Dir. by Jean Pierre Melville
Buddha drew a circle with red chalk and said, “When men are destined to meet, no matter what paths they must take, they will meet here, in the red circle.”
So runs the quote at the opening of Le Circle Rouge, Jean Pierre Melville’s next-to-last film. Melville wasn’t always Melville, he was originally Grumbach, and picked Melville as a nom de guerre while he was in the Resistance and later the Free French army. Melville, something of an odd case, a European Jew who survived the Nazis’ mechanized genocide and remained in Europe, became odder still, an Americanophile French filmmaker.
Le Cercle Rouge follows the fortunes of Corey (Alain Delon), a parolee who has been recruited to carry out a heist by a prison warder, Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte), an escapee from police custody, Inspector Mattei (André Bourvil), who Vogel escaped from, and Jansen (Yves Montand), an alcoholic ex-police sharpshooter. By torturous paths they come together, despite, or perhaps because of such distractions as gangland revenge and delirium tremens. There is indeed a heist to be pulled, in stylish silence. And there is a final reckoning.
Le Cercle Rouge is a stylish and even stylized film. Melville’s heroes are crooks who hew to a code of loyalty and, yes, honesty. In this world, Vogel, a “suspect” (of what we never learn, though he may be a terrorist of some kind) is far more unpredictable and violent than Corey, the professional thief. Even Mattei, though a dedicated cop, seems sleazy in comparison to Santi, the Corsican “nightclub owner” he wants to force into becoming an informer. Melville doesn’t give us back-stories to say why these men are the way they are, they just are themselves.
For fans used to John Woo or Quentin Tarantino’s style of hyper-kinetic violence, Le Cercle Rouge may seem slow. Melville was a master of creating style and tone. He builds tension with the chess moves of a police investigation and a meticulous robbery, rather than with shootouts (though a few apaches get sent to la colline des bottes). The DVD is re-mastered into beautiful pastel colors that still convey the gritty reality of criminals on the run.
While some might criticize Le Cercle Rouge for its slow pace and the minimalist interpretation of the characters, Melville had a distinctive vision. He created a world of honest thieves and hard-shell cops on an inevitable collision course. He lets us see just enough of what is under the cold exteriors of his outlaw heroes and durs flics to let us sympathize with their self-destruction. When Alain Delon swaggers across the screen in his trench coat and gets the pistol and the money just ahead of the gang boss, you’ll understand what makes this film a classic.