Jean Pierre Melville: Un Flic

I’m lucky enough to be on a Melville kick at the moment. I have a small box set that I was smart enough to buy a while back and I have several brilliant films on order.

So my Melville review will be spread over several films, seeing as many of the themes of his work are repeated in certain of his films.

I watched Un Flic (known in the English as A Cop or Dirty Money)  tonight. Its my first Melville – the first of many!  I have quite a line up ahead of me.  Melville, mostly famous for his noir gangster films was dubbed by Godard the ‘godfather’ of the new wave for the stylish existential nature expressed in all his films. Tonight’s film was ‘another’ gangster film of his, indeed the last he ever directed (I’m starting at the wrong end). The basic plot line is that a bank robber (Richard Crenna) is good friends with a detective (Alain Delon). Both share an affair with the same woman (Catherine Denuve). Detective chases robber till he catches him, and the girl is an additional motif, a symbol of a shared understanding, a dignity surrounding the human condition.

Melville himself said:

“I believe that you must be madly in love with cinema to create films. You also need a huge cinematic baggage.”


“I am careful never to be realistic.… What I do is false. Always.”

While watching this film tonight (an it is a very beautiful film) I was struck by a scene when Simon (Crenna) invites the detective to have a drink with himself and his mistress. Catherine Denuve sits between the two men and exchanges ‘knowing’ glances with each of them in the full view, while still employing a certain kind of sophisticated subtlety, that implies the depth of the relationship she shares with each of the men. Simon is the original lover, and the one who should be jealous. There is a moment between Denuve and Delon when she asks him what he thinks might happen if Simon ever found out about their relationship, and Delon replies that “He knows. He knows for sure.”

Given the emotionally charged relationship between the two men, and the extreme vulnerability her second relationship places Simon in, the scene is set for drama to unfold between the three main characters. And this leads me to an important observation about this, Melville’s final film.

The entire film is encased in blue. Gunmetle blue, if the accurate colour need be suggested. The characters move through the film in a half-life, half dead state, as if they exists between sleep and wakefulness. Even the bank robbery, when two men get shot, happens under a fog of semiconsciousness.  The blue hues give all the characters a death like pallor that surrounds them – to the point where scenes are created positing the living against the dead. Sets are explicitly artificial – even to the pint of the prostitute informant being a transvestite with enormous blue eyes who looks like a poor rendition of the Catherine Denuve and certain tricks of back projection give us a sense of painterly composition and control. It’s as if the characters are trapped in this half-light, half dead world.

Thus, in a world this abstract, this divorced from reality, Simon doesn’t express any vulnerability when confronted by the relationship between his lover and the detective. Simon is accepting. He accepts that he must share his woman with enemy who is also his good friend, he accepts that he must initiate the death of an injured colleague, and he accepts that he and his fellow thieves will kill themselves rather than be caught.

In short – this is a film given the perfect existential treatment.

Sound is important in this film. In a stunning scene a helicopter is hovering over a train and we are treated to the mingled sounds of both against the blue / black night sky. The sound of each machine obliterates the sound of the other, so that we are left with a whirling wind swept noise of suspense.

The opening scenes of the car sitting on the empty road waiting to perform the heist use sounds as signs. We hear waves crashing, seagulls crying, cars on wet roads, the sound of the ocean-side storm and then the alarm after the bank raid. All these sounds mysteriously carry the same tainted  bluish hue, created by the films Spookily attenuated visuals. These signs are isolatable but also form part of a synthetic system or world (the sound in his films often has the quality of a sculptured, somewhat experimental sound scape).

Characters are kept existentially isolated by being viewed from inside and outside at the same time. An excellent example of this is the scene I mentioned above where The three have a drink and Denuves love affair with both the men is out in the open. The close up eye movement between the three as each respond to the woman, and then to the woman’s response to the other man, and the response of the woman at the exchange between the two men, takes us inside the complex relationship of the three people. We are waiting for response.

But response never arrives. The drink is complete, and each goes their separate ways. We are held distanced from each character, never given the privilege of seeing their emotional response to the situation. This being able to see things and hear things from within and without each character is one of the most fascinating facets of Melville’s style. As part of the process we are thrown conflicting points of view but these are never privileged.

At the start of Un Flic, we have the perfect example of the plastic combined with emotional strength. The opening of this film moves between two evocative geographies. We have the near deserted story sea-side landscape in which the bank robbery occurs and we have the jaded, dusk ridden streets of Paris as the grey turns to night and the weary street traveller, Delon, the ashen faced police inspector. The remarkable aspect of this opening is, despite being introduced to various characters and their view of the world, there is almost no repeat of camera set up. Therefore the individual shots and the accompanying sounds are both part of a system and separate from a system. This is a key motif in Melville’s cinema ; elements and (or) characters belonging to a system as well as being separate from it.

Despite being one of his least popular films, Un Flic is a perfect example of many of the cinematic techniques Melville spent an entire career perfecting. The film may appear dull at first, but that is merely the blue sheen bringing you to the heart of his message. Life is life – there is nothing more to say than that.