In 1947, France was still reeling from Nazi occupation, undergoing physical reconstruction as well as psychological healing. Warfare does not put a halt on criminal activity, however, and the eternal battle between cops and crooks must be waged no matter what wounds of conflict still linger. Roger Borniche is the most skilled detective in Paris, essentially performing the duties of chief inspector while the man who actually holds that title enjoys his empty suit while he can. Borniche takes on Emile Buisson, a violent gangster who fears nobody, and since escaping a mental hospital is willing to kill any who stand in his way. In Flic Story, they are played by Alain Delon, the matinee idol who epitomized icy cool; and Jean-Louis Trintignant, who perpetually appears to be deciding how many bodies can fit in the boot of his car. As directed by Delon favorite Jacques Deray, it is fairly workmanlike, and does not approach the existentialist angst of Jean-Pierre Melville’s crime dramas. Still, it is overall a solid police procedural that captures the feel of post-liberation France while exploring familiar themes of the similarities between cop and crook, and the alluring nature of the Parisian underworld.
Rather than introducing the hero in the midst of a shootout chase scene, we meet Borniche as he upbraids a fellow cop for beating a suspect, equating such brutality with the Gestapo hoods who murdered his brother during the war. A standard cop movie this ain’t. Worship of authority figures just never became a tradition in France, and perhaps that trend is related to the actual experience under fascism, a fascination with criminals and the chaos off of which they live, or a healthy population of socialists. I don’t pretend to know, but when Borniche commits his first action in a police procedural by releasing a suspect, it does suggest a cynical view of police work. In reality, this is what cops do rather than conduct daily high speed chases. This supercop (based on true events) earned his reputation with his thorough manner and investigative powers, and that comes from hours of reading case files, sifting through raw data, and cultivating informers. The suspect released is given a free pass – as long as he does not forget who his friends are. Flic Story is full of immersive details like this. Meanwhile, Buisson is given a similarly mundane intro – he is hiding in a safehouse. This is France’s most notorious criminal, and he did appear to require the puzzle factory in which he was held. His return to society takes place in a nightclub where he guns down the man who snitched on him in full view of a capacity crowd. He has no intention of retirement – Buisson genuinely enjoys being a gangster.
The remainder of the running time consists of chasing down leads, shaking up informers, and closing the net slowly around Buisson and his fellow thugs. What is enjoyable apart from the lush details of the period is the lack of romantic regard for either cop or crook. Borniche works long hours for crap pay, and his superior takes all the credit. Unlike the stupid chiefs that were a staple of 70s and 80s action films, the Chief Inspector is a political parasite rather than an asshole. Promoted beyond his competence, he applies pressure to his underlings to avoid being discovered as a mediocrity. The cops work together, but with mutual contempt rather than professional understanding. Buisson is painted in a similar fashion, quick to execute anyone in his inner circle who may have been compromised. Paulo the Bomber is shot in a ditch by Buisson after he is spotted earlier with a police tail; whether he actually cooperated with the cops or was simply followed does not matter. There is no code amongst the criminals, which has always been a fiction borne by Hollywood and pulp writers. To be a sociopath you must truly believe nobody else has a right to exist except yourself. What kind of code could exist with such a worldview? In one revelatory scene, Buisson’s safehouse is raided, and he switches his jammed gun with one of his men’s weapons; as a result that man is captured with a useless gun that also happened to be a murder weapon. He doesn’t give a shit.
Delon is all reserve with implied menace here, bending and eventually breaking those he hunts with a sustained assault rather than singular breakthroughs. Trintignant, on the other hand, is mercurial and suspicious, becoming the thug that under pressure devours his own comrades. Even so, Borniche remarks with sardonic élan, “Some days, I’d like to be Emile Buisson.” Despite his skill, he is locked into an unforgiving job and regarded with little respect by other cops. At least Buisson has some fun with his lot in life. A member of my family is a police officer, and more than a few times he has remarked on the similarity between police and criminal. Psychologically they share cynical views of society and reactionary politics; many of his coworkers became cops solely from a desire to inflict their anger upon people who are required to yield to their authority. They desire not respect, but subservience. It is a difficult job given that the police are the only line of defense between those who desire a quiet and stable lifestyle and the agents of chaos, and the pay sucks. Being able to beat drug dealers senseless or taking out your frustration by writing tickets for drivers who otherwise just want to mind their own business is a perk of sorts. Whatever the drive, a desire to serve and protect is not part of it.
The most interesting aspect of Flic Story is the coda; Buisson is caught while on the run after burning all of his bridges. Borniche spends the next year interrogating him, though much of the time is spent quietly reading the paper and eventually developing a connection of sorts. The connection between cop and crook is acknowledged, but there is a hollow core to what should otherwise be a triumph of police work. Borniche remarks upon these times with some regret; he loves his job, and the thrill of the hunt, but he is under no illusions that anything he does is related to right or wrong, or any grand design for an ideal society. It is a job, and nothing more. There is a similarly downbeat view of public service in various works in film. Breach is a tense game between a young FBI agent and a clever veteran who is a double agent, and the conclusion is a monumental shrug over the tremendous expense of money and man-hours spent in catching a spy and achieved nothing other than a return to square one. The French Connection may have been an action classic, but the massive drug bust had no effect on the drug trade, the French drug smuggler escaped, and Doyle guns down a federal narcotics agent before being transferred out of Narcotics.The final shot of Seven Samurai is a quietly devastating comment on the price of a life of service, and just how little appreciated sacrifice often is by society. Sometimes the ability to enjoy or at least tolerate a profession is all there is to the spoils of war. Any sense of accomplishment or honor is probably delusional, but delusions are useful when life would be otherwise unbearable.