Police Python 357 (1976) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

Police-Python-357-posterAlso known as The Case Against Ferro, this French policier was adapted (uncredited) from Kenneth Fearing’s classic suspense novel, The Big Clock. It stars Yves Montand as a cop who carries the eponymous Colt Magnum once favoured by law enforcement officers. He falls in love with a shop display designer (the delectable Stefania Sandrelli) but then gets involved in solving a murder committed by a colleague that comes horribly close to home.

The following review is offered for Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme hosted by Todd Mason over at his Sweet Freedom blog and Katie’s 2014 Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for review links, click here).

“Partitions. Compartmentalisation. The principle that prevents sinking.”

Montand is Marc Ferrot, a lonely cop working in Orléans (it’s about 70 miles from Paris), an orphan with no real friends other than his boss, Ganay (François Périer). He lives in a horribly spartan apartment that looks more like a halfway between a garage and a hospital, with no personal items at all. Instead he has an area where he looks after his guns, seemingly his only passion – and has a pair of alarm clocks. Clocks feature heavily in the film, presumably a tip-off to the uncredited literary source, which until the finale is indeed followed very closely. We constantly get closeups of clocks and watches and a pocket watch becomes a recurring motif as it passes between all four of the main protagonists in the main love triangle at the core of the story; one character even has an alarm clock in her handbag, which Ferrot significantly smashes at the scene of the murder!

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Yves Montand in ‘Police Python 357′

One evening Ferrot arrests two men who have been stealing church relics and is secretly photographed by Sylvia Leopardi (Sandrelli), an Italian living in Paris who designs shop windows and who by chance happened to be there. The two actually only meet later on, when he is driving home one misty night and sees a giant blow-up photo of himself wielding his 357 magnum from that night. She is working at the shop and tells him how she got the photo. Initially he is wary of her (amazing willpower) while she seems even overly keen to be friends. They agree to meet so she can hand over the photos and negatives, which starts a romance, though an awkward one as she is completely mysterious about her past and won’t even tell him where she is living. It turns out that she is the kept woman of Ferrot’s boss, something his bedridden wife (Simone Signoret) is completely aware of. It is implied that due to her illness it has been agreed that he can look elsewhere for sexual companionship, though clearly there is some tension about it. For the most part she seems to be a mother to him rather than a wife (Signoret was actually the same age as Montand, her off-screen husband, but seems much older).

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Sylvia and Ferrot argue in public places about her unwillingness to commit – but she has many secrets and it is only Ganay’s wife (clearly the smartest character in the film) who sees the strain that having to so compertmentalise her life is having on the younger woman. After another row Ferrot breaks his promise and follows Sylvia to find out where she lives, but when she sees him they argue again and he slaps her, and is seen doing it by witnesses. He leaves in despair and drops one of his gloves, picked up by another witness. He goes to a bar and gets drunk. Ganay is waiting for her back at the flat. He had seen her with Ferrot from the window but couln’t identify who she was talking to. They row about the man and after running around the flat end up in the bathroom where in a moment of rage (she had just kicked him in the balls) he bludgeons her to death (a forceful scene even though the murder is actually off-screen, I’m glad to say). He cleans up the apartment and heads home and tells his wife everything. Ferrot returns to her flat to apologise and, finding the door open, goes inside. He types out a small message on her typewriter, not realising she is dead in another room and that he is further implicating himself in the crime. The next day he is assigned to the case and realises that he is the main suspect, though he knows there was another man in her life who is most likely suspect – but he doesn’t know who. To save himself Ferrot used a blowtorch to destroy all his mementos of his happy interlude with Sylvia, while all the time working to discover who killed and keep himself safe.

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Stefania Sandrelli in ‘Police Python 357′

For much of the film neither of the two friends realise that the other was Sylvia’s lover. This inevitably strains credulity – in Fearing’s book the characters know each other before the triangle begins, which is certainly more plausible. The other main change is that in the book the murderer’s main confidante is Steve, his second in command, the role played by Signoret. Otherwise the story and situations are followed closely with Ferrot having to avoid meeting witnesses for fear of being recognised and then getting trapped in a building that is being searched (here this is relocated to a supermarket) while his colleagues slowly start to suspect the truth.  It is only after Ganay finally realises that Ferrot was the other man and decides to kill him that the film finds its own trajectory for its final twenty minutes, which takes some bizarre turns including assisted suicide, car chases (courtesy of the great Rémy Julienne), shoot outs and in a weird touch out of Greek tragedy, characters defacing themselves with acid. 

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I previously reviewed Fearing’s The Big Clock and its 1948 film adaptation (here) and the 1987 version, Now Way Out (here), so it seemed right that I should look at this lesser-known version too. There’s an odd, almost apocalyptic feeling about the finale, one that speaks for the unsettled period in which it was made with terrorist attacks and social disobedience at a high. There is also no denying that is a chilly film, one that doesn’t try to make the characters especially sympathetic but at least understandable. The cast is uniformly good though, with Sandrelli providing the only ray of sunshine before being so cruelly snuffed out. Her tender scenes with the much older yet seemingly much more emotionally insecure Montand are very well done, contrasting well with Signoret’s worldly-wise dialogues with her weak husband (reminiscent of Sebastian and his mother in Hitchcock’s Notorious).

This is a rather sad and cheerless film, but technically very well executed and with several impressive suspense sequences. Quite rightly though it concludes with an image of the unhappy Sylvia, who departs the story much too soon. It stands to Fearing’s novel in the same way that Miller’s Crossing does to Hammett’s The Glass Key – a close adaptation that is completely unacknowledged on screen but is quite clear to anyone who has read the books in question and makes for fascinating viewing as a result. Well worth a look.

DVD Availability: This film is available in an excellent region 2 DVD in France and other territories – my edition was actually released by Universal in Denmark and offers the original French edition with subtitles in English or a dubbed English-language version that is perfectly OK but is really best ignored. There are no extras other than a stills gallery but the anamorphic image quality is remarkably good.

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Police Python 357 (1976)
Director: Alain Corneau
Producer: Albina du Boisrouvray
Screenplay: Alain Corneau, Daniel Boulanger
Cinematography: Étienne Becker
Art Direction: Jean-Pierre Kohut-Svelko
Music: Georges Delerue
Cast: Yves Montand, Stefania Sandrelli, Simone Signoret, François Périer, Mathieu Carrière

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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38 Responses to Police Python 357 (1976) – Tuesday’s Overlooked Film

  1. TracyK says:

    This sounds worth watching but a bit pricey. Since you reviewed The Big Clock, we have watched it (earlier this month actually) and I enjoyed it and want to read the book now. Too much to read, too much to watch.

  2. Sergio – I always find it interesting how the less-well-known films like this one follow the novels on which they’re best sometimes much more closely than do better-known films. The end may be different, but the rest of the film…I always find that fascinating. I admit I’ve not seen this version (yet), but I do like Yves Montand. Thanks as ever for the thoughtful critique.

  3. Colin says:

    This sounds like an interesting take on the story, and one I’m not familiar with. Maybe, as you point out, the relationship of the characters to each other plays a part in that. I’m going to look for this one.

    • It’s a pretty odd film in some respects, though very faithful for th emost part. I love French movies anyway but this one is very glum (apart from the delectable Sandrelli)

      • Colin says:

        Yes, I gathered from your article that it was a bit of a downer. Still, the French do have a way with thrillers and the (uncredited) source material is interesting in itself. Worth a look I think.

  4. I love the title – and would not have associated that with The Big Clock! Even though I am a big fan of Simone Signoret, I’ll probably stick with my memories of the American film, but I am full of admiration for the way you explicated that complex plot…

  5. Patti Abbott says:

    Never knew about this adaptation. So many foreign films never made their way to the US.

  6. robert says:

    I have seen this film several times of course, trying to convince myself that it was good, but I couldn’t… :)
    Of course Montand was Montand, but it’s one of these 70’s police french films that could be upsetting because too slow or too plain, or too political. I feel like the actors were simply not where they should have been. A case of “miscast” crew (for example I can’t help but laugh seeing Montand rolling on the ground before shooting a suspect). But also I must admit that, except for “tous les matins du monde”, A. Corneau was never my cup of tea.

    • Thanks Robert and I do know what you mean about all the shots with Montand firing his eponymous weapon – he doesn’t ever seem comfortable and is clearly too old for the part – and yet there is a real poignancy to his relationship wit Sandrelli I find.

  7. Gerard says:

    Nice write-up. Thanks.

    I remember catching THE BIG CLOCK on the local PBS station’s Saturday movie night.

  8. I remember when the DIRTY HARRY movies popularized the .44 Magnum. Sooner or later Netflix or one of the other movie web sites will start offering European movies. I suspect there is a lucrative audience for these films in the U.S. I know I would subscribe to such a service.

    • Definitely a cycle of fetishising ‘big gun’ films, wasn’t there? Quite worrying in many ways … You would think that given the budget barriers for smaller films to getting aproper release that Netflix really should offer a more level playing field – I hope you are right.

  9. Hi Sergio, limited editions of foreign movies, including French I think, are sold in packs in retail stores but they are quite costly and so wouldn’t be my first choice if I were to step out to buy a few movies. I’d probably have better luck with French movies at the French festival of films held every year. In spite of your persuasive review I don’t think I’ll be specifically looking for this film even though the story and characters seem all too real. Thanks, Sergio.

    • Fair enough Prashant, I completely see what you mean on this. It would be nice if cheaper streaming option were avalable to make such choices more cost-effective so we could take greater risks with titles that are completely unknown!

      • Sergio, I used to watch foreign movies on state-run television in the eighties mainly because there was no private cable and we had little choice. Now, more than two decades after the arrival of cable, none of the English movie channels telecast foreign movies, particularly the kind you have reviewed here. The closest we come to watching foreign films are badly dubbed Hong Kong/Chinese martial arts movies that all look and sound the same. Thus, my knowledge of foreign cinema is zero. For that matter it’s been a while since I last saw a Hindi movie, although parallel cinema (noncommercial), made popular by Satyajit Ray, are often very good. They are made in various languages and from various states of India.

  10. Lopezlevieux says:

    Certainly the best Alain Corneau’s film, it stands very well the tests of time. The adaptation of Fearing’s novel as a thriller in France is very clever and it works very well. It is available over here (France) at a very low price (see Amazon.fr for instance) but in Zone 2 and without any subtitles… Sorry for that but we have the same problems with American films. Those kinds of “classics” movies should always be subtitled

  11. Pingback: Love and bullets – Classic crime in the blogosphere: February 2014 | Past Offences Classic Crime Fiction

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