Director Jean-Pierre Melville specialized in crime dramas notable for their fast-paced action. His final film, Un Flic (1972), brings together two of France’s greatest stars, Alain Delon and Catherine Deneuve. Delon plays Commissaire Edouard Coleman, a Paris detective on the trail of bank robbers. Deneuve is Cathy, the mistress of Simon (Richard Crenna) a nightclub owner who’s the leader of the crooks.
After an opening sequence of the robbers in their sedan, Delon’s voiceover introduces his character. Judging from his weary tone, the detective was driving around all night. It’s Melville’s imagined Paris, a city where the 60s youth movement never took hold. The men are still dressed like it’s 1947, in trench coats and fedoras with reasonably short hair. From the looks of them, the women never burned their brassieres or quit wearing makeup like their sisters in the States. In the essay “Jean-Pierre Melville’s Final Film,” Daniel Kasman argues that Melville fuses a hyper reality with his own obviously false constructs:
Melville’s men and few women are actors cast from an older regime’s mold—potentially even an imaginary mold, an artificial myth made of purposefully misunderstood gangster-noir fiction and vague Japanese values—and perform as the mold requires them to, stiffly, unconsciously, in the present. Self-annihilation, the path taken by the criminals in Un flic like 1930s Hollywood gangster anti-heroes and 1960s yakuza/samurai rebels, seems the only act one is able to control when behavior and values have been predetermined.
Melville immediately returns to the parallel story of Simon. Crenna is an odd casting choice. First of all, he didn’t speak French well enough to voice the part himself. He was also type-cast by the characters he played on American television. It’s unlikely that Melville spent a lot of time watching The Real McCoys (1957-1963). So, he was able to see a darker, more complex side of Crenna that an American director might have missed. The other American in the cast is character actor Michael Conrad best known for Hill Street Blues (1981-1984). He’s Louis, a henchman in Simon’s gang.
The robbery sequences, especially the one on the train, are tense and well-executed, action being Melville’s trademark. The nightclub that’s owned by Simon and where Cathy is employed offers a refuge from the violence. Edouard stops in to have a drink, bang out some jazz tunes on the piano and talk to Cathy. She’s a femme fatale with an emphasis more on femme than fatale.
With a mass of platinum hair resembling cotton candy, Deneuve’s beauty is overpowering. Cathy’s high class appearance is a deception, however. Edouard senses but doesn’t fully comprehend that she’s part of the underworld. Their relationship is never spelled out. It isn’t so much what they say to each other but their small gestures and inflection that tell the story. Were they ever more than casual lovers? Is her loyalty to Edouard or to Simon? It’s left to the viewer to fill in the blanks.
But, why have only one femme fatale when you can have two? Valérie Wilson is Gaby, a transvestite hooker with vital information. She’s also a made-to-order tragic figure with sad eyes and red lips in a permanent pout. There’s an obvious attraction between Edouard and Gaby. They’re both from the street, unlike the icy Cathy. The fact that Gaby was born a man is revealed later. “Cut off your hair!” screams Edouard. “Start wearing trousers!” Although she can’t help what she is, Edouard thinks of her as trash and is quick to brutalize her. He holds Cathy in high esteem, but is his affection misplaced?