Monday, September 9, 2013

Un Flic and Max et les Ferrailleurs

I saw two French crime capers from the 1970 at the Castro in August.

Un Flic starring Alain Delon, Catherine Deneuve & Richard Crenna; directed by Jean-Pierre Melville; French with subtitles; (1972)
Max et les Ferrailleurs starring Michel Piccoli, Romy Schneider & Bernard Fresson; directed by Claude Sautet; French with subtitles; (1971)

Un flic translates to A Cop (flic is French slang for a policeman).  Un Flic also had an English title of Dirty Money.  Max et les ferrailleurs translates to Max and the junkmen.

I was surprised to see Richard Crenna speaking French in Un Flic.  I didn't realize who it was until close to the end.  I didn't pay attention to whether he was speaking it himself or it was dubbed.

Un Flic was director Jean-Pierre Melville's final film.  There are two periods of long silence in the film; each corresponding to a crime.  At the beginning, in a wind swept Normandy beach town, four men wait in a car.  They are down the street from a bank (BNP actually).  Patiently they watch and eventually one-by-one enter the bank.  The pull off a meticulously planned bank robbery except one of the bank workers has a gun.  The worker shoots one of the robbers before being shot to death himself.

The shooting of the robber throws a monkey wrench in the robbers carefully laid escape plan.  The robbers include Richard Crenna as the brains and Michael Conrad (Hill St. Blues).  Crenna decides they must split up and leave the wounded man because to be caught with him would lead to their arrest.

When the wounded man shows up at a hospital, it's the break that police detective Alain Delon has been waiting for.  He methodically closes in on the robbers with the help of a transvestite informant who I believe was played by a female actress.  Anyone Coleman (Delon) and Simon (Crenna) share the same girlfriend/mistress, Catherine Deneuve.  Coleman is a dedicated cop and is beginning to suspect Coleman and Simon suspects that Coleman is suspecting him of the crimes.

With the help of his informant, Coleman is aware that Simon is planning to steal some drugs from during a train ride.  The plan is overly elaborate and employ patently obvious miniatures.  A helicopter matches speed with the train, Crenna descends via a cable and winch, boards the train, spends a lot of time grooming himself, steals the drugs, changes back into his jumpsuit and is hoisted back up to the helicopter.  Between the original bank robbery and the train robbery, approximately one-third of the film elapses and with very little dialogue.

You would think this signals a minimalist approach and the plot is pretty flimsy.  However, Melville's attention to detail (even if the detail is a model helicopter) makes it seem that Un Flic was directed by someone with OCD.  The plot revolves around the love triangle formed by Delon, Deneuve and Crenna.  They seem to communicate their suspicions and feelings through eye movements and Coleman should be concerned at how cozy he is with a robbery suspect but the implied relationship between Coleman and Simon is the strongest in the film.  With the trannie informant and a separate case involving an man and an underage gay hustler, there is a noticeable homoerotic undertone throughout the film.  Coleman and Simon knowingly share the same woman so it is not a stretch to think of the triangle as a convenient proxy for a relationship between Coleman and Simon.

Melville only hints at this aspect of the film which was the most provocative.  Much of the film plays out like a procedural and motivation of the character is never truly examined.  They do what they do because that's what they do.  Criminals commit crimes and cops arrest criminals.  The icy blonde Deneuve remains detached and aloof throughout.  In fact, the most emotional scene in the film involves Coleman and his trannie informant whom he suspects of betraying him.  His anger seems out of character.  Methinks le flic doth protest too much.

Max et les Ferrailleurs also features a love triangle but the cop is tightly wound in this film.  Michel Piccoli is Max, a police detective stinging from a bust gone bad.  Hearing the ridicule and pity from other cops, Max needs to redeem himself.  A chance encounter with Abel Maresco (Bernard Fresson), an old army buddy gives Max the opportunity he is looking for.  Unaware that Max is a cop, Abel hints he may be involved in shady dealings.  Some investigation by Max reveals that Abel is part of a penny ante gang who steals scrap metal and construction supplies.  Their big score is a spool of cable.  They use the junkyard as cover for their criminal activities hence the title of the film.

Abel and his gang are very content.  They make enough to keep themselves in drink at the neighborhood bar.  They have low aspirations and have met them.  Abel also has smoking hot girlfriend is Lily (Romy Schneider).  The only downside from a boyfriend perspective is that Lily is a prostitute but that doesn't bother Abel.  He doesn't take any of her money nor does he judge her.

After doing some intelligence, Max decides the gang needs some higher goals then scavenging construction sites.  He poses as a small bank president and picks up Lily at a bar.  Uninterested in sex (at least outwardly towards Lily), he makes an ostentatious display of his money and ennui.  Eventually, he manipulates Lily into considering robbing his bank.  He plays upon Lily's ambitions for Abel and sows discontent between them.  After spoon feeding Lily all the information Abel will need to know to rob the bank, he waits with police backup near the bank on the appointed hour.

The robbers are arrested but Max's superiors decide to prosecute Lily as well.  Despite his reserved exterior, Max has fallen for Lily and his feeling towards her.  Those feelings and perhaps his sense guilty over the entrapment, lead to a very shocking ending.  Max shoots his fellow police officer rather than allow him to arrest Lily.

The best thing about Max et les Ferrailleurs is Romy Schneider.  Incredibly sexy, Schneider's Lily is a memorable character.  Intelligent enough to pick up the clues but not intelligent enough to sense the trap, her ambitions lead to her downfall.  Picolli's Max must drop the clues without being to obvious about his intentions and his true feelings.  The scenes between Schneider and Picolli are great.

Un Flic and Max et les Ferrailleur looked dated by their appearances and settings but that didn't distract me.  In fact, the two films have that 1970s aesthetics which is retro-cool in some circles.  Although Jean-Pierre Melville is the widely acknowledged auteur of these French policiers in the 1970s, Claude Sautet's Max et les Ferrailleur was the more satisfying film for me.  The two films were a tremendous double feature; one of the best I've seen at the Castro in recent memory.

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