Our review of Dirty Money (Un Flic), published July 22nd, 2008, is also available.
"The only two feelings men give rise to in us detectives are ambiguity and derision."
Un Flic (in English, A Cop, also released as Dirty Money) is the final film by French director Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samourai, Bob Le Flambeur). In this film, Melville returns to the crime genre, one of his favorite subjects, one last time.
Facts of the Case
Edouard Coleman (Alain Delon—Le Samourai) is a hard-boiled, cynical detective. Simon (Richard Crenna—The Sand Pebbles, First Blood) is his friend, a nightclub owner and master thief working on the heist of a lifetime. Cathy (Catherine Deneuve—Belle de Jour, Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Hunger) is the woman who likely does not love either one of them, but carries on simultaneous affairs with both of them all the same. Both men are aware of this, just as each of them appears to know the other's true nature, but the subject is never raised between them.
Coleman is a hardened, jaded cop who passes from one routine horror to the next, beyond the point of even pretending to care about what he is seeing. When he gets a tip about a big heist that is about to go down, he follows the case, indifferent to the possibility that it may upset the careful balance and unspoken agreements among the friends and lovers.
Director Jean-Pierre Melville's final film is an interesting exercise in minimalism. The sets, while stylish and modern, are immaculate and spare, almost sterile. Melville doesn't let things like dialogue slow his characters down; it is kept to an absolute minimum, made up mostly of short, nearly monosyllabic sentences. This works out just fine, since Melville and his actors can communicate more with a glance or a carefully planned cut than a lot of filmmakers can with paragraphs of dialogue. Scenes are usually short, with no attention grabbing camera moves or flashy editing tricks to distract from the cold, hard world that Melville tries to create. Even the score is used sparingly, serving only to create a suggestion of ominous events lurking but as yet unseen. Everything about this film is subtle and understated. Even the big action sequence, featuring a train robbery via helicopter, is a show in quiet tension rather than adrenaline-pumping excitement. Even in the film's most exciting moments, there is an air of almost surreal calm, or perhaps weariness. Also of note is the way in which Melville shaded the entire film towards the blue end of the spectrum. This provides another layer of coldness and sterility to the proceedings, and is far more effective than, say, the laughable color-coded cinematography in last year's Traffic.
The acting performances are similarly restrained. In a film of few words, Delon's Coleman is even more close-lipped than most. The character is a tough and sometimes brutal cop, but so totally burned out and low key as to lack any passion whatsoever. Still, there is unmistakable steel in his performance, as we see in a wordless exchange where he stares down a suspect he is interrogating. Crenna's portrayal of Simon is slightly more gregarious, but remains a creature of this Spartan, almost silent environment. The impossibly beautiful Catherine Deneuve has made a career of playing the distant, inaccessible goddess, and Un Flic shows her at her understated frosty best.
Anchor Bay has done their usual outstanding job bringing Un Flic to DVD. It is presented in 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen, and the clarity is jaw-dropping. Bear in mind, this film is as old as I am, but it looks like it could have been released last year. There is some grain and the image is slightly soft at times; both of these are probably unavoidable when dealing with a color film of this age. On the other hand, I detected very little digital artifacting or false movement. I really detected very few of the usual litany of digital flaws one encounters in a film this age. Blacks are perhaps not as solid as they could be, and darker scenes are not as clear as one might hope, but overall the picture quality is excellent.
The audio mix is very good as well, considering the age of the film. The audio is Dolby 2.0 Mono, provided in the original French. The audio is remarkably clear, with sound effects like wind, background conversations, and music coming through clearly without overpowering dialogue. The dialogue itself is clear and pleasant, and would probably be easily understood by those who speak French. I detected no soundtrack hiss or other major problems.
Extra content on this disc is very limited, which is kind of surprising for an Anchor Bay release. Here we have only a theatrical trailer and two biographies. The trailer is very long, showing the first scene of the film almost in its entirety. The trailer runs just over four minutes, and doesn't seem terribly effective, but is an interesting look at a completely different marketing style. The biographical information includes only director Melville and star Delon. Here we learn a number of interesting things, such as Melville's status as father of the French New Wave. We also learn that Delon was a paratrooper in the French army before becoming an actor, and is a veteran of the siege of Dien Bien Phu. These biographies are very well done; it's a shame there aren't more of them, at least covering Crenna and Deneuve.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Melville was doubtless an innovative filmmaker, and his mastery of style and technique certainly shows here. However, once you get past the craftsmanship of Un Flic, you will find that the story itself just isn't that interesting. Perhaps that is because the characters are so restrained and understated as to come across as slightly boring. Perhaps it is due to the businesslike, matter-of-fact way Melville treats the events of the film, now matter how remarkable. Perhaps it is due to a plot that is a bit cumbersome and clunky at times. Whatever the reason, for all the skill that went into it Un Flic doesn't really connect with the viewer very well. The plot fails to create much tension or conflict, even though numerous opportunities abound. When the end of the movie comes, it happens so fast that it is a resounding anticlimax.
Un Flic is a carefully crafted film, and has definite artistic merits. However, more than anything else it feels like an exercise in technique and style, with very little thought given to making an enlightening or entertaining film. Perhaps it works best if seen as a character study of Detective Coleman, an examination of a cop who has seen so much evil that he is inured to it. Watch it for insight into Melville as a filmmaker, but if you are looking for an entertaining crime caper film, look elsewhere.
The film and M. Melville are acquitted and released with the thanks of the court. Anchor Bay is narrowly acquitted on the strength of the video and audio presentation, but they need to beef up the extra content a bit. Given their prior excellent record, we will let it go this time.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
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