Jean-Pierre Melville directs Jean-Paul Belmondo, Serge Reggiani and Jean Desailly in this French crime thriller where a recently released burglar wants revenge on the associate who keeps snitching on him.
For the first two acts we track two very unsympathetic criminals. They seem on course for a showdown. One has been informed on and wanted by the law, only days after a four year stretch. The other is playing two molls, the cops and the local mob off against each other and treating the fugitive like a pawn in some mysterious powerplay. Belmondo is a brute – torturing girls who withhold secrets and setting up anyone who might threaten his obscure masterplan. Occasionally his machinations leave a loose end or a mumbled over mystery. As the motivation behind his violence and conspiracy is always internalised we have no idea of his endgame. We just see the negative short-term fallout of his crimes and betrayals. You can’t sympathise with Belmondo, yet our other sweaty, vengeance seeking yegg is taken out of play with each move the smarter man makes. Stunted, blocked, impotent. Who are you the viewer gonna follow down into the labyrinthian plot? Can you throw your weight behind the handsome but inscrutable misogynistic beast who seems to be destroying lives for his own gain and amusement? Or the frantic mope, who is constantly one step behind and appears doomed to serve another sentence before he has even washed the last prison smell off of himself? Melville uses ill-fated nihilism like an artist uses paint, he treats “honour among thieves” as a punchline! Eventually the plot realigns itself. The narrative snaps into shape and a true anti-hero emerges. All those doubts and risky elliptical storytelling choices that leave you lost and cold suddenly make sense. Yet we are still doomed. Urban malaise, existential dread, hard slaps, supercool, bad shitty luck. This might be easier to warm to on a second watch once you realise not every player is an utter bastard.
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