Tangled up in bleu
Constructing his scenes with the impartial serenity of a seasoned novelist, Melville imbues situations and characters with calculated detail, and handles both his good guys and bad guys with benign detachment. Using blue filters to amplify the pale, icy universe of Un Flic, a cop (Delon), a white collar thief (Richard Crenna, expertly dubbed in French) and the femme fatale (Catherine Deneuve, pictured above) move about like alabaster cadavers in search of their gravesites.
Opening with a quote by the 18th Century criminologist François-Eugène Vidocq—“The only two feelings men give rise to are ambiguity and derision”—Melville moves from bustling Parisian streets to a deserted coastal village weathering a small hurricane. His camera quietly ponders a quartet of stoic bank robbers faced with an eager teller who sets off an alarm that can’t be heard over the wind in a town otherwise void of life. Between the trench coats, sunglasses and tension, Melville tips his Fedora to noir while establishing a reticent mood never to be abandoned for a moment, in a study of ambiguous figures and their varying degrees of contempt—for society, for rules, and ultimately for themselves.
In the aftermath of the bank robbery and a nervy heist of narcotics from an organized crime syndicate, Delon’s character reiterates Vidocq’s assertion and uses it as a working tool for his investigation, interrogating suspects and tracking down anonymous gang members. Melville doesn’t milk the detective as a heroic figure, because the ambiguity and derision being discussed on screen also functions within the screenplay and direction, a smart, subliminal gimmick used to get a rise from the audience.
When Deneuve is sent to silence a wounded accomplice, the deadly act is secondary to the clinical observation of her nearly vacant passivity. When the crooks rob the train, Melville opts to glean suspense from extended single takes of Crenna preening in the lavatory and unlocking a door rather than the actual theft itself. At the same time, the obviousness of the effects miniatures used for the railroad and helicopter underline the director’s literary underpinnings, and magnify the artificiality of a wholly cinematic universe. As Delon drives toward a noticeable studio backdrop of the Champs-Élysées, Melville cuts to a painted street scene hanging in a museum where hallways are meticulously detailed murals—art imitating life imitating art. (By the same token, Delon’s informant is a male cross dresser played by the actress Valérie Wilson!)
Once a leading figure in the waning field of suave leading men, Alain Delon carries an innate understanding of Melville’s intentions in the three excellent pictures they made together. Some critics have noted that the director began repeating himself in these films, that Le Samourai, Le Cercle Rouge, and Un Flic are virtually interchangeable. Such charges are not completely unfounded, but do reveal a degree of myopia in the accusers. There is certainly no way to distinguish which one offers a superior Delon performance over the others. Playing the cop in Un Flic, Delon—through his stately slouch and piecing blue eyes—wanders about this edge of the world “skeptical of skepticism,” a man well aware of impermanence.
The character she plays in Un Flic at first appears to be an insignificant addition to Catherine Deneuve’s otherwise sterling repertoire. But during her two or three peak periods of international stardom, the actress has never been averse to taking smaller roles in low profile productions, part of a professional humility that fortunately continues to this day. If compared with her work in Jacques Demy’s series of breezy romantic musicals (Les Parapluies de Cherbourg , Les Demoiselles de Rochefort , and the opulent Peau d'âne ), Un Flic’s ‘Cathy’ seems incidental, perhaps disposable. Melville’s chilly motif benefits from her reticent peroxide blonde, though: eye candy whose scruples have been contaminated by the unspoken fears and losses considered throughout the script.
Finally a word about Richard Crenna. Proficient at smooth arrogance, he was among the last of Hollywood’s sophisticated character actors, part of a dwindling bunch that included Robert Webber, Gig Young and David Janssen. When he was at last fêted for his performance as the doomed husband in Lawrence Kasdan’s Body Heat (1981), a lot of empty talk among the tabloids and paying public made it seem as if the actor had been their perennial favorite for years. But Crenna was paying his dues in Europe with Un Flic, after two decades of secondary roles in mediocre American movies and television shows. With the real-time train heist and his cat-and-mouse game with Delon, Crenna is a fascinating example of Melville’s intuitive casting.