This film contains such an overwhelming sense of foreboding that even from the early frames one can sense the doom washing over everything. One feels that the churnings and machinations of the people in the film are sort of like a mouse on a wheel, that they will work their tails off and yet end up right where they started….or perhaps worse: that they will succumb and be imbibed through the mouth of fate, which will yield all of their efforts null and void. The fact that Jean-Pierre Melville is able to take such a tone and infuse it with poignancy, suspense, and a respect for the art of devotion is remarkable. He is one of my favorite directors.
Le Cercle Rouge is Melville’s penultimate capstone to a career which has come to define neo-noir for me. His existential takes on the heist and the hit-man are absolutely essential cinema and have come to influence anyone from Michael Mann to Nicholas Winding Refn. His style of reducing cinema to observation (a la Bresson) is put to wonderful use as the observance of craft becomes elevated to a zen-like experience. Le Cercle Rouge stars Alain Delon (who makes smoking a cigarette a must-see event) as Corey, a just-released ex-con who has been tipped off by a jail-guard to a huge heist opportunity. Corey’s path crosses the story of another, named Vogel (Gian-Maria Volonte), who is a just-escaped fugitive who is being tracked across the countryside. Vogel climbs into Corey’s trunk of his car, almost like Vogel is incubating in Corey’s “womb” and the two form a bond. It appears that each of them sense a portent connection. Is it fate that draws them together? The film seems to enact not a sense of coincidence that they are together, but a sense of determined purpose, like this is MEANT to happen. They hold up in Paris, as Corey begins to flesh-out the details of the heist. They turn to Vogel's old friend, an alcoholic ex-cop named Jansen (Yves Montand) (who also happens to be a crack-shot and ballistics expert), to assist them in their quest to rob a high-end jewel gallery. We also follow the exploits of the police investigator Mattei, a man far too uncool for the likes of Delon, but whose chief inspiration is to not only find the fugitive, sniff out the heist, but also to wreak havoc on us, the audience with his ability to foil and outwit the crooks who we are rooting for! The rat bastard!
I won’t pretend to beat around the bush. This film is cool. It’s not over-the-top cool, like his Le Samourai, but it’s utterly stylish, devoid of trumped-up drama, is silent most of the time, and lets the images speak for themselves. Above all, it’s a man’s world, where to find sense in this world, one must have a purpose and craft that one excels at. Our three crooks are either at the end of their rope, or have very little going for themselves. They have a predilection for finding trouble. It’s almost like they don’t really need this heist for the money, though. They need it for validation of their own selves…their own self-respect. Some men are accountants, some salesmen. These guys are crooks. They pour as much thought and devotion into their heist as anyone would to something incredibly important to them. Melville similarly devotes a religiously observed portion of the film to the heist itself, which goes on for nearly a half hour of running time, most of which is incredibly silent (taking a page from Dassin). In fact the entire heist itself achieves the on-screen artistry of something like a beautiful song-and-dance routine, or a terrifically choreographed fight. We have the balletic movements, the attention to detail, the cause and effect relationships. There’s also an implied deduction that the audience must make at times, because slightly out of the usual order, Melville does not directly implicate us in all the details of the heist itself. Many heist films (a la schlock like Ocean’s Eleven) make it almost too fine a point to include the audience in EXACTLY everything that will happen and when it will happen. Melville understands we don’t have to know as much as the characters do to enjoy the heist scene. We watch and observe, without the burden of pre-anticipation.
If the film is also gorgeously cruel, it’s that ending where our crooks must look fate straight in the eye. Why must Melville remind us that our sins will find us out? Why must Melville remind us that those who risk much to gain, must also risk much to lose? Why Why Why? Melville is too smart to allow these guys to get away with it. Why pander to an audience that is craving for our protagonists, these crooks, to achieve some sort of immortality through their heist? Because life doesn’t work that way. As Elliot says in E.T., “This is reality, Greg”. The difference between great directors, and directors in title only, is that the great ones refuse to budge, refuse to pander, refuse to acknowledge that they MUST do something a certain way. Melville consistently throughout his career was almost fashionably in love with the concept of doom and foreboding. Like I said, from the early frames of this film, one feels the pull of death. It was there from the start. To betray this would be to betray the intent. Melville was like a rock. He was not going to budge.