director/writer/editor: Jean-Pierre Melville; cinematographer: Henri Decaë; editor:Marie-Sophie Dubus; Music: Eric De Marsan; cast: Alain Delon (Corey), Gian Maria Volonté (Vogel), Yves Montand (Jansen), André Bourvil (Mattei), François Périer (Santi), André Ekyan (Rico); Runtime: 150; producer: Robert Dorfmann; Corona; 1970-France-in French)

“This is a transitional film that makes way for a ‘New Wave’ of crime films.”


Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This noir film emulates the spirit of the ones shot in the heyday of American noir, in the ’40s and the ’50s. Melville shoots in a dark color tone that sets the dire mood of the violent story about a prison escape, a heist, a double-cross, and the untrustworthy nature of people. Melville wanted to make a French version of John Huston’s noir classic, The Asphalt Jungle (50). He imbued his film with the strong beliefs about what a gangster picture should look like, making it original while covering all the typical subplots of that genre he could manage to fit into a film that runs for 150-minutes. This is a transitional film that makes way for a ‘New Wave’ of crime films soon to follow, ones that will reflect the changing mores of society and the changes within the criminal code that the new decade brings with it.

Corey (Delon) is a steely-eyed hood who is being released from prison tomorrow. He breaks into the cell of another prisoner, Vogel (Volonté), to tell him that he can arrange to help him escape if he agrees to join him in a heist he has planned.

Vogel escapes from a moving train as a massive police hunt is on the way for his capture, led by the fair-haired Corsican, Superintendent Mattei (Bourvil). The superintendent is quite an interesting character, as well as being a cat lover and a first-rate detective. His boss, the police commissioner, while pressing him to do everything possible to get Vogel, lectures him that every man is guilty of something. This is something that slowly sinks into Mattei’s consciousness as his investigation for the escaped felon broadens.

Corey after his release goes back to Marseilles to get money from his crime boss, Rico (Ekyan), who tries to put him off. So Corey robs him, causing Rico to send a couple of his gang members after him. But, they end up getting shot by Vogel. The intense action scenes amidst the changing country weather that goes from rain to snow, plus the eeriness of the wooded area and the roadblocks the men must cross to get to Paris, gives the film an air of desperation.

To help with the jewel heist Vogel suggests a friend of his, a former police marksman who cracked up from the pressure of the job, Jansen (Yves). He is first seen having a nightmare that bugs are attacking him; the dream sequence is framed like a Francis Bacon painting. Bunuel has very effectively used surreal shots like this in some of his films.

The heist of the Place Vendome is executed in silence for the 30-odd minutes it takes to pull off the job. There are five men involved in this jewel heist, these three plus a tip-off man and the fence. But when the robbery is completed, the fence backs out because he is pressured to by a local gangster, Santi (Périer). Santi is a nightclub owner and pimp, and a one time informant for Mattei. Mattei leans heavily on him to cooperate. For Mattei, there is no such thing as doing police work without informers.

The film’s conclusion is as violent as it has to be, since that was the mood from the film’s onset. It shows how hyper-tense a policeman’s job is, with not that much difference separating the police from the criminal.

This is a top-notch noir film. It has done an outstanding job in uncovering the themes of alienation and desperation, motivations that drive men so hard that it is impossible for them to transcend their criminal nature.

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