The heist film is a subgenre with classics back to Hollywood’s beginnings. One of the masters of chronicling gangsters and assorted low life is French film maker Jean Pierre Melville. His last and fitting ending is the masterpiece of style and cool called UN FLIC (1972), or DIRTY MONEY.
UN FLIC stars the superb Alain Delon and Catherine Deneuve, which should be enough for any picture, and Melville does not fail these two talents. One could argue that Catherine Deneuve is under used in her role as Cathy, the lover playing the game at both ends.
Following a raid on a bank in a seaside town, four Parisian gangsters, Simon (Richard Crenna), Paul (Riccardo Cucciolla), Marc (André Pousse) and wheelman Louis (Michael Conrad), flee after a cashier sets off the alarm with only part of the loot and with one of the men, Marc Albois, wounded by the cashier, who Marc then kills as he hides under a counter.
They put Marc in a private clinic and disperse. Simon, owns a night club regularly by police detective Commissaire Edouard Coleman (Alain Delon), who keeps an eye on Simon and picks up information. Coleman also hopes to see the beautiful Cathy, who is Simon’s mistress, but spends occasional afternoons with Coleman in a hotel room.
Fearing police will find and question Marc, Simon sends Cathy into the clinic dressed as a nurse to give the dying man a fatal air embolism after an attempt to take him away fails.
Simon’s next caper is to steal a large quantity of heroin being transported out of France by a rival gang on the night express from Paris to Lisbon. The theft takes place in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE or RIFIFI style, depending on your reference point. However, things go wrong. Coleman goes to the club and questions Simon, who denies he knows Marc or Louis. Double crosses with drugs and a love for walking the edge by Cathy, Simon and Coleman drive the picture to end in abrupt style. Each remain trapped and each takes a loss, yet move on. This cannot end well and it doesn’t. The inevitable conclusion is delivered with panache.
Melville shoots the picture, letting the spaces play the characters. The opening heist is photographed in blue filter with the sound of a storm by a seaside bank. The actors’ movements are direct and precise in a lovely dance. This is how the audience gets introduced to the gang. No words are needed as you know the role each plays and who the leader is by look alone.
Commissaire Edouard Coleman (Alain Delon) is shown on patrol when he gets a phone call in his vehicle that is first answered by his driver. His driver passes the receiver over with the words, “I’ll get him.” This phrase is used on more than one occasion to launch different aspects of the narrative. Coleman, when trying to get together again with Cathy (Catherine Deneuve), tinkles the ivories on the piano in Simon’s club in a melancholy, tender style you would not expect from someone as ruthless as him. Delon reverts to relentless policeman wonderfully.
Richard Crenna works well with Alan Delon: they both have good looks, and come off as being relentless in what they do. They also have one other thing in common: Cathy.
Catherine Deneuve is stunning in brief moments on camera as the murderous Cathy. She shows love and affection for both men. She does what she is told and turns icy cold dressed as a nurse to kill a gang member before he can talk. Even in that moment you see a wide eyed vulnerability in her. She is doing what is called for regardless.
Supporting actors are given their moments. Michael Conrad as wheelman Louis is menacing and coldblooded due to his size and facial expressions. Conrad would go on to be on the other side of the law in the television series HILL STREET BLUES as Sgt. Phil Esterhaus saying, “Let’s be careful out there.”
Riccardo Cucciolla as Paul Weber is the saddest of the gang as he has a devoted wife played by Simone Valère. She doesn’t know what he does, yet accepts it is dangerous although one suspects as the film gets going that she does know and hopes the risks Paul takes are for money to get out of the game for good.
UN FLIC (1972) or DIRTY MONEY a good starting point for the work of Jean Pierre Melville. His other pictures are in black and white, and feature brilliant acting moments and cynical ecumenical stories that fit together well. There is and remains nothing more special than a heist film from Europe. Many will point to Robert Redford’s version of THE ITALIAN JOB (2003), which was a remake or the odious OCEANS sequel and JACKIE BROWN (1997). Sure, they have some style. Nothing like the cool that is generated from this and Melville’s other works. It is a dirty little world of frosty cool.
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