Determined police commissioner Edouard Coleman (Alain Delon) investigates a string of daring bank robberies committed by a ruthlessly well-organized gang, little suspecting his best friend, nightclub patron Simon (Richard Crenna) is the man behind it all. Both men are romantically involved with the seductive Cathy (Catherine Deneuve), but their friendship is truly put to the test when Coleman draws closer to the truth.
Un Flic was the last film Jean-Pierre Melville made before his untimely death. By now some were beginning to accuse the French crime thriller auteur of recycling his familiar motifs (masculine solitude, fetishistic violence, existential gloom) to the point of self-parody. Others found it odd to see Alain Delon cast as a cop, although this became a more familiar occurrence throughout his latter run of self-produced thrillers: e.g. For a Cop's Hide (1981), Parole de Flic (1985) and Let Sleeping Cops Lie (1988).
Opening with a quote from François-Eugene Vidocq, the thief-turned-policeman who founded the French police force (played by Gérard Depardieu in the likeable fantastical romp Vidocq (2001)), the film’s theme is underlined by Coleman’s observation that the only feelings men inspire in a policeman are ambiguity and ridicule. It boils down to a well-worn story of hard men going through the motions, knowing full well the grim fate life has mapped out for them but unable to curb their instincts. The film opens with a methodically executed bank robbery amidst the windswept coast equal to those celebrated set-pieces in Le Samurai (1967) or Le Cercle Rouge (1970), but thereafter the plot leans too far into the abstract. D.P. Walter Wottitz lends an obsessive blue tinge to the cinematography that gives the film quite a distinctive look, one of several similarities shared with the later, superior Heat (1995) made by avowed Melville devotee Michael Mann. In this instance the kinship between cop and criminal comes across as contrived and drawn rather vaguely.
French cinema found space for some surprising Hollywood talent throughout the Seventies, with American actors undoubtedly drawn by the mystique of the Nouvelle Vague. This produced such unlikely partnerships as Sterling Hayden and director Yves Boisset in Cobra (1971) and Charles Bronson and René Clement with Rider on the Rain (1971). Here, the oft-underrated Richard Crenna slides into Melville’s existentialist universe, jarringly dubbed in French although it is clear the actor spoke the language on set. Most likely his accent was thought too strong. Crenna can’t compete with Alain Delon for laconic cool, but his low-key playing befits the melancholy mood underlined by Michel Columbier’s minimalist jazz score. On the other hand, the film scandalously wastes Catherine Deneuve. Melville was none too skilful with women, but Cathy barely registers beyond her glacial beauty. She is not quite the tarnished angel we first suspect, cold-heartedly executing an injured robber in his hospital bed, an aspect Melville fails to explore any deeper. Rather more affecting is the (implied) transvestite informant whom Coleman cruelly uses then casts aside, part of a lingering gay subtext again drawn far too vaguely. Strangely, no-one mentioned the Melville film when the screen partnership of Delon and Deneuve was hyped up for the less celebrated, but marginally more effective Le Choc (1982).
Un Flic remains fascinating for Melville’s use of split-second editing for psychological shorthand, but the director also lazily recycles familiar nightclub sets and dancing girl set-pieces from previous films. His use of miniatures during the train robbery is distractingly obvious, though the sequence remains suspenseful and executed with panache. One can only wonder where Melville’s unique style of cinema could have gone from here. Would he have continued repeating himself or maybe moved into increasingly politicised stories like his contemporaries in the policier genre?