Six months away from retirement while in pursuit of a brutal gang of jewel thieves Police Commissioner Joss (Jean Gabin) is dismayed to find a close friend and colleague dead in an obviously faked suicide. Deducing the two cases are connected with criminal mastermind Quinquin (André Pousse) ruthlessly eliminating his own gang, Commissioner Joss convinces Nathalie Vilar (Dany Carrel), his late friend's mistress and sister of one of the slain jewel thieves, to help lure the killer into a trap, blurring the lines between justice and revenge.
In 1968 superstar Steve McQueen and director Peter Yates birthed the modern American cop thriller with their iconic Bullitt. Around the same time Le Pacha had much the same impact in France, eschewing the romanticism of traditional crime pictures for an uncompromising, edgier approach. On initial release critics chastened the film for perceived vulgarities including its stark violence and irreverent, slang-laden street dialogue that became the stock-in-trade of co-screenwriter Michel Audiard. Even the (typically lewd) song lyrics by the great Serge Gainsbourg who makes a cameo actually recording the theme tune onscreen! Nevertheless Le Pacha was a huge hit for co-writer-director Georges Lautner, more or less setting the template for the policier genre throughout French cinema for the ensuing decade and a half.
Adapted from the novel ""Pouce!" by Jean Laborde, also source author for Lautner's later thriller Death of a Corrupt Man (1977), Le Pacha centres on a protagonist miles apart from McQueen's maverick hipster cop. Legendary French actor Jean Gabin amps up the world-weariness already established in his outings as Inspector Maigret, adding layers of existential ennui to Commissioner Joss' search for truth and justice in a disordered and often despairing world. Lautner uses Gabin's status as elder statesman of French cinema to serve as an onscreen counterpoint and comment upon societal changes and the escalation of violent crime. In a world bereft of honour and moral certainty Joss reaches the conclusion that justice is beyond his reach and settles for revenge instead. This leads to a finale both satisfying and morally ambiguous. Shot in autumnal, steely-blue hues, Le Pacha, along with the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, defined the look of modern policiers. Thanks to screenings in American art-houses and occasionally grindhouses these films went on to influence the look of a generation of Hollywood crime thrillers. Notably the films of Michael Mann.
Lautner's precision handling of the various suspense sequences masterfully mounts then sustains tension. Most often through the use of disorientating P.O.V. shots during Quinquin's murders. These leave the viewer feeling almost complicit in his crimes. Breaking away from the cold intensity of the majority of its visuals, the film also features a fun psychedelic nightclub scene comparable to a similar sequence in Don Siegel's Clint Eastwood cop vehicle Coogan's Bluff (1968) (sexy Dany Carrel's stylish mod outfits are another visual highpoint). Here surrounded by blaring sitars, topless body-painted go-go dancers and hippies grooving on the dance floor, Gabin's greying paternal authority seems even more out of place. Underlining the film's acknowledgement of old values eroding through the changing times.