As far as swan songs go, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Un Flic is a fascinatingly garbled tune that teems with formal inconsistencies and yet still manages to carry a pained melody. Closing his Alain Delon-starring trilogy of gangster films, which includes Le Samouraï and Le Cercle Rouge, Un Flic, released one year before Melville’s premature death, certainly doesn’t feel like it should be the final work of a director who was carving out a distinct aesthetic groove late in his career. The film asks more questions than it answers, challenging Parisian modernism, playing provocatively with Melville’s leitmotif of the criminal death wish, and carrying strong homophilic subtext.
Delon reverses his typecast role and plays the eponymous flic, or cop, Edouard Coleman, in search of four criminals, one of whom is his friend, Simon (Richard Crenna). The film cuts serenely between Coleman’s brooding investigation and the gangsters’ elaborate heists, comparing the life of the officer with that of the gangster (sartorially, the men look nearly identical). Here the French director’s set pieces are so extremely refined that the results seem almost parodic, though it’s fairly obvious that the ritualism with which Melville defines both his characters and his own filmic tendencies is employed with self-reflexive irony. Indeed, Un Flic’s two set pieces are clearly demarcated from the imposed lethargy present in the rest of the film.
The first is a bank robbery during which more time is spent waiting for the criminals’ timed action to begin than on the actual job. Rain gushes and winds scream in overcast scenes, emphasizing the cold, grey emptiness of modern architecture surrounding the bank. Three of the four robbers exit the car, one by one, each walking reluctantly against harsh winds toward the job that could be their last. Time rolls slowly, as it does in every Melville film predicated on the suspense of upcoming short bursts of kinetic maneuvering (a gunshot here, a lock picked there). In the bank, time stands nearly still as the robbers wait for everything to fall into place before the thieves stick up the joint. Dressed like businessmen, the three men secretly don masks and shades once inside before commencing the robbery, resembling bored actors awaiting their cue in the wings. The act continues as the criminals drive toward the train station to purchase bogus tickets in order to divert the police.
The second heist, in which Simon is dropped onto a moving train from a helicopter to steal a briefcase of drugs, is an unnerving bit of action that plays out in real time; the train slows down for a trek through electric lines, allowing the helicopter to match the train’s speed and giving the criminals only 20 minutes to complete the heist. Yet most of Simon’s time isn’t devoted to getting on and off of the train or stealing the suitcase. That’s the easy part. Rather, Simon plays the actor again, spending most of the 20 minutes cleaning himself up in the bathroom and changing into luxurious sleeping robes to give the impression that he’s a passenger unable to sleep. He cleans his face, slicks back his hair (twice), and even parts it, then changes shoes. It’s a meticulous ritual marked all the more inane by the sheer seconds it takes for him to break into the drug-dealer’s compartment, knock him out, and take the briefcase.
If criminal activity in Un Flic is depicted as ploys equally perfunctory, easy, and rehearsed, so is the profession of legal enforcement. Delon’s Coleman is a demoralized detective repeatedly called on by his dispatcher, and who repeatedly informs them in monotone: “On my way; I’ll call you after.” Delon’s famous cobalt-blue eyes react only opaquely in the face of every crime he investigates—though one can sense that with every new development something in Coleman dies a little more.
The film is full of obvious put-ons. During the second heist sequence, the helicopter and train shown in extreme long shots, so as to establish their proximity, are clearly models. In form and structure, Un Flic demonstrates a weary nonchalance toward the mechanical processes of filmmaking, heist-pulling, and criminal-nabbing. Outside of the two set pieces, the narrative operates somewhat flimsily and with only a coerced determination to keep continuity. Coleman may be technically investigating the gangsters, but he’s just as frequently found in the arms of his lover, Cathy (Catherine Deneuve), a woman he shares with Simon, or at other unrelated crime scenes. One is the homicide of a prostitute who, with her heavily makeup-ed artificial look, resembles Cathy. Another is a defeated theft between an art dealer and a gay man the dealer picked up, who turns out to be underage. Coleman is frequently coming across people or scenes that challenge his masculinity; his informant is a transgender person, whom he eventually ridicules and assaults for giving him false information, telling her she should dress like a man. Cathy’s role isn’t so much a character as a cipher, a proxy for his uneasy relationship with Simon, with whom he exchanges more glances than words. Describing their dynamic as homoerotic is questionable, though Coleman clearly sympathizes with his friend’s fate; he obliquely warns Simon of his impending arrest when he could have easily handcuffed him.
Melville’s cinema-as-process in Un Flic feels as calculated as it is in many of his previous works, but there’s a distinct vein of misanthropic defeat coursing in this film that’s encoded into empty gestures and portrayals of people who appear to only be going through the motions. In any other film, a love triangle would feature at least one dramatic scene; here the three lovers only communicate through their eyes at Simon’s club. Coleman is never shown to be surprised, disappointed, or even in love with his best friend or with Cathy. Such is the life of a flic in a city that’s as harsh and gray as the sleet that covers it. In Melville’s Paris, concrete and glass are as empty as the blank eyes of its inhabitants, no matter on which side of the law they reside.