Jean-Pierre Melville’s characters all act like they have been watching too many film-noirs. They brood in trench-coats, rob banks, gamble, fight for women, and always find a way to make things more complicated than they should be. There’s rarely anything more important than the ending, so the characters waste no time trying to achieve their goal. In the case of Dirty Money, Melville’s last film, he takes this all to an extreme, for better or worse. That means very little dialogue, lots of characters who don’t visibly emote, and no exposition.
As the film opens, we witness a bank robbery that sets-up and also distracts from a larger drug operation. Detective Edouard Coleman (Alain Delon, in his third Melville film) is on the case, but he suspects that it is his friend Simon who masterminded the plot. To make matters worse, Simon and Edouard share a mistress, and Edouard’s transvestite informant appears to have a crush on him. At the same time, Simon has to figure out how to deal with the wounding of one his accomplices, which may result in a breakthrough for Edouard. It’s all a bit ridiculous, and the lack of background on the robbery, the main characters, or anything else makes it seem far more complex than it would otherwise be.
Fortunately, Melville directs Dirty Money with his tongue in his cheek, granting a B-movie charm and allowing the film’s aesthetic to rise to the top. With minimal dialogue, we are given passages of great sound editing, and throughout the film cinematographer Walter Wottitz keeps the camera on a track and utilizes so many zooms on faces that the film achieves a vaguely impressionist quality. The effort that goes into the film’s look gives a cinematic edge to what is otherwise an entertaining but rather silly gangster flick. Take, for example, the scene where Edouard boards a train from a helicopter, changes uniform, and breaks into the suspect’s cabin to steal the suitcases they suspect are full of money must take 15 minutes, and not a word is spoken. Instead, we get long takes, the constant roar of engines, and suspense that is completely downplayed by a refusal to give the audience any of the normal queues. Once again, it’s all a bit silly, but it’s also quite impressive on a technical level.
Dirty Money never amounts to anything more than a well-styled gangster flick, failing to create compelling characters or giving us the time to get drawn into its story, but the cool-blue color palette and fine direction assure us that it was never trying to compete with The Godfather, which came out the same year. As homage to Hollywood B-movies, however, it’s a fun film; as an exercise in camera work, complete with Melville’s subtle new-wave touches and effortless cool, it’s also an artistic, albeit unsatisfying, one.