'Flic' in French is slang for cop, and 'Flic Story' is a standard issue police procedural - a maverick police inspector attempts to track down the paranoid, trigger-happy psycho leader of a gang of thieves. This kind of thing was enormously successful in France during the 1970s, and 'Flic' follows the usual pattern: the dogged, even exhausting groundwork of bureaucracy and investigation, punctuated by bursts of violence.
The film is based on a book by the hero, and the plot is offered as his narrative through voiceover, with the film controlled by him, the random shocks of a criminal mind and senseless disorder reassuringly contained. Of course, this is a French crime movie, so it doesn't quite work out that way. For a start, Roger Borniche, the police detective, may control the narrative AFTER THE FACT, but within it he is helpless most of the time, and despite his evident brilliance and superiority, he is not quick enough to avert a string of gratuitous murders.
Even when he finally succeeds in catching the killer, Emile Buisson, the latter eludes his grasp. Not literally; the poor maniac is duly executed. But the reassertion of order that should come about with his capture doesn't quite; there is no exorcism of evil, triumph of good. Roger is startled by the sheer banality of his nemesis as he watches him handcuffed, reading the rightist paper 'Le Figaro' , drinking wine. Words like 'psycho' and 'poor maniac' are hopelessly inadequate. The film ends with a vanishing trick, Buisson disappearing from the spot to which he was handcuffed. This, of course, is an effect of memory - Buisson is literally not there, he's been killed. But it's as if Roger has had him, but he couldn't catch him, couldn't grab all the things he was supposed to represent.
This ghostly ending echoes the sequence of climactic capture. The scene is the culmination of the genre narrative, the whole point of the plot - excitement, tension, purpose and economy should be at their tantalising pitch. And yet this climax seems to suspend itself from its plot - the rarefied country setting after the Parisian man hunts; the 'disguises' worn by the policemen, and the parts they play; the measured camerawork as Catherine, Roger's fiancee, plays Edith Piaf on the piano to the 'monster''s rapt attention, all create a haunting stillness quite at odds with genre requirements.
Further, the film is set in 1947, less than half a decade after the Occupation, during which the police were stooges of the SS. This ambiguity is carried over here, the villain's random violence contrasted with the systematic brutality of police 'questioning'. The police are frequently compared to the Gestapo; Roger may protest at his colleagues' sadism, but he looks on; in one particularly nasty scene, he is like a dead man, staring, his unpuffed cigarette eating itself up into ashes like his soul. Both hero and villain have interesting relationships with the Occupation that further complicate their generic roles.
This film is deliberately populist, conceived as an Alain Delon star vehicle. But it alludes to one of Delon's most famous films, 'Le Samourai', and uses some of Melville's techniques (his last work, also starring Delon as the title character, was called 'Un Flic'), which, in his films, were used to ends antipathetic to populism. The most obvious allusion is the Metro scene where Delon/Roger and an enemy engage in a cat and mouse game.
More profoundly, Deray fragments his characters visually: Roger, even though the roles are reversed and he is the law-backed hunter, is repeatedly shot as a pair of feet; Buisson the killer is never framed in the same shot as his murder weapon, the shooting is always fragmented, as if it is apart from him, or as if the phallic power conferred by shooting is denied him; it is suggested that his 'psychosis' is linked to sexual neurosis, even suppressed homosexuality. Roger is not free from this either; unlike 'Samourai''s Jef Costello, he seems to have a stable domestic life, but he and his lover sleep in separate rooms, and he is willing to sacrifice her as bait in a potentially lethal sting. With her red hair, she is tacitly linked to the gangsters' moll.
Of course, comparing 'Flic Story' to 'Le Samourai' only emphasises Melville's genius. Deray copies Melville's downbeat style and rigorous emphasis on doing things (lots of shots of people just walking, etc.), but these are only superficials. He has little sense of composition or rhythm through montage, never mind the latent metaphysical power of Melville. This leaves the 'slow' bits tedious where they are compelling in Melville, and often unrelated to character. Paris looks lovely, though.