Le Cercle Rouge (1970)

Le Cercle Rouge first published by Movie Gazette

The French auteur Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-73) specialised in ‘policiers’, or crime films, tapping into a dark vein of pessimism which has always lain buried deep within classic American film noir, and refining it into an existentialist vision of the world and man’s place in it. Perhaps best known for Bob le Flambeur (1956; recently remade as The Good Thief, 2002) and the sublime Le Samouraï (1967), Melville redefined cinematic cool with laconic, solitary characters and a spare narrative style, and his influence can be seen in many of today’s ‘cool-seeking’ filmmakers, from Jim Jarmusch to Quentin Tarantino, from John Woo to Takeshi Kitano. Le Cercle Rouge, Melville’s penultimate film and one of his finest, is made in such a disarmingly plain style, with subdued grey colours and an often near silent soundtrack, that one barely notices its supremely controlled artistry.

Corey (Alain Delon), just released from prison, is heading for Paris with insider information on a jewellery store in his head and angry gangsters on his tail; Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté) is a criminal suspect who has escaped his police escort and is on the run; Mattei (André Bourvil) is the police inspector determined to recapture Vogel at any cost; and Jansen (Yves Montand) is an ex-police sharpshooter looking for redemption from his self-imposed alcoholic hell. These four men sleepwalk their way through a series of familiar routines from film noir – the manhunt, gunfights, shakedowns of informers, meetings in nightclubs, the elaborate heist, the betrayal – but a quote attributed to Rana Krishna (but in fact invented by Melville) which opens the film introduces a fatalistic dimension and gives these characters’ lives and actions a tragic trajectory. For we know from the start that their different paths are ineluctably destined to converge.

Even if the characters of Le Cercle Rouge are doomed to eventual failure, and their efforts are ultimately futile, the methodical panache with which they execute their plans, documented in minute detail by the film, elevates them to the status of existential heroes. Melville’s nihilistic world blurs the lines between the law and criminality, and in this absence of any clear morality, all that remains to give definition to the characters is their driven professionalism – reflecting, of course, the qualities of the film itself, which is as meticulously and painstakingly staged as the daring jewellery store robbery at its core.

Le Cercle Rouge is a model of filmic economy, with long takes, sparse dialogue, and a notable lack of exposition. We get to know the characters not, as in Hollywood films, by learning their histories (which are left mysterious), but by seeing them in action. Delon, Volonté and Montand all deliver the sort of elegant restraint which is requisite in a Melville film, while Bourvil, previously typecast as a comic actor, achieves the perfect mix of animal cunning and worldweariness. He was suffering from terminal illness throughout the production and died before the cinematic release of Le Cercle Rouge, adding another shade of nuance to the film’s sense of tragic doom.

Summary: Top-notch film noir with a bleak existential edge, executed with as much clinical precision as the crime it portrays. 

© Anton Bitel