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Un Flic

Supercool and desperate and retroactively magnificent though it is, American film noir rarely had - film for film - very much deliberate philosophical torque; they were too busy being fast-moving, medium-to-low-budget programmers. In the American psyche, westerns always held more self-consciously ontological cachet: here were portraits of the American soul reckoning with evil, with fate, and with itself. Noir came by its resonance more circumstantially, collectively and after the fact, although the catalogue of '45-'60 noirs still constitute the most culturally expressive chunk of Hollywood film ever made. It took the French to recognize noir for what it was, and, in the personage of pulp archangel Jean-Pierre Melville, to transform the noir paradigm into a full-on dark night of existentialist tribulation. Melville films are studies in the famous genre's evolution from haphazard Zeitgeist to the expressionistic poetry of modern alienation. The hapless gangsters and gangsterish cops in Melville's films don't know much except two things: one, their sense of honor is the only thing they can take with them to the grave, and two, that date with the grave may be coming all too soon.

Melville was a one-man filmmaking combine who famously lived in an apartment above his own studio; both Bertrand Tavernier and Volker Schlondorff schooled here, and the Cahiers du cinema crowd loved him. No wonder - Melville's overcast, moody images of lost men in fedoras facing the inevitable uselessness of their lives on Earth come off as iconic as traditional Christian sculpture, and his fascinating habit of revisiting places and instances from successive points of view makes him a filmmaker-philosopher, the undisputed Antonioni of the genre film.

Un Flic (1972), Melville's last film, opens with a signature Melvillian set-piece - a robbery of a seaside bank during a foggy rainstorm, perpetrated by a car full of black-hatted stone faces in a nearly wordless cascade of planned action and unplanned accident (the dialogue is in glances). The lengthy sequence exudes enough existential mood and noir weight for five movies; here we are reminded, after wincing at the glib triumphalism of contemporary heist films, that crimes are almost always acts of desperation and doom. Of course one of the thieves is wounded, thereby tipping the dominoes that will eventually lead very busy detective Alain Delon to the bank robbers. But in Melville nothing happens simply, and no police investigation unrolls in purely procedural fashion. Like crazy movie heisters, the crooks immediately start plotting another robbery, this time to abscond with a suitcase of heroin carried on a train by a thug that, not so coincidentally, Delon is planning to intercept and arrest. The connective tissue between the bad guys and Delon's threadbare detective squad is varied and half-hidden - except for the femme semi-fatale presence of Catherine Deneuve as the woman being shared, even if her romantic alliance with a lawman doesn't stop her from posing as a nurse to murder the wounded fourth bank robber in his hospital bed.

To paraphrase William Hurt from The Big Chill (1983), men in hats are always doing something terrible. Un Flic (A Cop in French slang) is in some ways Melville's most American film - the climactic heist is a preposterous train-boarding-via-helicopter stunt that seems to have outpaced Melville's budget (it's executed with fairly adorable toy miniatures), and several of the key roles - the most cold-blooded of the thieves - are played by non-headlining Hollywood character-actor stalwarts Richard Crenna and Michael Conrad. The film also, in its stoic French way, verges on self-parody, as when Crenna's mastermind rappels down from the helicopter in the middle of the night onto the moving train, sneaks inside and doffs his laborer's coveralls for... a red hound's-tooth silk robe! (He has to pass in the corridor for an overnight train passenger, of course.)

Melville's default strategy is to withhold information; significant actions and dramas are always unfolding off-screen and in between scenes. Typically, Un Flic is rich with secrets - Delon and Crenna (who owns a nightclub) seem to know each other well, outside of their mutual interest in Deneuve, but at one pivotal point the three of them sit down and share a drink and say nothing. Somewhere, secrets are divulged, of course, but not to us. Melville's hidden equations and doublings and postponed judgments were famously influential on Quentin Tarantino's screenwriting style, and it instills all of the master's films with a sense of fatalistic menace, as Melville's repressed, hopeless men in trench coats go about their machinations in a world where they understand only part of what is going on, and know for certain only that things will not fall their way. Un Flic was Melville's thirteenth and final feature - he died a year later, of a heart attack at age 55, and with him went the European neo-noir's sense of authentic despair. Noir itself had become a pose and a bank of clich├ęd images by the '70s anyhow; only Melville still believed in the genre's capacity for truth and resonance. Since then, every effort at noir is retrospective, nostalgic and self-regarding. Melville was the last man standing, and Un Flic is both his and the genre's swansong.

By Michael Atkinson



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