Gino Strabliggi, a convict put away for twelve years for an armed robbery in Paris, is granted early release, thanks to his social worker counsel Germain Cazeneuve, who vouches for his safe conduct upon return to normal society. The two develop a friendship, as Strabliggi attempts to make an honest living. He is on the right path, and turns down his old buddies who attempt to lure him back to a life of crime. Even the accidental death of his longtime girlfriend Sophie in a car crash cannot deter him, and he re-locates to Montpellier, where Cazeneuve himself moved, to find work in a printing press. He also finds a new girlfriend, Lucy, who loves him, and wants to get married. Things seem to be going well for him, until chief inspector Goitreau, who had initially put Strabliggi behind bars in Paris, is also posted to Montpellier. He is a vindictive man, convinced that Strabliggi’s life as an ordinary citizen in only a cover for his next criminal act. Believing that a criminal cannot change, Goitreau continues to hound Strabliggi. Eventually, Strabliggi kills Goitreau in a tussle when he confronts Goitreau in their apartment while Goitreau was trying to coerce Lucy. He is tried for murder.
Director Jose Giovanni shot the film in languid frames with occasional big close ups. Music by Philippe Sarde, reminiscent of a mellow Italian serenade, fits in well with the narration and pacing. Alain Delon and Jean Gabin turn in believable portrayals of Strabliggi and Cazeneuve, Delon in particular capturing the intensity and magnetism of the Strabliggi character with authenticity. The film is a commentary on the degrading prison environment of seventies France, and maintains a critical outlook of the justice system in general. Germain Cazeneuve’s monologue creates the backdrop of the story, which traces the failed attempt of an ex-convict to resume life as a normal citizen, and his own struggles as a social worker in the prison system that is brutal towards its inmates. As Strabliggi tries to stay afloat, Cazeneuve, nearing retirement himself and frustrated with the system, takes up a different job consulting ex-convicts in Montpellier. Cazeneuve’s views are a stinging critique of the justice system that does little to help, in fact ostracizes, ex-convicts. Despite things going his way for a while, Strabliggi, eventually succumbs, and not entirely due to his own doing. He was “simply unlucky” – as Cazeneuve says in Court, when called up for his statement. He reminds the court that –
“Justice must be fair, but not fierce, it must fully understand the person it is trying, the crime and its reasons.”
He argues, that it was fate that led Strabliggi to an officer of law determined to bring him down, and that the sentencing should be considerate of the fact. However, mitigating circumstances are ignored, and Strabliggi is sentenced to death. A plea for clemency to the President of France is also turned down, and Strabliggi faces the guillotine.
A startling revelation, for me, was the use of guillotine for execution in the modern era. Thankfully, that practice came to an end in 1981, when France abolished the death penalty.