Also 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!
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 Ganay, who just happens to be Ferrot’s boss. Ganay’s bedridden wife (Simone Signoret) is completely aware of the affair. 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 (incidentally, Signoret was actually the same age as Montand, her off-screen husband, and two years younger than François Prier, the actor playing her on-screen husband, though seems much older).
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.
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 of 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.
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.
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