‘Un Flic’ or — If Christopher Nolan Had Directed an Episode of ‘Police Squad’?!
The opening scene is stunning and pure Melville. It is a lesson in masterful filmmaking that would leave other directors slack-jawed with envy. It is an exercise in total control and refined precision.
So why am I laughing so hard that I’m worried I might throw up?
Jean-Pierre Melville’s ‘Un Flic’ (1972) is a VERY weird film — it’s both cucumber cool, never putting a perfectly considered foot wrong, yet it’s also your drunk uncle at a wedding embarrassing himself on the dance floor. Melville’s handling is still one of complete expertise but this time we can feel the fumbles. The only question is how intentional they are.
The plot, not surprisingly, revolves around the dance between cops and thieves as the thieves commit robberies and heists and the cops attempt to catch them. It’s a film of bank jobs, chic nightclubs, heroin smuggling and women of unreal beauty. All this is shot in Melville’s distinct, hyper-real and clinical style; the opening bank job alone containing that ineffable exactness and modern aesthetic directors like Michael Mann, etc strive for.
So what’s amiss? Possibly a sense of Melville trying too hard, of a loss of confidence and a resorting to desperate measures. Scenes of deliberate slowness are hijacked by bursts of modish editing almost as though Melville has blinked and lost his nerve or, even more worryingly, that he thinks the audience has (we haven’t, Jean-Pierre) and we might need a jolt.
This has a bizarre effect — it starts to make Melville funny and this is a serious problem because once you lift up the Tupperware lid of his work and let even the slightest gasp of laughter in then you can’t stop giggling. Combine that with Melville’s tendency towards some old fashioned shooting techniques and I found myself thinking — “This is like watching ‘Police Squad’ but if it was directed by Christopher Nolan.” It’s hard not to titter when, despite all the slick artistry, you keep expecting Frank Drebbin to walk in the room (hell, the film even closes on an almost static shot of two policemen together where all that’s missing is the ‘Police Squad’ theme music).
Not that we need Frank Drebbin because, in his place, we have Richard Crenna. When I realised Richard Crenna was in this film I was surprised as it seemed an odd fit for Melville but I assumed Crenna would fit right in and disappear into his character. But no, I was never under the illusion that I was watching anybody but Richard Crenna all the way through, and this kept me giggling and I felt immature for doing so and not taking the film seriously.
Then Richard Crenna climbs onto a moving train from a helicopter clad in a dressing gown and carrying a giant, cartoon magnet and THAT’S when I totally lost it. Is this film even taking ITSELF seriously?! Melville also makes the insane/inspired/unhinged/extraordinary decision to have the helicopter and train shot using obvious models, and I’m taking ‘Thunderbirds’ obvious here.
The sheer craziness of it all is augmented by Melville’s typically subtle, but spectacularly aggressive, sound design which is an off the charts, unmitigated sonic assault. And I had no idea Richard Crenna combing his hair would warrant such excellent sound design!
So the film is legitimately ridiculous and, possibly, out of control almost as though Melville was feeling he was getting left behind by the times and is frantically trying to prove something to himself and us. Yet what saves ‘Un Flic’ from becoming laughable (actually, nothing stops it from becoming laughable as the film is too determined to keep on vigorously tickling us) is that it’s highly entertaining (doesn’t Richard Crenna leaping on a train in a dressing gown with a giant magnet sound awesome?), stylish as all buggery and containing some genuinely audacious camera-work. For example, notice how Melville uses the focusing in on street lights as a means transporting us from a storm battered sea-side town to the Parisian streets during that opening heist. Some of the stuff going on here is simply phenomenal.
To top it all off the entire film is only 98 minutes long so, quite frankly, Melville can do whatever the hell he wants in that period of time and I’m just happy to sit back and watch whatever mad shit he comes up with a huge smile on my face.
I’m kinda glad this was Melville’s last film because as much as I love them I’m not sure I could sit through another one of his cut-glass, cool blue gangster flic(k)s as this one is already skirting dangerously close to self-parody as it is. And whatever you do, don’t hum the ‘Police Squad’ theme tune during any of this though because it reveals just how top-secretly silly Melville’s films really are.