Le Cercle Rouge

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Le Cercle Rouge, Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1970 gangster-heist movie, starts with a quote from the Buddha about all men eventually finding themselves inside the red circle. Regardless of what they think they’re up to, or how self-determined their actions are, human beings cannot outwit fate.

The quote is entirely bogus, having been written by Melville himself, who picks up and drops the idea of fate/luck/chance throughout his movie, relying on it to operate when he needs a fanciful meeting of two key characters to occur, for example, but keeping it out of the picture for the film’s centrepiece, a long, silent heist sequence.

The film is a self-assured and elegant exercise in style and technique, a homage to 1940s film noir – guys in trenchcoats, wearing hats, smoking, not saying much, driving American cars and frequenting the sort of clubs where young women sell cigarettes table to table – in much the same way that Chinatown also apes 1940s noir (which Robert Towne was sitting down to write when this first opened).

The plot: career criminal Corey (Alain Delon) gets out of prison eager to pull off a robbery, and accidentally winds up with Vogel (Gian Maria Volontè), a convict on the run, in the boot of his car. Together they recruit Jansen, an alcoholic technical genius (Yves Montand), to help them pull of a massive jewel heist. Meanwhile, a doughty cop – also in trenchcoat and hat – is doggedly pursuing the lone fugitive Vogel, little realising the jackpot this is going to yield.

The four leads are well cast. Delon is the ideal Melville actor – impassive, handsome, thoughtful-looking. Volontè sits well in the rough-diamond fugitive role initially destined for Jean-Paul Belmondo, a Melville regular. Montand actually does have the look of a man who’s just recently dried out, and André Bourvil is excellent as the fastidious and philosophical cop who embraces whatever leads chance might throw his way.

Delon and Montand in a night club
Corey meets Jansen

En route Melville examines codes of honour among men, as he tended to do. These loners (and the cop is one too) represent a peak of masculine agency. They act alone, only occasionally throwing their lot in with fellow lone wolves for the purposes of the job at hand. A gruff mutual respect develops. Friendship would be stretching it.

The long, beautifully restored version I watched, from Criterion, reinstates much of the footage cut in so many earlier versions. It now runs around 140 minutes, about 40 minutes longer than it used to, and gives us a lot more texture. At one point Corey guns his black Plymouth off the road, past an advertisement for Esso heating oil, and walks into a roadside eatery, all melamine, faux stone and chintzy muzak. Melville has an eye.

In a way Melville kept making the same film again and again – the guys, the coats, the cars, the love affair with America – and if you’re after a great example of late era Melville (he’d only make one more film before dying aged 55), Le Cercle Rouge is the writer/director in full flow. Go for 1956’s Bob le Flambeur if you’re after earlier, monochrome Melville (coats, hats, cars all also in evidence).

The 27-minute-long silent heist sequence towards the end is a clear echo of Jules Dassin’s 1955 classic heist movie Rififi, though Melville claims to have had the idea for a wordless heist before the American Dassin arrived in France in 1953. Either way it’s a marvel of how these things should be done, Melville a master of film geography – spatially, we know where everyone and everything is at all times – and it’s as good as the many, many reworkings of the Mission Impossible franchise or Ocean’s 11 – meticulous planning, lots of tech, tick-tock precision, men moving as if on castors, and communicating only with a nod.

Bechdel Test fans, look away, this is a film about men, and women feature only as waitresses, girlfriends or whores. There’s not even a femme fatale in sight.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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