“Un Flic”, the great Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1972 swan song, opens with an invented quote and a masterful bank heist in an off-season North Sea resort—a clammy blue-gray composition in wind, fog and rain. It’s the big chill visualized, a perfect plan that results in a bungled shoot out.
Newly released by Rialto, “Un Flic” begins its slow roll out at New York’s Film Forum (April 19-25). The movie is no masterpiece but, as tense and elliptical and steeped in Melvillean lore as it is, it should be catnip for the filmmaker’s devotees. High priest of tough-guy mysticism and master of the attitudinous gangster thriller, Melville not only anticipated the French new wave but served as a model for the neo new wave of Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino and Wong Kar-wai. Making his third film for the maestro, baby-faced Alain Delon plays an impossibly cool vice squad detective (the “flic” of the title), whether slapping around recalcitrant suspects or doodling at the piano, his cigarette adangle, when Catherine Deneuve’s calculating death angel materializes in hoodlum Richard Crenna’s showgirl-stocked night club.
Pitting a cynical cop against cold-blooded criminal, both equally brisk, businesslike and duplicitous, Melville creates a double procedural. There’s a second, even more elaborate heist in which, descending into a moving train from a helicopter hovering overhead, Crenna robs a drug-ladden courier; it’s shot, with great detail, in real time. “Mr. Melville’s obsession with technical information is sometimes taken to lengths that border on the crazy,” Janet Maslin noted in the New York Times when “Un Flic” opened at Manhattan’s legendary Thalia theater in 1979 under the title “Dirty Money.” Maslin’s observation is pretty much the point. The plot of “Un Flic” is predicated on wheels within wheels and baffling reverses. You could call the whole thing a set-up–mainly the director’s.