“Un Flic” and Catherine Deneuve: 2013 TCM Summer Under The Stars Blogathon Post #2
Compared to most directors considered “great” today, Jean-Pierre Melville, who died in 1973 at the age of 55 (of a heart attack), did not have a prolific career. From 1946 (when he directed a short film, 24 Hours in the Life of a Clown) to his death, he only directed 13 features (all but one of which he wrote or co-wrote). Yet many of these are rightly considered classics; the Criterion Collection has released their editions of eight Melville films (Army of Shadows, Bob le Flambeur, Le Cercle Rouge, Le Deuxieme Souffle, Le Doulos, Les Enfants Terribles, Leon Morin Priest, and Le Samourai) – though all of them have recently gone out of print – and such directors as Luc Besson, Jim Jarmusch, Michael Mann, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Johnny To and John Woo either claim him as an influence or have clearly been influenced by his work. Though he made films about teenage obsession (Les Enfants Terribles), religious faith (Leon Morin Priest), and WWII (Le Silence de la Mer, Army of Shadows), the bulk of Melville’s filmography, and the ones he’s most admired and remembered for, are his gangster/cop films. All of them, particularly the ones he made starting in the 60’s, use stories of heists and armed robberies to explore such themes as keeping your honor in a dishonorable world, characters who do their jobs because that’s what they do, and betrayal. Melville’s characters are older and guarded; they tend not to express their feelings verbally, yet are people who seem to have the weight of the world on their shoulders, or etched on their faces. In point of fact, though all of Melville’s disciples that I list above are known for either their use of dialogue and/or violence, what’s most striking about Melville’s films is his use of silence, even in action scenes (more on the silence part below).
One thing that also must be said about Melville’s gangster/cop films; all of them are tales of men. While he was capable of featuring strong female roles in his non-crime films – Nicole Stephane in Les Enfants Terribles, Emmanuelle Riva in Leon Morin Priest, and Simone Signoret in Army of Shadows (though hers is more of a supporting role) all give excellent performances in three-dimensional parts – the women in Melville’s crime films tend to be fairly passive and only there to support the men. Even when such a well-known actress as Catherine Deneuve starred in what proved to be Melville’s final film, Un Flic (also known as A Cop and Dirty Money, its current U.S. DVD title) (1972), her role, especially compared to co-stars Alain Delon and Richard Crenna, feels somewhat insubstantial. Still, even though the film feels like a coda to Melville’s career (coming after Le Cercle Rouge, the film I consider to be his masterpiece), it’s worth watching.
You can see Melville’s talent at work with Deneuve’s first appearance, which occurs nearly 30 minutes into the film (as opposed to such larger-scale Melville films as Le Deuxieme Souffle, Army of Shadows and Le Cercle Rouge, Un Flic clocks in at a brisk 98 minutes). Edouard Coleman (Delon), a world-weary detective (the cop of the title), comes into a nightclub that’s not quite ready to open. He greets the staff (who all greet him as “superintendent”), wanders over to a weathered-looking piano, sits down, and starts playing a jazz ballad. Unseen by Edouard, Cathy (Deneuve) comes in from another room, stops when she sees and hears him playing, leans against the wall, and just listens. After a few minutes, Edouard looks up at Cathy and gives a small smile (only the second time he’s smiled so far into the film), which she returns. A few seconds later, Simon (Crenna), the owner of the nightclub, walks in. After taking in the scene (and receiving a warning look from Cathy), Simon walks over to the other side of the piano, and when Edouard sees him, he gives him a smile as well, as Simon leans convivially on the piano. Just then, Edouard’s partner (or underling) calls for him. Edouard stops playing, gives Simon a congenial pat on the arm, blows a kiss to Cathy (which she returns), and goes outside. Simon, in turn, gives a long, enigmatic look at Edouard as he exits, but doesn’t appear to be angry. The sequence only lasts a couple of minutes, but without any expository dialogue (the other policeman and the nightclub staff are the only ones who speak here), Melville (who wrote the film) has established simply through editing, camerawork and the actors’ expressions and body language that Edouard and Simon are friends, that the two of them are both involved with Cathy, and that Simon is aware of this (we find out much later Edouard is too). This is an example of Melville’s use of silence and his trust of the audience.
We’ve also seen before this scene that Simon is leading a double life. In addition to his owning the nightclub, he’s a crook, as we see the heist he and three others pull on a seaside bank at the beginning of the film. The robbery isn’t entirely successful (one of Simon’s men gets shot, and they end up having to leave half the money and killing him later so he doesn’t talk), but they get enough money so they can plan an even bigger score; stealing a suitcase of cocaine that’s being transferred by train by a drug mule known as Suitcase Matthieu (Leon Minisin). As it happens, Edouard is also tracking that suitcase of cocaine, with the help of Gaby (Valerie Wilson), a transvestite who’s an informant and who tells Edouard what train Suitcase Matthieu will be on. When Simon ends up stealing the suitcase while the train is in motion, it puts the two friends on an eventual collision course.
The train heist is the centerpiece of the film, and while it may come off looking fake to today’s audiences – due to the obvious fact Melville is using models for both the train and the helicopter Simon and his men use to overtake the train, drop Simon off, and pick him up – it’s still well done. This, again, is mostly due to Melville’s use of silence, but also his attention to detail. Once on board the train, for example, Simon takes time to clean himself up and disguise himself as a passenger on the train (even making brief small talk with a fellow passenger). He also uses a magnet to open Suitcase Matthieu’s door, and dispatches him simply with a chop to the neck that knocks him out. Not until Simon is climbing up the ladder to get back on the helicopter is there any gunfire (when the cops on the train have figured out something’s going on), and even then it’s minimal. And as per usual in Melville’s films, there’s no music in the scene, which adds to the tension. Finally, as with the rest of the film, Melville and cinematographer Walter Mottitz (who also shot Melville’s Army of Shadows, as well as John Frankenheimer’s The Train) shot the outside sequences in as much darkness as possible, and muting the colors as much as possible (as opposed to inside the train, which looks normal), keeping up with Melville’s preferred method of wanting to make color films in black-and-white (as he expressed in Melville on Melville, written by Rui Nogueira).
What limits the film for me is the central relationship between Edouard and Simon. Melville had, in his previous films, often set up parallel stories between cop and criminal, to show what separated them and what made them not so different from each other, and he does the same here in showing how Edouard and Simon each work with their associates, the professionalism they both try to bring to their respective jobs, and their outside interests (Simon and Edouard are both interested in, or at least knowledgeable about, art). The problem is, we’re also supposed to buy them as friends and rivals, and in order to do that, we need to see a connection between the two that just isn’t there. There’s the scene in the nightclub that I mentioned above, and another scene there later in the movie when Edouard drops by the nightclub and he, Simon and Cathy have a drink together, but they don’t really talk about anything, and we never find out what brought them together in the first place. Therefore, when Edouard finds out Simon was involved in the train robbery, and he feels betrayed, it isn’t as meaningful to us as it obviously is to Edouard.
Then there’s the relationship the two of them each have with Cathy. Clearly, Simon trusts Cathy, as he tells her part of the plan involving the train, and has her disguise herself as a nurse in order to kill one of Simon’s men after he was shot (while Simon and Costa (Michael Conrad) distract the nurse at the front desk by pretending to be orderlies wanting to move the patient). As for Edouard and Cathy, we see they like to indulge in a little foreplay when they get together (she takes away his gun and pretends to want to shoot him before he knocks the gun away). But we don’t really get a sense of why Cathy is sticking around with either of them, or the feeling that she has anything at stake here.
Of course, I must admit part of my finding fault with this part of the movie has to do with my feelings about Deneuve. There are certain actors whom I prefer later in their career (such as Don Ameche, whom I liked more as a character actor than as a leading man), and Deneuve is one of them. She was nicknamed “the ice maiden” or “the ice queen” early in her career, but I prefer it when that ice, or the shell, has melted somewhat, and she shows some feeling underneath, as with the two films she did with Andre Techine in the mid-90’s (My Favorite Season and Thieves), or her turn in the silly but enjoyable 8 Women (directed by Francois Ozon), and her factory worker character in Lars Von Trier’s Dancing in the Dark. And I will admit her icy persona was well used by both Luis Bunuel (Belle de Jour) and Roman Polanski (Repulsion), where it was part of the point. But too often – even, it must be said, in her later career, as in Indochine and A Christmas Tale – it seems like Deneuve is a porcelain doll that everyone is afraid of touching in case she breaks, and her face seems frozen, as if the very existence of emotion would cause it to break (I had this same problem with Lana Turner and, for the most part, Uma Thurman pre-Pulp Fiction). For the first half of the movie, I admit Melville does better by Deneuve than most directors. Her first appearance in the movie, as detailed above, is a good example, as she’s able to reveal a complex set of feelings in just a couple of minutes. That also comes through in the scene where she has to administer a fatal injection to Simon’s man in the hospital; you can tell she knows it needs to be done, but that doesn’t make her feel any better, or less scared, about the deed. However, after this, Deneuve again comes off like she’s on auto-pilot.
Still, as I said, this is worth watching, not just for the heist scenes, Melville’s trust for the audience, and his use of silence (as well as the fact while the movie feels tense, there’s very little violence and almost no bloodshed), but also for the lead performances. In Melville on Melville, he defines a star as an ordinary person with something else extra that’s indefinable but is unquestionably there (just to be clear, Deneuve definitely has this, it’s just her persona doesn’t really work for me). Delon had this, especially in his previous films with Melville, Le Cercle Rouge and Le Samourai (even in Scorpio, where he clearly struggled with his English, he still had it), and though he’s playing a cop here instead of the thief he played in the former and the assassin in the latter, Delon has that something extra here as well. Early in the movie, before he gets to the nightclub for the first time, we see him at a crime scene (a murdered prostitute who resembles both Cathy and Gaby), dealing with an elderly robbery victim who convinces Edouard not to press charges (it was the victim’s lover, a teenage boy, who likely did the deed), and getting information from Gaby, and you can see Edouard, like most Melville characters, acting thoroughly professional, yet feeling a little constricted as well. And when Edouard finds out about the train robbery, he starts becoming unhinged, but Delon never overplays it. Crenna doesn’t have that little something extra, and it is strange to hear him dubbed into French at first – though Crenna spoke French, he was still dubbed, as was Conrad (best known as desk Sergeant Phil Esterhaus on Hill Street Blues) – but he’s also convincing in his professionalism, and the way he commands respect from his men. Overall, Un Flic may not be the best place to start in order to appreciate Melville, but it does show enough to make you realize he was one of the greats.