Personally, I love Christmas movies, but when I scrolled through lists of Christmas crime films and saw this title, I knew I had to take this opportunity to write about Melville (Christmas quotient be damned).
Released in 1972 starring Melville favorite Alain Delon, this movie became Melville’s last, but was never intended to be. While it doesn’t feel like the swan song that great directors seek, it does contain a long list of Melville tics and tricks that made him such a signature crime filmmaker throughout the 1950’s and ‘60’s.
From the get go, we get a title card to open the movie - a Melville trademark:
"The only feelings mankind inspires in policemen are indifference and scorn..." - Francois-Eugene Vidocq
But this Un Flic opener is, in fact, from a real person - Francois-Eugene Vidocq, founder of the famed French undercover detective unit Surete staffed by former criminals like himself. I’m sure Melville, the maker of emotionally flat but icy cool riffs on American film noirs, liked to imagine himself as a Samurai or Detective straight from one of his own stories. He famously wore a cowboy hat and glasses if his affinity to American films wasn’t clear enough from his work.
It’s this blend of genre style and policier authenticity that gives this final Melville installment its identity, appearing eerily similar to another stylish yet rigorously “real” crime film from the 1990’s - Heat.
That seminal DeNiro and Pacino starrer finds a detective and a criminal discovering themselves in each other, even as they are on opposite sides of the cops and robbers game. In Un Flic, Delon’s detective Coleman is buddies with Richard Crenna’s nightclub owner (slash) master thief Simon. Process, stoicism, indifference, and scorn ensue. This duality of The Chaser and The Chased is central to both movies, and in each one, it can only end when one side prevails, leaving a longing or vacuum in the loser’s place.
Like Melville, Heat’s creator Michael Mann covets design, fashion, and architecture straight out of an artist’s mood board while also requiring absolute perfection in the details of the trades dramatized. You can imagine if Mann or Melville were to screen their films for real life detectives or thieves, (the kind they clearly wish they were themselves), they would want those people to be proud of the depictions they see.
The real difference between the films ultimately lies in the level of craft on display, which could probably be chalked up to where each filmmaker was in their careers when the films were made. The most stark example of this difference is in the mid-film heist sequences. Melville, near the very end of his career and maybe more willing to skim over a sequence or two, makes one of the worst mid-film heist sequences ever in Un Flic, complete with miniature models that look like a kid’s train set and toy helicopter, effectively yanking you right out of the movie. As for Mann’s mid-film heist in Heat, well, everyone knows that’s probably the best that’s ever been made. It’s a celebrated collision of ambition, preparation, location, and destruction.
(Fun loosely connected facts: Un Flic takes place during Christmas while Heat was released during Christmas).
On the stylist side of things, Melville adheres to an almost comical commitment to the colors blue and gray in Un Flic. From the color grading to the sets to the melancholy - it’s all blue (even the opening title card is full blue with black text). Not even the gunshot wounds show any blood red, keeping the blue palette intact. Melville was famously a thrifty filmmaker who opened his own production studio to make his films for a better price than most French films of his time. It is this fact that made me wonder if the lack of blood or squibs was a simple financial decisi\on meant to keep wardrobe costs and shooting time down. But Melville was a world class filmmaker and seeing how blue-on-blue he crafted this film, I’m leaning towards “no blood” being a strictly aesthetic decision.
In the end, this movie is flawed, but 100% Jean-Pierre Melville. Frames are easy to recall long after the movie is over and you remember the gulf between the hopes of the characters and the disappointing reality they experience. It’s amazing how someone as striking as Delon can exhibit the numbing pain of living, of chasing, of trying to feel something. This is clearly the work of an old man - there’s no wild, youthful nihilist violence. But that’s not to say there’s no pleasure in seeing this maestro at work again with his muse (Delon plays the piano for Catherine Denueve for chrissakes). Melancholy and crime in the movies is my favorite dish on the movie menu, like they probably are for fans of this blog.
Early in the movie, when we meet Delon’s character, we see the green and red of Christmas lights running down the Champs-Elysees. That is about as festive as this movie is willing to be. There's no joyous celebration or big bombastic shootout ending. It ends with 2 men, standing in silence on an empty street with nearly no color. As in Heat, death has been waiting patiently, and when its moment comes, it strikes quickly. Feelings are buried. The suffering is there, but hidden in the gray. Melville planned to make more films in his life after this one, but his last statement as a filmmaker is simply said and clearly understood, even if it’s hard to take.joshguffeyjoshguffey.com