Lucien Cordier (Philippe Noiret) is the Chief of Police in an East African French colony, not that anyone ever takes him seriously, and not that he ever makes any arrests. He lives with his wife Huguette (Stéphane Audran) and their lodger Nono (Eddy Mitchell), who might be her brother but is actually her lover, in their apartment which overlooks the local convenience which has no roof, leaving the smell to linger in the air of his home. He has requested that it be moved, but this is indicative of how much weight his opinion carries because nobody listens to him. He is the town's doormat, a standing joke: or he is until he picks up a gun...
Jim Thompson's novel Pop. 1280 was adapted by Bertrand Tavernier and his prolific co-writer Jean Aurenche who changed its setting to an area where they apparently believed that their lead character could get away with his lawbreaking. Often described as a comedy, it's not exactly hilarious, more eccentric and to an extent, playful as it follows what looks to be a harmless bumbler as he decided enough is enough and starts to fight back by killing off those around town who have slighted him and are troublemakers in general, always getting away with it because nobody apart from the victims is really bothered.
I hesitate to call Coup de Torchon (translated literally as Clean Slate or Clean Up) "quirky", but it does have a off balance charm about it, mainly due to the superb performing of Noiret who was obviously in his element. His partner in crime, for a while at any rate, is an abused young wife he has taken a shine to called Rose Mercaillou (Isabelle Huppert at her most flighty), and her husband is one of many on his list of potential targets for what he has done to her. Also on the hitlist are a pair of pimps who humiliate him and some fellow officers who at one point kick him up the arse - twice - to illustrate some nebulous point.
While Lucien doesn't precisely go on an indiscriminate killing spree, there is something more than a little crazed about him. Outwardly he seems to be the same old policeman the locals either ignore or push around, but after we see him blow away a couple of those who irritated him, he takes on a new light in our eyes - and there appears a new light behind his eyes too, a newfound slyness and confidence. He even sees to it that the toilets are taken down by an act of sabotage that has the official who would not listen to him take a tumble into the pit of shit.
Still, the cruelty lurking in all this takes the edge off any easy laughs that might have been elicited in other hands, as does the racist nature of the white characters. It's as if living in Africa has altered their mindset to make them believe they can get away with whatever they like living among foreigners who they constantly look down on, whether its prostituting them, cuckolding husbands, or as Lucien does, resorting to murder. By having what Tavernier initially presents as a kind of mischief maker as the anti-hero, you could be forgiven for thinking the film condones Lucien's actions, but as the tale draws on the mood grows more sinister as he realises what he has started may not finish well. In truth, these later scenes are too heavy compared with the first half, but overall Coup de Torchon keeps a firm grip on the attention. Music by Philippe Sarde.