A quarter-century before Alain Corneau's cop thriller came out, Yves Montand and Simone Signoret may have been the hottest couple in entertainment, at least in Europe. The Robbins and Sarandon of their day in their advocacy of left-wing causes, Montand was a pop singer turned actor who gained global cachet in The Wages of Fear, while Signoret was a major movie star on the strength of a string of art-house hits culminating in Diabolique. By the end of the 1950s both were doing high-profile work in English -- Signoret actually had started doing so at the start of the decade in Frank Tuttle's Euro-noir Gunman in the Streets -- she winning an Oscar for Room at the Top, he as an on-and-offscreen consort for Marilyn Monroe in Let's Make Love. They worked together occasionally, intriguingly in a French-language version of The Crucible and for the last time in Police Python 357. The years had not been kind to Signoret, nor had the cinematic double-standard that permitted Montand, looking by now almost like a gallic Walter Matthau, to be the onscreen lover of a woman 25 years his junior, while she, long since grown chunky, was reduced to playing his bedridden confidante. I'm probably reading real life into the movie, but I assumed that their characters -- he's a police detective, she's his superior's wife -- had had a romantic relationship in the past. In any event, he can talk freely with her about his current affair with the same woman (Stefania Sandrelli) his boss (Francois Perier) is sleeping with. This triangle grows unsustainable as the Montand character pressures her (with a slap) to commit to him, while she tries to goad the other man into pressing his claim more manfully. Goaded too far, he finally presses his claim with a heavy ashtray, at which point Police Python becomes a cop-film version of The Big Clock, with Montand assigned to an investigation likely to incriminate himself.
Montand makes it through, despite a breakdown that sees him disfigure himself in an effort to throw off witnesses, but his victory seems quite pyrrhic. Corneau and cowriter Daniel Boulanger leave the impression that their protagonist can only destroy everything he touches, as lover, boss and confidante all end up dead. Montand's flic seems at heart to be a fighter, not a lover. Corneau sets the tone with a contrapuntal montage that plays over Georges Delerue's ominous theme, intercutting the making of breakfast with the making of bullets. Montand's proficiency on the firing range is pointedly contrasted with his deteriorating personal life. After all those disasters, Corneau closes the film with a climactic action scene in which Montand gets to play hero in reckless fashion, rescuing some cop buddies pinned down in an airport standoff by ramming his car into the bad guys. He takes a bullet in the process but seems likely to survive, while one of the buddies tending to him discovers a clue that could implicate him all over again. The final implication, however, is that the grateful buddy is going to cover up for him. He's too good a cop to waste, but one can't help wondering what damage he may cause civilians once he's back on his feet.