‘Dassa, a bar owner who refuses to sell drugs to his customers, is killed by men working for Tavernier, a gangster known as Le Mandarin. Dassas’s sister Hélène is also in danger, for the same reasons. Inspector Favenin and the young inspector Barnero are put in charge of the case. Dan Rover, one of Dassa’s friends, engages the services of a man named Viletti to kill Tavernier. Another man, Raymond, is willing to provide an alibi if necessary. Barnero has grown disillusioned with his job and wants to leave the police service, but first he intends to arrest Tavernier. One day, Favenin and Barnero fail to prevent Viletti from killing Tavernier, and Barnero gets himself killed in the process. Favenin is given permission by his superior to continue the investigation alone. What nobody realises is that Favenin is ready to act without mercy and employ some very unconventional methods to achieve his aims…’
– Henri Willems
A driven police inspector who considers himself judge, jury and executioner and who is ready to step outside the law in the pursuit of his professional duties… It sounds like the premise of Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971), yet a full year before this landmark American policier slammed onto cinema screens and changed the genre forever French director Yves Boisset had already trail blazed it to death in his ultra-violent thriller Un condé. This was a defining film for French cinema of the 1970s, marking a definitive break with the stylised crime films of the previous decades, which were predominantly imitations of American film noir of the 1940s, with more talk than action and very little in the way of real human suffering. Boisset had already directed two such films – Coplan sauve sa peau (1968) and Cran d’arrêt (1970) – and these pale into insignificance compared with his third, which was a determined attempt to portray crime, and the dubious methods adopted by the police to combat it, as realistically as possible.
Un condé delivered a seismic jolt to a genre that had all but run its course. It was deemed so shocking for its time that the Minister of the Interior, Raymond Marcellin, tried to have it banned. He failed, but in the process he gave the film a notoriety it may not otherwise have achieved. In France, there is no better publicity for a film than an attempt by the government to ban in, and so Boisset’s relentlessly grim exposé of the criminal underworld and police brutality was a notable success. What shocked audiences most was not the spectacle of hoodlums slaughtering each other in full-blooded Scorsese fashion but the way in which the police are portrayed as they go about mopping up this underworld vermin. In a number of scenes, torture is employed by the police as a means of extracting information from the gangsters and their associates. The central crime-fighting protagonist, Favenin, is a far cry from the morally impeccable cop of previous French thrillers. He is nothing more than a driven killing machine engaged in a personal vendetta.
An obvious forerunner of Harry Callahan and all those maverick cops that casually gunned their way across television and cinema screens throughout the 1970s, Favenin has a cold-blooded ruthlessness that makes him less an agent of justice and more a merciless avenging angel. It is the kind of role you can easily imagine Alain Delon playing with his customary cool, reptilian élan, but the part went to a very different class of actor, Michel Bouquet. Cast completely against type, Bouquet proves to be an inspired choice for the part of Favenin, looking even tougher and more terrifyingly driven than Clint Eastwood was in any of his Dirty Harry films. There is barely a trace of humanity or moral restraint in Bouquet’s portrayal – his Favenin is a pure machine, one that acts without pity, without conscience as it carries out its one basic function, to hunt down and execute a slimeball cop killer.
Un condé was ahead of its time and was the first in a series of films that Boisset made which rocked the establishment boat in the 1970s. Two years later, he courted government and public censure a second time with L’Attentat (1972), an eye-opening account of the enormously controversial Ben Barka affair. This was followed by R.A.S. (1973), a bold insight into the atrocities of the Algerian War which had several cuts imposed on it by the government censor. Le Juge Fayard dit Le Shériff (1977), Boisset’s best crime film, is a whole-hearted assault on the self-serving duplicity of those who hold high office in France, one that came just as a series of high-profile judicial-political scandals hit the country and pretty well eroded all public confidence in the institutions of power.
Just as films such as Dirty Harry and The French Connection (1971) were set to bring about a dramatic sea change in the depiction of violence in English-speaking cinema, so Un condé had the same impact in France. Prior to this, French film directors portrayed crime with a certain romanticism or professional detachment, tacitly avoiding the gruesome realities of ‘the milieu’ that was so attractive to cinema audiences. Jean-Pierre Melville, often considered the godfather of the French gangster film, approached crime from a highly stylised angle and was more interested in the psychology of crime rather than the physical reality. Boisset’s film changed all that and heralded in a new era of crime film, bloodier and more violent than ever before, where those who were on the side of the law were every bit as ruthless and flawed as their criminal adversaries. French film noir had suddenly acquired a terrible air of reality.
— James Travers (Films de France)
Subtitles:English, German, Spanish (muxed), English, Spanish (srt)