“You can’t move a camera like that anymore.”
We all giggled while watching Jean-Pierre Melville’s Un Flic (1972), during a shot of a blonde cocaine mule carrying a pair of trick-suitcases onto a train. The camera follows his hand to the door, which he locks, and then traces a shaky path toward the suitcases, where from each he lifts a shirt and then a panel to reveal empty space. The camera lingers there unsteadily for a beat.
Melville is a master, known for work like Army of Shadows and Un Cercle Rouge, two taut, serious works about the French Resistance during World War II and highly choreographed theft, respectively. Un Flic, which means “A Cop,” is not, in technical terms, one of his best. The editing is jumpy and the dialogue goofy. You wouldn’t call it campy, it’s more like Melville couldn’t be bothered to smooth over all of the film’s imperfections. That attitude makes Un Flic memorable in a way that many of today’s films aren’t.
Take the scene in the bathroom of a moving train where Commissaire Edouard Coleman, the titular cop, attempts to bust a crime in progress. After descending from a helicopter to the train car, Edouard pauses, and the film with him. He carefully styles his hair, cleans his face, and changes from a dirty jumpsuit to a dapper robe before walking the halls of the train. It is a slow scene, and drags longer than it needs to do. I liked it, though, because it demonstrates the labored execution of Edouard’s plan. His entry into the train is not about the effortless, slick acrobats of superhero films and Tom Cruise vehicles. The bystanders do not fall away as our star comes to take care of the bad guys. They are obstacles, which is why Edouard makes himself over to look like a first class train passenger before venturing into a hallway filled with observant ticket punchers. Edouard is a patient and thorough planner. He even brings a comically large generic magnet on board with him, which he uses to slide open the lock of his pursuit’s train cabin.
Imperfect old films like Un Flic refresh one used to the smooth action films we see today, where everything looks high budget and rigorously rehearsed. They respect their audience more, and trust in their ability to suspend disbelief and, more importantly, to fill in the gaps the film leaves with imagination. In a pivotal scene of Un Flic, the characters walk through a museum. Behind them sits a hazy painting of the continued museum halls and visitors. Now, for all I know, there is such a museum in France where a bland mural decorates the end of a hallway. But in the framework of the film, this mural operates as a loosely defined backdrop, more akin to a stage piece than a film background. I’m sure many a would be filmmaker, rich with ideas but low on cash, wishes they could get away with such shortcuts today.
Later, a rinky-dink model of a helicopter hovers unevenly over a cheap looking train set. These playroom models represent the setting of the climax. A modern director might use flashy CGI, elite stuntmen, and a dramatic score to enhance this scene. Not Melville. But though we all laughed when these models first appeared on screen, they did not stop us from engaging in the tense climax. By that point in the film, we were invested in the cops and crooks drama, and we didn’t mind pretending the models were real trains.
With films like Un Flic, not all details are provided for us, and that’s fine. The viewer must do more work, and the director pulls them into a more active role, encouraging them to engage with and author their own details of the film. I will remember Un Flic for its flaws much more than I will remember the last blockbuster I saw for its perfection.