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Un Flic

Year: 1972
Production Co: Euro International Films
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Writer: Jean-Pierre Melville
Cast: Alain Delon, Richard Crenna, Catherine Deneuve, Michael Conrad

I don't know enough about the French New Wave movement to know this for certain, but this looked and felt to me like one of those movies from the Godard and Truffaut era that was inspired by the classic genres from the Golden Age of Hollywood, viewed through the lenses and sensibilities of the French directors who grew up watching them (Rififi et al).

So it's a fairly simple thriller, albeit in a time and place you probably aren't very familiar with, and for some bizarre reason stars Richard Crenna (who mainstream audinces probably only know as Col Trautman from First Blood) and Michael Conrad, who played the 'let's be careful out there' station captain Esterhaus in Hill St Blues.

I'd love to know how long director Jean-Pierre Melville waited for the weather to be the way he wanted it for the evocative opening sequence, but it's blowing a gale, pouring raining and with the ocean and sky grey and indivisible from each other in the resort town of Saint-Jean-de-Monts – you can still see the neverending hotel building where every room and balcony seems identical on Google Street View.

Four businessmen are waiting in a car nearby, and one after the other three of them emerge and make their way through the awful weather into a bank branch on the corner.

They take up strategic positions, all pull out guns and rob the place, one of them, Marc, shooting and killing the teller but also taking a bullet when the guy pulls a gun on the gang.

They get away with the loot, bury it in the country until the heat clears, take their injured accomplice to a private clininc to recuperate and go their separate ways.

The leader, Simon (Crenna) owns a nightclub in the city and happens to be friends with a detective, Edouard (Alain Delon, Melville's muse for much of his career) – although I found that detail a bit hard to glean and still don't know how clear it would have been unless I read it in a description of the plot. I found myself quite confused during the midsection about which characters apparently knew each other.

We've already met Edouard driving around town with his partner, who answers the carphone and passes it over, Edouard directing them to the latest crime scene that's come up.

The cops already know from eyewitness reports that one of the gang was injured during the getaway, so Simon and the gang know they have to get their friend out of the city before the police close their grip.

They pose as doctors with orders to transfer Marc, but when they fail to convince the desk clerk at the clinic, Simons' girlfriend Cathy (Catherine Deneuve), posing as nurse, slips by to kill him in his sleep so he can't wake up and talk, the first clue about how ruthless they are.

But they're already planning their next hit, lifting a stash of heroin from a mule aboard a train in a thrilling and brilliantly choreographed sequence that rivals the apartment robbery from Rififi.

The problem is Edouard had a tip off about the mule's arrival, and when the train pulls in with the drugs gone and the guy unconscious, he knows something's up. Tightening his grip on informats and suspects alike, he closes in when Marc, the dead gang member, is identified, and (again, a bit like in Rififi), the alliances among the thieves start to crumble as the pressure builds.

This is French cinema as a reflection of Hollywood – an attempt to do what Hollywood had been doing for decades and maybe even do it better, and with expertly handled tension in some very cool set pieces, Melville achieves it.

What's most interesting though is that the title ('A Cop' in English) and everything about the film points to be being about Edouard, but he's the least interesting thing in it. It's also been called A Cop and Dirty Money in English language markets.

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