There is un flic (a cop), but we begin with les voleurs: four thieves, to be exact—led by suave nightclub owner Simon (Richard Crenna)—who take down an isolated seaside bank in the chillingly spare opening sequence of Jean-Pierre Melville’s final feature. It’s a Zen-suspenseful set piece, all rock-steady compositions and hypnotically primordial atmosphere, as much a philosophical state of mind as a ticking-clock tension generator. (You'd expect nothing less from the great French director behind moodily elemental thriller like 1956's Bob le Flambeur and 1967's Le Samouraï.) Plus, it’s a terrific prelude to the film’s stripped-down battle of wits between Simon and the jaded Parisian police commissioner, Edouard (Alain Delon), who’s slowly catching on to the clandestine robber’s criminal dealings.
There’s a woman involved, of course—Catherine Deneuve’s luminously vacant Cathy—as well as the City of Light crushing all the characters with rampant venality (call it an unfortunate product of the time when homosexuality and transvestism were used as quick-pick signifiers of corruption). But it’s the quasi-mythical, ultimately tragic bond between Simon and Edouard that gives the movie its emotional heat. With barely a word spoken between them—mostly a series of virile glances—Delon and Crenna paint an idealized portrait of masculine camaraderie, one that’s exposed at the end of Melville’s bracing last testament as a soul-shattering illusion.
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