POLICE PYTHON 357 (1976)

D: Alain Corneau. P: Albina du Boisrouvray. W: Daniel Boulanger, Alain Corneau, from the novel The Big Clock by Kenneth Fearing. Ph: Etienne Becker. M. Georges Delerue. St: Yves Montand (Inspector Marc Ferrot), François Périer (Commissioner Ganay), Simone Signoret (Thérèse Ganay), Stefania Sandrelli (Sylvia Leopardi), Mathieu Carrière (Inspector Ménard)

“I don’t know what got into me.”

“That phrase; you’ve heard it so many times and never tried to understand.”

With Montand’s name framed against a 357 Colt Python and a credit sequence focused on firearms and ballistics, one could be forgiven for thinking that Corneau’s searing thriller is another in a line of vigilante cop movies spawned by Dirty Harry. The grey woollen jacket worn by Montand’s Ferrot does little to extinguish that notion but, where Callahan has little time for complex emotions, Ferrot’s disconnectedness is temporarily repaired when he falls in love with Sylvia, the young photographer who captures his powerful image as he apprehends a duo of thieves.

Ferrot’s melancholia and weathered handsomeness contrast with Sylvia’s freewheeling personality but, in each other, they find a passionate love.  Nevertheless, Ferrot intuits that something’s not quite right here.  Unbeknownst to him, she is the mistress of Ganay, his Commissioner and sometime friend.  When, in a fit of jealousy, Ganay kills Sylvia and all lines of inquiry point to Ferrot, the wheels of a tragic, Kafkaesque neo-noir begin to turn.[i] 

An isolated soul, Ferrot inhabits the same dusky, colourless arena as the protagonists of Melville’s Le Samourai (1967) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970), in the latter of which Montand gave another rounded performance as a loner undergoing a redemptive crisis.  The opening credits intercut shots of Ferrot in his austere apartment, charging bullets with gunpowder and preparing a frugal meal; this is a man whose gun is as crucial to existence as nourishment.   Later, when trying to destroy evidence that he knew the murder victim, Ferrot incinerates the life-size photographic print she has displayed of him – legs astride, gun drawn – in a symbolic act of self-emasculation.

Parallel editing, utilised so skilfully in the scrupulously constructed opening sequence, is repeated in a key passage after Ganay has killed Sylvia. With the commissioner cleaning up at the crime scene, Ferrot returns from a bar where he has been drinking after a fierce argument with Sylvia. In real time, the two men almost converge.  When Ferrot attempts to call Sylvia and Ganay picks up the receiver, the fate of the two men becomes inextricably linked in a silence laden with anxiety.

Ganay’s thoroughness in hiding his tracks is mirrored by that of Ferrot. Where Ganay appears numbed by his actions, however, Ferrot is rendered bereft when he erases signs of his life – and love – with Sylvia.  In a bravura sequence, Ferrot, desperate to find out who her murderer is, clandestinely enters her apartment and tears up the carpets, sofa and mattress, looking for clues.  This recalls the same attention to detail used by Melville; the lengthy scene in Le Samourai springs to mind in which Jef Costello’s apartment is bugged.

Simone Signoret, as Ganay’s bed-ridden wife, delivers another undaunted performance. She is the only character who reveals any clarity of thought, even if that means deterring her husband from turning himself in, thus becoming his accomplice. She’s aware of Sylvia, knowing her by name, and even admits liking her. Her denouement, pleading with Ferrot to help her commit suicide, is a standout scene in the career of one of French cinema’s most important actresses.

Despite Ferrot’s best efforts, there are still witnesses who saw him and Sylvia together, and suspicions grow when he avoids any confrontations. Ganay becomes fearful that Ferrot may be closing in on the truth and arranges a riverside confrontation with his rival, where Ferrot’s trigger finger proves too quick. This being a French noir and directed by Corneau – who went on to strike even more profound notes of despair in Série Noire (1979) – Ferrot decides to make it impossible for witnesses to identify him. In an act of self-harm that also metaphorically seals the death of the man Sylvia loved, he scars his face with acid. Ferrot’s partner, Ménard, has had growing suspicions, but it’s not until a final blistering gunfight, in which Ferrot rescues a group of police officers, that he learns the truth; now that he owes Ferrot his life, he walks away from the scene.
Clark Hodgkiss

[i] Police Python 357 was loosely adapted from Kenneth Fearing’s celebrated 1946 mystery novel The Big Clock. The 1948 screen version, directed by John Farrow, is a more direct rendering of Fearing’s work, with Ray Milland’s brilliant investigative reporter framed for murdering the mistress of his conniving editor, played by Charles Laughton. While Farrow’s film is a superlative example of postwar noir, it doesn’t carry the same funereal atmosphere as Corneau’s take. Fearing’s novel was adapted a third time for the glossier Reagan era in No Way Out (1987), with Kevin Costner as the framed man, the action taking place under the shadow of the Pentagon.

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