Film (and television) genres seem to have lives of their own, waxing and waning over the decades.
Period westerns, for example, crowded theaters and TVs in the late 1950s and 1960s, but apart from a few low-budget independent film productions, you don’t see them these days in either venue (modern westerns such as the “Longmire” TV series essentially just move familiar police investigative procedures out of doors and onto horseback).
An extremely hardy and long-lasting genre, though, is the police procedural that follows the practices of law enforcement officers at various levels as they track down the criminal of the week.
In fact, individual police procedurals have sparked enough interest that they have been able to move from one size screen to the other and find success in multiple media. Jules Dassin’s documentary-style approach to cops and criminals in New York City in his 1948 “The Naked City” inspired the TV series “Naked City” (1958-1963), with the classic tag line “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them” carrying over from film to TV program. “The Lineup,” which always climaxed with its title identification procedure, went in the opposite direction, beginning on CBS radio (1950-1953), moving to CBS TV (1954-1960) and finally reaching the big screen in 1958 with a tense story directed by Don Siegel, who later made some even better known classic police films (“Dirty Harry”) and westerns (“The Shootist”).
The most influential police procedural, Jack Webb’s “Dragnet,” not only moved readily from one medium to another (radio from 1949 to 1957, television from 1951 to 1959, a theatrical feature in 1954 — all simultaneously starring Webb, who also produced all those versions and sometimes wrote and directed episodes as well) but also kept getting resurrected. Webb brought the original series back in 1967 (which ran until 1970), along with a television movie, “Dragnet 1967”; and after his death, further TV remakes appeared: “The New Dragnet” (1989-1990) and “L.A. Dragnet” (2003).
Sixty and 70 years after those specific narratives premiered in one form or another, police procedurals still score high in TV ratings with “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” “Criminal Minds,” “NCIS” and their various spin-offs sitting near the top of the viewership charts each season for nearly two decades. These series consist of hourlong episodes (well, an average of 42 minutes plus commercials) featuring a crime/criminal-of-the-week format, with time also given to developing the relationships among the members of the investigative group. Sometimes a story will extend over a couple of episodes and may even cross over to a spin-off series, and often an overarching story will be gaining momentum in the background over several episodes or even a whole season (especially true of “NCIS”).
The police procedural or “policier” is also a popular form in France, and Netflix currently offers three, all worth viewing, which follow a different pattern: Each series consists of six episodes (averaging 48 to 55 minutes, in French with English subtitles or dubbed into English) dealing with a single case: “La Mante/The Mantis,” “La Forêt/The Forest” and “Glacé/The Frozen Dead.”
They also share some odd facets. All feature a serial killer surreptitiously involved in and manipulating the investigation, with the crimes having some relation to the chief investigator’s past (or the past of someone closely assisting the investigator), and all are full of twists and red herrings. The action takes place outside of more familiar French locations (most of the murders in “La Mante” occur in Paris, but the investigators regularly get pulled into the countryside to develop leads). The series creators all clearly admire Stanley Kubrick because those trips to the country include helicopter shots of a vehicle driving straight down a narrow road toward its destination, much like the early scene in “The Shining” of the Torrance family driving to the Overlook Hotel; “La Mante” even has a “Here’s Johnny!” scene, though without that specific dialogue. And in each, wild animals play a symbolic, even totemic role — most often, wolves (which were eradicated from France in the last century but are making a comeback now). A fourth series, “Les Témoins/Witnesses,” which has just left Netflix, follows the same pattern — including the wolves.
In “The Forest,” a teenage girl disappears in a forest in the Ardennes region (after seeing a wolf), and then two of her friends go missing as well. The police searching for the missing girls are aided by a young woman teacher at their school who was found as a child in the same forest (a wolf later leads her to a significant forest hideaway). The investigation further reveals that the girls have been involved sexually with adults (a sordid development, though the legal age of consent in France is 15).
“The Frozen Dead” begins with the killing of an industrialist’s valuable horse in the French Pyrenees. Commander Servaz from the Toulouse police division is brought in to advise on the investigation, even though he does not want to be in that region at all because years ago he had caught a serial killer there who turned out to be his best friend and the psychiatrist advising him on that investigation.
When DNA evidence at the scene traces back to that same killer who is confined in a psychiatric prison, the case immediately gets more complicated. When Servaz visits his former friend to gather information, the killer is sculpting a scene of wolves attacking a stag, which becomes a recurring visual motif in the series.
“La Mante” (which Netflix lists only under its French title) finds a copycat killer imitating the murders committed by “The Mantis,” Jeanne Deber (Carole Bouquet from the James Bond film, “For Your Eyes Only”), a woman who 25 years earlier had killed eight men in gruesome ways as punishment for abusing their families or other children.
She offers to help the police detective who had caught her and who is now investigating the new murders, but she has one condition: She will communicate only with her son, who is now a police undercover detective himself.
He does not want to have anything to do with her, however, but eventually agrees under pressure from his superiors and his wife. (Actually, she has another condition: She gets moved from her prison cell to a special holding cell/mansion in the country for the duration of the investigation.)
Yes, it’s more than a bit like “The Silence of the Lambs” with the genders of the main characters reversed, but it gets more complicated than that. Real mantids show up occasionally, including in the very first shot of the series with a female consuming a male as police cars roll by. But then lions emerge as the significant animal symbol in the series (foreshadowed by Jeanne reading a book on lions in the first episode), and the story gets even darker than the dismemberment murders of Jeanne and her copycat — darker even than her mother having been killed by a lion in Africa, which is recounted in a later episode.
All three series are very “noir” — dark — but they are all well-made and engrossing. And with just six episodes each, they are easy to binge watch.