The movie was the final effort of writer-director Jean-Pierre Melville, one of the modern masters of crime stories, who loved the hard-boiled American thrillers of the 1940s and 1950s, but who put his own cynical spin on the genre.
The fact that there is generally not an ounce of sentiment in Melville movies, and the stories are told with such a cool, sleek visual style, has made them perennial arthouse favorites. Pessimism never goes out of fashion.
Pictures like “Le Samourai” and “Les Doulos” were overshadowed in this country at the time of their original releases by the more prestigious fare of U.S. arthouse favorites such as Francois Truffaut and Federico Fellini. But starting 15 or 20 years ago, Melville’s popularity has steadily grown, and a “rediscovered” 1969 World War II thriller “Army of Shadows” became a major arthouse hit here a few years ago.
“Un Flic” translates as “a cop” but the film is pretty evenly balanced between the jaded Paris policeman played by Delon and the big score heist specialist played by American actor Richard Crenna. One of the henchmen is another familiar face, Michael Conrad, who went on to star in “Hill Street Blues.”
The cool blonde who is of equal interest to both men is played by a very young and very beautiful Catherine Denueve who creates a character as morally bankrupt as any of the women in 1940s Hollywood noir.
“Un Flic” opens with a beautifully staged bank heist in a French resort town during the off-season. Crenna and his three accomplices almost pull it off without a hitch until one of the tellers sets off an alarm and shoots one of the robbers.
The crooks get away but face the challenge of finding medical treatment for the wounded man (a problem that is solved by the ice-cold Deneuve).
When Melville starts intercutting between the thieves and the cop played by Delon, the behavior on both sides is so brutal that it is hard to distinguish the police from their prey.
Delon’s chilling performance was part of his successful attempt in the 1970s to get away from the romantic/pretty boy roles that established him as an international star a decade earlier.
The actor was so attractive in his youth that he fell into a romantic leading man niche in films such as “The Leopard” and “Eclipse” or playing the scheming seducer in pictures such as “Purple Noon.”
Thanks to Melville, who cast him in several of his bleak thrillers, Delon broke out of the stereotype, and was able to make a smooth transition to mature roles. He is just about perfect in “Un Flic.”
(For information on the Film Forum screenings of “Un Flic” visit www.filmforum.com. Also, a good print of the film is also available for free screening to members of the Amazon Prime service.)