Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville: Le Cercle Rouge (1970)

Le Cercle Rouge (1970)
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Melville.
Written by: Jean-Pierre Melville.
Starring: Alain Delon (Corey), André Bourvil (Le Commissaire Mattei), Gian-Maria Volontè (Vogel), Yves Montand (Jansen), Paul Crauchet (Le Receleur), Paul Amiot (L'inspecteur général de la police), Pierre Collet (Le Gardien de prison), André Ekyan (Rico), Jean-Pierre Posier (L'assistant de Mattei), François Périer (Santi), Yves Arcanel (Le juge d'instruction), René Berthier (Le directeur de la P.J.), Jean-Marc Boris (Le fils Santi).
In some ways, it feels like Le Cercle Rouge was the film that Jean-Pierre Melville was building towards for years before he made it. It is another film of cops and criminals, and the very thin line that separates them, and how they each have to live by a moral code of sorts. Yet in Le Cercle Rouge, Melville pushes this farther then he has before – this sameness between the cops and criminals and their morals is pushed further than before. In terms of filmmaking, its as stripped down as it can get – there is little dialogue in the film – little is needed – and it certainly isn’t quite as much fun as some earlier Melville films were. What it is though is a meticulously crafted crime thriller, about cops and criminals, each deciding where their moral line is – and how far they will go over it.
The film once again stars Alain Delon – this time as a thief named Corey. When the film opens, he’s in jail – but is offered a deal by a prison guard who has setup Corey’s release. All he has to do is pull off an elaborate jewel heist when he gets out – it will set both Corey and the guard up if he can pull it off. Corey isn’t overly interested – but really, what choice does he have? When he gets out his first move is to take revenge on Rico – the gangster whose betrayal landed him in jail in the first place, and to make matters worse, Rico has stolen Corey’s girl while he was away in prison. Corey should have left well enough alone.
The other major plot involves Vogel (Gian-Maria Volonte), who we first meet as he is in the custody of Commissionar Mattei (Andre Bourvil) – who is transporting him by train to jail – his crime only vaguely spoken about. Mattei falls asleep on the train – allowing Vogel to pick his handcuffs, and leap from the train in a daring escape. Vogel will, quite by happenstance, run into Corey – and soon will become a member of his team to pull off the robbery. Mattei, humiliated at letting Vogel get away, will come after them hard.
There are two other major characters. First there is Santi (Francois Perier) – a bartender who knows everything and everyone, and who Mattei will lean on – with increasing pressure – to give up the information he needs to know, even as Santi insists he is no rat. Then there is Jansen (Yves Montand) – a former cop, and expert marksman – now an alcoholic with the DT’s – who Corey and Vogel have to recruit to pull off the elaborate heist. Jansen isn’t in it for the money – he just wants some self-respect back – wants to prove he can do it.
For most of the runtime, Melville moves things at a meticulous, but never boring, pace. He starts the movie with a (made-up) quote from the Buddha about people who are destined to meet each other will eventually meet each other – perhaps only because it allows him to pull off his plot that is so heavy with coincidences. The other quote that stands out comes from Mattei’s boss – who observes “No man is innocent. They start out that way, but it doesn’t last”. That becomes true, in its way, during the course of Le Cercle Rouge – as we will witness a lot of these people, on both sides of the law, make bad decisions – perhaps no one worse than Mattei, who is so hell-bent on catching Vogel, on saving face from letting him get away, he will do anything to catch them.
The whole movie climaxes with a masterful, 25-minute wordless sequence where the three criminals pull off the elaborate jewel heist. If you’ve seen Jules Dassin’s excellent Rififi, it will likely remind you of that legendary sequence – although Melville’s sequence is perhaps even more elaborate (if not quite as intense – although it’s very close). Apparently Melville delayed making Le Cercle Rouge for years because he wanted to get away from the comparison to Rififi – but why not be compared to the best?
The movie ends as it must I suppose. This is a return to the types of films that Melville was making before his masterpiece Army of Shadows (1969) – about his time in the French Resistance of WWII. It is similar to Le Samourai, Le Deuxieme Souffle or Le Doulos. Perhaps it’s just because I’ve seen those films so recently – or that a part of me prefers black and white – but it feels like Le Cercle Rouge is perhaps a notch below those films. It takes Melville’s moral universe to the extreme – but in its way, his characters don’t strike me as quite as complex. Still, it’s telling that most directors could never even dream of pulling something off as meticulously crafted as Le Cercle Rouge – that if they did it would be the defining film of their career – while for Melville, it’s just another masterful crime thriller.

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