Alain Delon). Xavier provides Philippe with an alibi, covering his whereabouts on the night of the crime, and is entrusted with Serrano’s diary. Philippe is killed, alongside several other suspects, as sinister forces begin liquidating anyone involved in the Serrano affair. A host of gangsters, corrupt cops, and hitmen are after the diary, but Xavier is an ice-cool, super-skilled, ex-legionnaire. He outshoots, outruns and outfoxes the bad guys, and follows a trail leading to a femme fatale (Ornella Muti), Philippe’s drunken wife (Stéphane Audran), a homosexual businessman (Klaus Kinski), and eventually, the real killer.
Produced by Delon, this is one of the French superstar’s finest vehicles, a Gallic cousin to such conspiracy thrillers as The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975). One could argue it’s superior to either, since instead of vague conspiracy fantasies concocted by ambiguous bogeymen, this is a pointed attack upon government corruption and politics being conducted in Mafia style. However, some critics castigated the film as too reflective of Delon’s right-wing views, a shallow riposte to more ambitious, left-wing thrillers like Yves Boisset’s Le Juge Fayard Dit ‘Le Sheriff’ and Pierre Granier-Deferre’s Adieu, Poulet (1975) (which, like Death of a Corrupt Man was adapted from a novel by Jean Laborde).
Whatever your take on its political stance, there is no denying it is a cracking thriller. Lautner punctuates the film with tense confrontations and brutal violence, and orchestrates one, magnificently sustained car chase. Master cinematographer Henri Decae makes inspired use of chiaroscuro to convey a palpable atmosphere of menace and dread. This being a Delon production, our hero gets to tangle with no less than three Euro beauties: sultry Ornella Muti, slinky Mireille Darc, and sly Stéphane Audran. Muti makes a striking, tragic heroine, but Darc and Audran are rather wasted in nondescript roles. Klaus Kinski fares considerably better, in a small but – for him – comparatively sympathetic part.
Centre of it all remains Alain Delon, commanding the screen with another variation on his “indestructible charmer” persona, established way back in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samurai (1967). Less vulnerable than characters played by Warren Beatty and Robert Redford in similar thrillers, Delon is more a righteous superhero, standing up for the underdog and socking it to the corrupt power brokers in city hall. We wouldn’t want it any other way.