It seems sometimes that Jean-Pierre Melville and Henri-Georges Clouzot suck up all the attention/acclaim available for non-nouvelle vague French crime cinema, which means that Jacques Deray – whom I mostly remember for his gangster epic Borsalino, which has Delon and Belmondo and an earworm theme tune – is rarely cited as a master of anything. Yet, at a pinch, I think this based-on-fact cop/gangster movie is a deeper, more interesting work than Heat, which cops a ton of its structure. I’d certainly swap the climactic middle-of-nowhere gas station restaurant encounter between cop and crook for the much-lauded coffee shop face-off.
It’s 1947 and Roger Borniche (Alain Delon) is on the track of Emile Buisson (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a violent heist man who has escaped from an asylum – the question of whether or not he’s actually sane is chewed over – and on a crime spree which finds him putting together crews for raids (on a restaurant and a factory) and mostly shedding associates in the aftermath. Delon, in a cool jacket with three pleats in the back and a great raincoat, is effortlessly charismatic, but interestingly varies his screen persona by playing a conscientious police inspector (unusually for a Delon character, Borniche often smiles) who goes against screen convention. In an early scene, Borniche criticises a fellow officer for beating up a suspect, invoking the experience of Occupation where those tactics were associated with the Gestapo. This rectitude is also practical since he’s happy to trade off the suspect’s minor offences in order to recruit him as an informer (which eventually gets the guy killed). When his girlfriend Catherine (Claudine Auger) wants to go to the movies (to see Le Diable au Corps), Borniche stays home to study case files. Throughout, we see how much policework is meticulous gathering and correlating of facts, plus a lot of waiting about in the rain and coping with politically-appointed superiors. At one point, the cop admits that sometimes he envies Buisson, whose only rule seems to be that he’ll kill anyone he even suspects has informed on him (including a guy he blames for squealing when actually the cops got the information from a phone tap) and who regards even his brother (André Pousse) as expendable.
Early on, Buisson evades the cops – Trintignant and then Delon, or their doubles, perform a deceptivele simple yet painful-to-watch stunt of jumping from a window to a sloping roof opposite (Borniche’s boss criticises him for being a poor jumper for an ex-paratrooper) – and, in a melee, finds his gun has jammed so he picks up one that’s lying around, which means one of his gang (Maurice Barrier) not only gets a gun that doesn’t work but forensics link it to several murders he’s potentially on the hook for. Trintignant is a match for Delon as a bandit who wears glasses and reads Le Figaro to look respectable and is oddly violent but not vicious – and even likes Edith Piaf records. Violent incidents are littered throughout the film, but Deray’s staging of them escalates – early on, we see shots fired but not bodies dropped, but by the time of a factory payroll job bystanders get plugged and skull fragments fly.
The climax comes when Borniche is able to pressure enough of Buisson’s associates to set him up, and a small party of cops – with Catherine along as a disguise – have a late lunch in the out-of-the-way garage/restaurant where Buisson is lodging, making a show of conviviality while Buisson eats alone … tension rises as we suspect the cops are overplaying the act and the killer will catch on, with an odd moment as the woman almost charms the sociopath by playing (what else) a Piaf hit on the upright piano before the net closes. Then, again unusually for the genre, there’s a year-long coda about the not-exactly friendly rapport hunter and quarry establish over a period when Borniche has to interrogate Buisson before his case comes to trial.