Police Python 357 (1976)
POLICE PYTHON 357
Dir: Alain Corneau - Cast: Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, Stefania Sandrelli, François Périer, Mathieu Carrière, Serge Marquand, Vadim Glowna
The movie’s title (a reference to the weapon used by Montand, a Colt Python 357) could suggest that this is just another Dirty Harry clone, and yes there are a few similarities, but this is definitely another type of movie. It's not an action movie (in spite of a brutally violent finale) but rather a suspense yarn playing with genre conventions. One of the conventions of the suspense genre is that we do NOT know what’s going on until the detective of service reveals us the identity of the killer. In Police Python we know more than any of the characters involved, including the police inspector investigating the case: we know what’s going on and who was responsible for what. But this doesn't hurt the suspense. Quite on the contrary: the movie is edge-of-your-seat material from beginning to end.
Montand is Marc Ferret, a stubborn, wayward police inspector in the residential town of Orléans, South of Paris, whose only real friend is his gun. His whole life is put upside-down when he falls in love with a young photographer, Sylvia (played by Stefania Sandrelli), who secretly took his picture during a nocturnal arrest. But then she is killed and when Ferret is put on the case, he discovers that all clues point in his direction. Ferret assumes there must have been another man, presumably another lover, who knew about him and is now using him as a patsy. We know from the beginning that this second man is Ferret’s only ‘friend’ within the force, super-intendant Ganay, who killed Sylvia when he discovered she wanted to leave him. Ganay wanted to give himself in, but was talked over by his bed-ridden wife, who knew about the affair (she is marvelously played by Simone Signoret, in real life Montand’s spouse!)
According to Clark Hodgkiss, who reviewed police Python 357 for showdown on mainstreet, the movie is based on a 1946 novel by Kenneth Fearing, The Big Clock. The novel was adapted to the screen in 1948 (under the same title) by John Farrow and remade (more or less) in 1987 by Roger Donaldson as No Way Out. I have never read the novel, nor have I ever watched the 1948 movie, but I watched No way Out a while ago, when it was on TV. Donaldson’s movie is a competent thriller, but the only thing it has in common with this classic French movie, is the premise of a cat chasing his own tail. Apart from being a suspense yarn, Police Python 357 is an incisive psychological study in loneliness and the way the tension is built up, is far superior to the superficial thriller effects Donaldson used in his version.
Of course the premise of a man caught in a labyrinth plot brings Kafka to mind but there are also similarities to the novels of Patricia Highsmith (who was discovered by French critics in the 70s). Like the protagonists in many of Highsmith’s novels, Ferret is like a fly ensnared in a spider’s web, trying to free itself from the sticky threads, only making its deplorable position worse by every move. The ending is downbeat and gruesome: this is not a Hollywood movie, so don’t expect a happy ending. Not surprisingly there are also similarities to the works of master film makers such as Jean-Pierre Melville (notably Le Samourai and Le Cerle Rouge) and Claude Chabrol. In the 70s Corneau was often called one of the most talented young directors of French cinema, an heir to both Melville and Chabrol, but he never managed to live up to the expectations and eventually his work fell into oblivion. In the case of Police Python 357 this is a pity. This is superior film making.