22 July, 2007

UN FLIC: Jean-Pierre Melville's Final Masterwork

From his first film, LE SILENCE DE LA MER (above image) to his last, UN FLIC, the legendary French director Jean-Pierre Melville imprinted his personal vision onto his work and eventually onto the essential collective iconography of Film History, influencing and inspiring the work of Jean Luc Godard and the nouvelle vague, John Woo and Quentin Tarantino, to name just his most obvious acolytes.

Before putting on UN FLIC, I suddenly remembered a Jess Franco connection to its director. Franco icon Howard Vernon was given the lead role of a shunned Nazi in a small French town in the first film of the great Jean Pierre Melville, LE SILENCE DE LA MER (1949), which found critical and commercial acclaim in postwar France. I scanned Melville's 1972 UN FLIC (A COP) aka DIRTY MONEY for a glimpse of Jess Franco starlet Pamela Stanford (LORNA, THE EXORCIST). I couldn't locate her, although she may appear among the chorus girls in the nightclub owned by the protagonist, the criminal mastermind Simon (Richard Crenna). What I did find was how this film deepens every time one returns to it, while mysteriously receding at the same time. The screenshot below is from what is probably the best bank robbery scene ever filmed. It runs for 12 nearly dialogue free minutes, is bathed in an eerie blue twilight and accompanied mainly by the sounds of the North Atlantic crashing waves into the nearby rocks. You see, the robbers have chosen to hit a coastal branch of the BNP. Far from the crowds and regular police patrols of Paris, the mission unfolds as if on another planet. The image below, of the team leader backing into the getaway car, an early 1960's Plymouth, dressed in a trench coat which seems borrowed from Bogart in THE BIG SLEEP and flashing a machine gun, perhaps can transmit a sense of Melville's fetish for all things American ported into a Gallic context. The aesthetic synthesis of objects, figures, environment is subtle, ultimately overcoming one's rational expectations. Melville replaces disbelief with an alternate universe all his own. It's a starkly beautiful film, chilling, and leaves one wanting more. I immediately wanted to somehow see Melville's LE SILENCE DE LA MER, also set in a winter which becomes Existential, to compare it to his magnificent final work.

Beyond reporting to the blog readers my failure to find Pamela Stanford in it I want to celebrate Melville's last film before he died a premature death in 1973. It's the most austere and Bressonian of the director's last series of color crime films and the third film he made featuring Alain Delon. It was preceded by two masterworks, 1967's LE SAMOURAI and 1970's LE CERCLE ROUGE.

Melville was a tough customer who knew the local underworld argot. In his L'ARMEE DES OMBRES (1969), finally released in the US only last year to great acclaim, the French Resistance (in which he participated during the Nazi occuptation of France) became an ironic shadow of a crime milieu. And he mastered the argot. Most importantly, he mastered the cars and the clothes and the language of the eyes (his Italian counterpart, Sergio Leone, did something similar to a familiar genre with his Spaghetti Westerns). And his characters sure know how to smoke cigarettes with a certain elan, especially Melville's Superstar-icon, Alain Delon.

The supporting performances of Richard Crenna (RAMBO) , Michael Conrad (HILL STREET BLUES) and Riccardo Cucciolla (RABID DOGS) are also excellent, making memorable characters out of what could have been crime film cliches. Cucciolla's quietly desperate ex-bank employee is the kind of disgraced company man who might be sitting on a park bench in any city in the world as life passes him by. Delon's Detective Coleman is a psychopathic, sometimes empathetic, sometimes sadistic, executioner who brings them down one by one but without any ego fulfillment or professional pride. He's already dead. And as his secret lover (Catherine Deneuve) tells him, a dead man can't kill people. He's already a zombie, the living dead. His thousand yard stare is like a moral X ray which allows him to dispense cruel mercies, like allowing a trapped gang member the chance to commit suicide or delivering Simon from the certainty of life in prison by cutting him down in a final confrontation which recalls many an old fashioned western quick draw with the silenced, emptied streets of Paris filling in for the dusty street of a Wild West town . In Melville's universe suicide can be a positive action, the right thing to do; and a man shooting down a friend can be an act of mercy.

The film opens with a quote which is repeated by Coleman as a way to remind himself that he's only a cop doing a dirty, necessary job. He tells his partner that the prey only inspire ambiguity and derision in the detectives who pursue them. Everyone and everything is a mystery, there are no easy categorizations for a thinking and feeling person, and we all die.

If you haven't seen this film, get the DVD. If you're not into Eurocrime, you'll experience a film which transcends its genre while transforming it. And let's have a R1 DVD of LE SILENCE DE LA MER.
(C) Robert Monell, 2007


Tom Mather said...

Le Silence de la Mer has just come out on DVD, but only region 2. A review is available on DVD Beaver, complete with photos of a younger looking Howard Vernon.

I haven't seen this film, but am a great fan of Melville's work.

Anonymous said...

Worth a look
105 min version of Virgin? incredible
I have the sexed up version (with added footage like the incest scene/throne/rape) and that's 83 min I believe...
Also they have the nude version of malédiction with Dutch subs! (from the old Dutch vhs?)
And there's more...
PS I'm not obsessed with these films,honestly! ;)

Robert Monell said...

I'll look at the review, Tom. I've also seen Melville's 1950 LES ENFANT TERRIBLES from Cocteau in 35 in NYC years ago. It made quite an impression. My all time favorite is still LE SAMOURAI, though.

Robert Monell said...

I'm going to copy your comment down in the following thread, Bruno.

scott said...

I saw ARMY OF SHADOWS theatrically in it's re-release.. what an amazing film!!! It's defintely on my to own list at some point.. really a knockout.

I saw LE SAMOURAI (sp?) some years ago on vhs but i don't recall it being quite as good as this...

must see LE FLIC - delon and deneuve! what a pairing!

have you seen PURPLE NOON????

Cinebeats said...

Un Flic is a really good film, but it's probably my least favorite of the three Melville/Delon collaborations. I’d really like to see Melville’s film L' Aîné des Ferchaux (1963) myself. It has a great cast and sounds like an interesting film but I haven’t had the chance to see it yet.

It’s amazing to me how Melville has gone from a relatively unknown director in the US to a respected one in the past 10 years. I think he’s brilliant so this makes me very happy. Martin Scorsese and Criterion have really made an effort to improve his profile here in the states.

Robert Monell said...

Scott, I still haven't seen the complete ARMY... just parts. But I do want to get the DVD asap. LE SAMOURAI always hovers just above every other JPM film I've seen for some reason. Maybe the tone of Delon's great performance. And I haven't seen PURPLE NOON, but would like to.

Robert Monell said...

Cinebeats, I haven't seen the film you mention or any of his films between 1960 to 1967, including LE DOULOUS and LE DUEXIEME SOUFFLE (1966), which are supposed to be also great. The latter is an epic heist film which I have long wanted to see. I'm not sure if it's on DVD. LE SAMOURAI, as I said above, remains my favorite. It's a perfect study in solitude and withdrawl from reality. I have the essential LE CERCLE ROUGE DVD but need to see it again since it's such a rich, complex film. It's very impresssive indeed. UN FLIC really improved for me this last viewing. It seems to get better upon repeat viewings. I didn't notice a lot of things that I caught for the first time. Delon is almost like an Angel of Death out of Cocteau in this film, and I remembered that Melville was in ORPHEE, one of my favorite films and directed Cocteaus's LES ENFANT TERRIBLES, which is another great film. I have a lot of catching up to do with his other films.

Anonymous said...

Vernon is also in Melville's LEON MARIN but most of his footage might have been cut when Melville shortened the film (the producers actually prefered the longer version).

Robert Monell said...

I didn't realize he was in LEON MORIN, PRETE. Thanks for that info. Yet another JRM classic I haven't seen. I want to eventually collect all his work on DVD.