Un Flic: Melville and the Ambiguities
On initial release, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Un Flic (1972) disappointed many and has remained in critical limbo to the present day. Despite growing appreciation of its visual style, the reasons why the director adopted such an ambiguous and seemingly incoherent approach still remain mysterious. Any film that followed Le Cercle Rouge (1970) would be doomed to disappoint those who expected another perfectly realized masterpiece. However, while admitting the fact that Un Flic is not on the same level as its distinguished predecessors other reasons suggest its chosen structure. Melville has already achieved his cinematic equivalents to the masterpiece of his namesake Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851), with Le Cercle Rouge. He now intends making his version of Melville’s succeeding novel Pierre, or the Ambiguities (1852), one he was familiar with and which confused the critical fraternity of the novelist’s day as much as Un Flic did to the director’s own generation.
Like Pierre, Un Flic is heavily coded and its indebtedness is due less to the opening quotation by Eugène François Vidocq (1775-1857) – “The only feelings man could ever inspire in the policeman are ambiguity and derision” – than to an American novelist whose surname Jean-Pierre Grumbach adopted. Although ex-convict Vidocq who later became Chief of Police appears to be a plausible source for the blurring of boundaries between law and criminality in Melville’s films in general and Un Flic specifically, the reference is as relevant as Le Samourai’s opening quotation from The Book of Bushido (a fictional creation of Melville) in attempting to understand the complexities of Un Flic. The film itself is a deliberate ambiguous construction utilizing many sources, as Herman Melville did in his own era (Vincendeau 2006: 200).
Although Lawrence Russell (2002) compares this final work to that of a novice “who wears his influences like a young painter exhibiting for the first time” it is really the last bow of a mature artist developing previous themes towards that minimalist degree of abstraction comparable to the last works of directors such as Robert Bresson and Yasujiro Ozu. Melville’s choices are deliberate, extending already recognizable minimalist tendencies in his cinema into the realm of high art as well as engaging in parody of source material. Russell detects the influences of film noir:
“the unmistakable minimalism of Italian neo-realism: ambient sound, real-time sequencing, documentary validity. The atmospherics of the opening action are brilliant – the pastel blue tint of the cinematography, the fog, the bank, the robbery. It’s a dialectic of opposing sensibilities – the noir acting, the neo-realist action – which produces a drama that’s very beautiful to look at. No psychopathic behavoir here, just the familiar French fatalism, the existential rapprochement of the living with the soon-to-be dead.”
And yet, there is much more. Contemporary negative reaction to Un Flic (misleadingly re-titled Dirty Money for its separate English language version), echoed feelings similar to the initial appearance of any new Stanley Kubrick film until the passage of time resulted in more reflection. This is the case with Un Flic whose breach of stylistic conventions especially Melville’s (where an older Jacques Leroy wearing the same trench coat he did in Le Samouraï  makes a brief appearance) deserves re-evaluation. Melville cinematically plays with conventions in the same way as his nineteenth century literary predecessor.
Viewing Un Flic is the equivalent of reading Pierre and attempting to analyze it. As Laurie Robertson-Lorant notes, “Writing about Pierre is like tap-dancing in quicksand, or swimming through the kelp-choked Sargasso Sea.” Both film and influential source resemble “a narrative nervous breakdown” (1996: 317, 304). Jean-Pierre Melville directs Un Flic according to the spiritual influence of Pierre. It is important to understand the film in this sense.
If Pierre’s narrator becomes increasingly critical of its protagonist, Melville’s camera does the same with Delon’s significantly named Edouard Coleman. The film operates in a similar manner to Pierre which,
“turned into a burlesque of popular fiction, and ultimately, a parody of itself, as though Melville had tried to write a serious novel drawing on popular themes and employing popular conventions, only to reach the point where he found he could no longer restrain himself from switching to satire and making his narrator an antagonist, not an ally to his protagonist.” (Robertson-Lorant 1996: 302)
Melville strategically ventures into the territory of surrealist absurdity. Two (rather than one) heist sequences occur, a tendency not only resulting from Melville’s efforts to develop the influence of one seminal text, Rififi (Du rififi chez les home, 1955) but also to emphasize dualistic ambiguities characterizing the entire film. The first is set in a suburban branch of a National bank on the outskirts of Paris near the Atlantic, an environment whose bleak modernist concrete jungles resemble those in the urban films of Jacques Tati and Orson Welles’s The Trial (1962). Is it more than coincidental that Melville employed Tati’s daughter Sophie as the second female co-editor on this film? The first heist lasts some sixteen minutes with the gangsters using a black Plymouth similar to Corey’s in Le Cercle Rouge while parallel editing reveals Coleman (who more than coincidentally bears the first name of Edouard Dermithe who plays Paul in Melville’s second feature film Les Enfants Terribles ) in a similar black American car. Two American actors who had never worked in French cinema before (or since) (Richard Crenna and Michael Conrad) play French gangsters dubbed into the national language, one of who wears the Melville recognizable but anachronistic trench-coat associated with Alan Ladd in This Gun for Hire (1942) and Delon in Le Samouraï. While the first heist is filmed in an abstract minimalist modernist style evoking the later work of Jacques Tati that protested against urban dehumanization, the second heist lasts for a realistically timed twenty minutes. Obviously fabricated special effects involving model train and helicopter raised the ire of contemporary French critics. However, could this not be deliberately parodic? Is not Richard Crenna’s revelation of natty dressing gown and night attire beneath his jump suit more plausible that Sean Connery’s tuxedo concealed beneath a wet suit without crease or wrinkle in the opening scene of Goldfinger (1963)?
Blurring of criminal and gender boundaries receive greater acceleration in Un Flic with its ambiguously defined homoerotic/homosocial relationship “between men” where women occupy the roles of objectified conveniently commodified “beards” or objects of exchange allowing men to transmit taboo desires to each other. Edouard first visits Simon’s (Richard Crenna) nightclub where two signs of ownership are prominently displayed outside. He plays on the piano like Valerie (Caty Rosier in Le Samouraï) before Cathy’s (Catherine Denueve) first appearance followed by that of Simon. Edouard utilizes the services of transvestite informant Gaby played by Valerie Wilson who obviously loves him. He viciously abuses him/her in their last scene together as if unconsciously recognizing the unsatisfactory surrogate sexual relationship with Cathy, the closest he can physically get to Simon. A later nightclub scene shows an exchange of glances via shot-reverse shot editing between Simon, Cathy, and Edouard, three “mature” versions of Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles developing the exchange of glances between Edouard and the dead hooker blonde female in a hotel. Edouard meets Gaby in his 63 Dodge Dart Car. Russell (2002) notes that she drives a “Jaguar with the English right-hand drive (symbol of her reversed sexuality).” During their meeting an exchange of looks occurs between them that echoes two significant shot sequences earlier and later in the film. It concludes with Gaby giving Edouard a loving glance responded to by Edouard’s warm farewell smile reinforcing not only the bisexual nature of this “brief encounter” but also that significant visual gaze “between men” during the cabaret scene in Simon’s club. One of the chorus girls in Simon’s nightclub is also blonde. He recognizes her and she reciprocates during the dance routine. Edouard later meets Cathy in a similar clandestine manner where they play sado-masochistic games in a hotel room with mirrored ceilings whose overhanging shots resemble the final scene in Les Enfants Terribles, a film dealing with duality and incest, casting a female actress (Renée Cosima) to play both Paul’s male object of desire Dargelos and Agathe who resembles him in all but gender. In an earlier hotel scene Edouard exchanges glances with a murdered blonde prostitute, the exchange suggesting a visual dance of death in terms evocative of Edgar Allan Poe’s sexual Gothicism.
- Zoom in to a close up of the murdered woman.
- Close up of Edouard looking screen right.
- Overhead close-up of victim.
- Low angle close-up of Edouard.
- Overhead close-up of victim (as shot 3)
- Low angle close-up of Edouard (as shot 4) before he moves off-screen.
The closely-edited sequence ends and changes to a mid-shot.
Melville’s closely edited shot sequence suggests a dark equivalence between the cold live gaze of Edouard and the death-like gaze of the victim evoking Delon’s earlier role in Le Samouraï in which his character becomes fascinated by the Angel of Death cabaret artist played by Caty Rosier. The director provides a clue by a quick shot showing graffiti on the wall of the murdered woman’s apartment where the name “Jef Costello” appears on the left.
When Edouard later arrives at Simon’s club, twelve closely edited shots doubles the earlier preceding shot sequence suggesting the dark nature of the bonding between the three main characters. As he enters the club, a group of chorus girls perform one of Melville’s distinctive mechanical zombie-like routines. One closely resembles both the murdered prostitute and Gaby. She and Edouard clearly know each other and exchange greetings before he approaches Simon and Cathy at the bar.
This shot sequence opens with a zoom-in similar to the one that introduced the earlier one but now placing the three characters into an unholy trinity before the camera zooms in to exclude one from the frame.
- Edouard at left frame looking right, Cathy in the center, and Simon at the right frame looking left. The camera zooms in to frame Edouard and Cathy excluding Simon from the frame.
- Close-up of E looking right.
- E and C in mid-shot looking at each other.
- S in close-up, looking left.
- C in close-up. She turns right to look at Simon.
- S in close-up looking left.
- Cut to E looking right.
- Close-up of Cathy. She turns to the right.
- Cut to close-up of S. He drinks, and then looks at her before looking further left.
- Cut to close-up of E looking right before he looks at his glass.
- Cut to close-up of Cathy. She looks screen left at E. knowingly, and then looks away.
- Cut to close-up of E who looks up from his glass in Simon’s direction.
The shot sequence ends at this point but what is clear is Cathy’s recognition of the homoerotic bonding between the two men in the penultimate shot of the sequence heralded by Simon drinking from his glass before looking past Cathy towards Edouard in shot nine and the following shot of Edouard responding to Simon’s gaze before looking down at his glass. They are adult versions of Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles caught in their own ambiguously sexual version of a deadly game that can only end in betrayal and violence in the allusive stylistic world that Melville has created. It is one involving several deliberately constructed dualities that occur throughout a film involving the creation of perplexities and parallels appearing to have no definable resolution. On his return home from the heist Paul (Riccardo Cucciola) looks at his face in the mirror evoking the gestures of Jef Costello in Le Samouraï. During a later meeting at The Louvre, Simon looks at the well-known portrait of Van Gogh painted after the artist’s self-mutilation. Later, the mission to the hospital where the wounded Marc (André Pousse) is held is successful unlike its failed counterpart in The Army of Shadows (L’Armée des ombres, 1969) but in a more darkly ironic manner. Simon assures Paul that “tough guy” Louis (Michael Conrad) will not crack under police interrogation and the viewer expects to see the type of police brutality that Felix (Paul Crauchet) undergoes in The Army of Shadows. However, Edouard begins his interrogation in a gentler manner than he exhibited with two earlier suspects and Louis abruptly supplies the information. We do not see his interrogation and the revelation of his confession comes as a complete surprise. This is another of Melville’s deliberately ambiguous plot devices seen throughout a film designed to be both allusive and mysterious in terms of both character motivation and narrative comprehensibility. As in Le Samouraï and Le Cercle Rouge women are dangerous and deadly to the male but it is left open as to whether this is the result of film noir femme fatale strategy or due to the perverse nature of deadly bonding between males in a dehumanized post-war world. In a Melville film everything is possible but not all things are comprehensible especially in an ambiguous production where style defies any attempt at logical meaning.
Un Flic is a deliberately ambiguous film shot in the spirit of Herman Melville’s novel supplying no definite clues to character motivation similar to Pierre. Robertson-Lorant’s remarks about the author also apply to this French director:
“Melville saw the self as essentially unknowable and the universe as a conundrum, full of teasing ambiguities, which made his readers extremely uncomfortable. He portrayed closed worlds, devoid of divine order or social cadence, and allowed them to crush the weak and the strong with equal ferocity.” (1996: 318)
Like Les Enfants Terribles, Un Flic ends with two suicides. Edouard allows Paul to commit suicide in his bathroom and shoots Simon seemingly in self-defense but intuitively recognizing Simon’s suicidal gesture. The film ends with Edouard and his assistant Morand (Paul Crauchet) alone in his car with the Arc de Triomphe seen in the background near the area that saw the execution of Mathilde in The Army of Shadows. No word is spoken between them in this final long scene. It is doubtful whether Edouard’s is Moby Dick’s Ishmael who will live to tell the tale. Instead, he resembles Garbo’s Queen Christina who looks in passive silence into the distance facing a lonely spiritual and physical exile after the death of her lover. Although Edouard escapes suicide unlike Melville’s Pierre and Paul of Les Enfants Terribles, he is spiritually dead after losing someone as close to him as Paul was to his alter ego Elisabeth (Nicole Stéphane), in a film important to understanding the director’s later work.
Despite Deneuve’s brief role, she functions as a modern equivalent of Maria Casares’s Angel of Death in Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1950), dangerous to the male species as seen in her administering a lethal drug to the wounded Marc in a hospital scene reworking that in The Army of Shadows. Like the others, she is clad in white, a deliberate contrast to the dark colors worn by Casares and her assistants in Orphée. In Pierre, incest and homoeroticism destroy the conventions of the family romance. Un Flic similarly destroys the conventions of the American and French gangster films in Melville’s version of Godard’s “Fin de Cinéma.” As Vincendeau notes about a film containing “the notion of a return of the repressed causing ambiguity and even incoherence […]. It is a great pity that Melville’s sudden death robbed him of the possibility to counter or further elucidate this ‘mystery’” (2006: 269). Yet clues exist within the film itself. During an earlier scene Edouard and Morand go to the apartment of a middle-aged gay man whose young lover has been caught stealing his property. This initial scene anticipates the perverse triangular relationship between Edouard, Cathy, and Simon where the first is clearly “stealing” the property of the third. It is implied that Simon already knows about this relationship and regards it with the same leniency as the gay man exhibits towards his younger larcenous lover.
Un Flic is not just Melville’s cinematic attempt to utilize the ambiguous anti-generic structures of Herman Melville’s Pierre, or the Ambiguities but also his deliberate subversive strategy of making his own version of Mardi: And a Voyage Thither (1849). Like that novel, Melville’s last film is a definitely incoherent but still rewarding text displaying stylized and thematic ambiguities also indebted to Jean Cocteau’s cinematic surrealism.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. He is currently reading the novels of Sir Walter Scott and enjoying the films of Wheeler and Woolsey.
Miner-Quinn, Paula (1981), “Pierre’s Sexuality: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation of Herman Melville’s Pierre, or, The Ambiguities,” University of Hartford Studies in Literature, 13.3, pp. 111-119.
Mullins, Greg (2003), “Perverse Pierre: Melville, masochism, and male subjectivity,” Revista de Associacao Brasiliera de Estudos Americanos, pp. 119-137.
Nogueira, Rui (1971), Melville on Melville, London: Secker and Warburg.
Robertson-Lorant, Laurie (1996), Melville: A Biography, New York: Clarkson/Potter Publishers.
Russell, Lawrence (2002), “Un Flic”, Culture Court (Film Court).
Vincendeau, Ginette (2006), Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris, London: British Film Institute.
Zettsu, Tomoyuki (1994), “Pierre and Pierre Bayle on Adrogyny,” Melville Society Extracts 97, pp. 1-4.
 See Nogueira (1971: 134), where Melville responds to the author’s question concerning the casting of the Delons in Le Samouraï (1967): “Nathalie and Alain look like brother and sister – Pierre, or the Ambiguities.” He earlier mentions that he had read Pierre in English before Moby Dick (18). For contemporary French critical reactions see Ginette Vincendeau (2006: 201-202), who ends her survey by noting the film’s “textual ambivalence” (emphasis added).
 As is well-known, Melville wrote the opening quotation. See Nogueira (1971: 129) and Vincendeau (2006: 176).
 This is one of the most perceptive treatments of the film analyzing it in the same allusive and ambiguous manner characterizing its inherent structure.
 Robertson-Lorant also remarks that Melville “takes satire and melodrama over the top to create a kind of bizarre tragedy” (1996: 302).
 Valerie Wilson’s Gaby (a woman who plays a man masquerading as a transvestite) may be Melville’s development of the transvestite prostitute informer to Martin Balsam’s police inspector in Damiano Damiani’s 1971 Confessions of a Police Commissioner to the District Attorney (Confessione di un commissario di polizia al procuratore della repubblica). See also Melville’s explanation of the possible incestuous associations between Gu and Minouche in Le Deuxieme Souffle (1966). “If I’ve left it be understood that Manouche is Gu’s sister, it’s because of the Enfants Terribles part of me – or rather, because of the great homonym’s Pierre, or the Ambiguities” (Nogueira 1971: 120). For three intriguing explorations of the novel’s sexual ambiguities see Miner-Quinn (1981), Mullins (2003), and Zettsu (1994).
 Robertson-Lorant defines Pierre as “Moby Dick turned turned inside out and even wickeder” (1996: 317), the same could be said of Un Flic’s relationship to Melville’s earlier films.
 Rouben Mamoulian, director of Queen Christina (1933), is listed as 42 in Melville’s list of 64 Pre-War American Directors in Cahiers du Cinema 124, October 1961, p.63.
 Catherine Deneuve later played the Mrs. Glendenning role in a later French film version of Pierre, POLAX (1999). Directed by Leos Carax, the film was set in the modern era with Deneuve’s demise due to a motorcycle accident. The mode of transport is an obvious reference to Orphée. I wish to thank David Greven and Adrian Martin for drawing my attention to this film that reveals that, unlike America, French culture knows that Herman Melville wrote other books besides Moby Dick.
 The middle-aged queen, who is never named in the credits but simply termed the “man who has been robbed,” is played by Jean Desailly. Well-known for his stage performances with the Comédie-Française and later with the Renaud-Barrault Company, he had previously appeared in Melville’s Le Doulos (1962). Coincidentally (?), his first wife Simone Valère appears in the role of Paul’s wife who appears in two scenes of the film as opposed to the one scene featuring her ex-husband.