#13 in my ranking of Jean-Pierre Melville’s filmography.
Save for one sequence, this feels like an imitation of Jean-Pierre Melville’s style instead of his own work. The style feels out of place with the story, and it makes me wonder if Melville cut down the film heavily before release. The story and character elements, when told through the stylistic choices Melville relied on, are simply too much for the hundred-minute running time. It also feels like a repeat of Le Cercle Rouge, like Melville was simply covering the same ground again. That would make more sense if he had decided to go bigger instead of smaller, but this is forty minutes shorter than the previous film while having a larger cast. He was his own producer, though, so these choices were not foisted upon him.
The film begins by establishing its two sets of characters. On the criminal side is a band of four thieves led by Simon (Richard Crenna) who rob a bank by the sea in the middle of a storm. Things go wrong when one of the tellers pulls a gun and shoots Marc (Andre Pousse), though all four get away with the loot. At the same time, Commissaire Eduoard Coleman (Alain Delon) is doing his job in Paris, following the calls to his car phone to the next crime scene where he will do his work. One of his stops is to meet with a transvestite informer who gives him information about a drug drop happening in a train in a few days.
The gangsters drop Marc off at a hospital, and this is about where things begin to feel wrong. This is a fairly large cast of characters, and the film doesn’t spend a whole lot of time differentiating them. It’s also here where we are introduced to Cathy (Catherine Deneuve), Simon’s girlfriend and Eduoard’s mistress. This sort of arrangement, where the hero and villain of a piece share the same woman, is the stuff of tragic circumstances and coincidence. The movie does eventually try to take advantage of it, but it isn’t able to spend all that much time really establishing it. It doesn’t help that Simon owns a nightclub, making the whole Simon as a thief thing feel odd at best. If he runs a successful nightclub, why does he feel the need to rob? Is it need? Is it compulsion? We get no insight into this, and it feels like evidence that Melville had planned something larger by giving us a more complicated central character (who is not the title character, by the way).
The gangsters have to deal with Marc because his identity may give the rest away, so they use Cathy to inject him in the hospital with a drug that kills him. This slows the omnidirectional investigation by Eduoard who never really seems to actually be on Simon’s trail. Any time he ends up on Simon’s trail, it feels accidental, again feeding my idea that there’s more to this on the cutting room floor to flesh things out.
Simon picks up another tip for another heist, and this is where the film feels most like a Melville film instead of a Melville imitation. The three remaining thieves organize a complicated operation around a moving train and a helicopter (if this wasn’t a huge influence on Brian DePalma when he made the first Mission Impossible film, I’ll eat my hat). The actual heist is mostly wordless and heavily focused on the process of movement that gets Simon from the helicopter to the train where he can change his clothes to fit in and into the cabin of the man transporting a pair of suitcases worth of heroin back up into the helicopter all while the train keeps moving. It’s tense, quality stuff from Melville, and it’s the highlight of the film.
The collapse of the criminal gang is standard for a Melville film, but with the lack of focus around any of them, any emotional impact is lost. The dragnet that eventually encompasses them all is never all that clear, so the tension around the sequence is diminished as well. The tragedy of Cathy caught in between is undermined by the fact that Melville had only written or filmed three complex female characters in his entire career, and Cathy is not one of them. So, as she watches the tragic conclusion of this story with teary eyes, her two lovers having come to the logical end, it feels empty.
I would be completely unsurprised if Melville cut out an hour from this film before he released it. Three of his last four films were more than two hours, and the one that wasn’t, Le Samourai, was tightly focused on a single main character. He died about a year after releasing this of a heart attack, though, so we’ll never know if he was going to continue chasing the success of Le Cercle Rouge or if he would modify his style to match a global market that was growing more amenable to independent fare after the collapse of the old Hollywood studio system and the rise of the New American Cinema. I don’t think he was running out of steam which led to his ending his career on a low note. I think he was working quickly and ready to take on new challenges.