Le Cercle Rouge
Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

Starring Alain Delon, Yves Montand, André Bourvil, Gian Maria Volonté


Le Cercle Rouge

Jean-Pierre Melville (née Grumbach, but he took the name of his favorite novelist), born in 1917, was a kind of older brother to the French New Wave. His films in the 1950s anticipated some of what Truffaut, Godard and Rohmer appropriated for their own work: a distanced view of life and death, and an infatuation with cinema for itself rather then simply as a medium for the story. He made just thirteen features before his death in 1973, and "Le Cercle Rouge" ("The Red Circle") of 1970 was the next to last. By far his most popular in France, it was released in the United States only briefly, in a brutally cut and dubbed version, until now, for which we can thank the efforts of Melville's admirer John Woo.

The film starts with a pseudo-Buddhist aphorism to the effect that people who seem at first unrelated to each other will all ultimately be carried by fate into the final, red circle, presumably of death. "Le Cercle Rouge" is a noir film, yet it owes little or nothing to the American noirs of the 1940s and 50s; Melville's protagonists were not known for introspection, nor do we see their emotional conflicts played out on screen. In fact people hardly speak in this film, yet for two hours and twenty minutes we are riveted to our seats. A prisoner, Corey (Alain Delon), is released from prison in Marseilles, and told by his cell guard of an opportunity for a major jewel heist at a posh store in Paris. Is this odd? It's no problem; there's a logic to everything in Melville's world. At the same time another prisoner, Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté), is being transported to Paris by train in the custody of a detective inspector, Mattei (André Bourvil). Vogel escapes, and comes across Corey; the two now head to Paris together (along the way they pass a roadside monument that says, "In this town Niepce invented photography in 1822." We are, after all, at a movie.).

The jewel heist team now picks up another partner, Jansen (Yves Montand), ex-cop, skillful sharpshooter, full-time alcoholic. They make a deal with a fence who will buy the loot from them, and the film's centerpiece - the heist itself - begins. The critic Roger Ebert rightly says that Melville's films show that action is the enemy of suspense, that action releases tension instead of heightening it; the action here is so slow and deliberate, as the men work with great professionalism, in total silence, that you will want to scream to break the tension. (Early in the film, at dawn, Corey visits a man we do not know. It turns out he is the gang boss for whom Corey went to prison. The man greets him effusively, and behind him we see a naked young woman. Corey says nothing, but shows a gun and has the man open a wall safe. Corey takes out the money, throws a snapshot of the woman at him, turns and leaves without a word. It speaks volumes.)

But the film is as much about Mattei, the police inspector, as about the thieves. He has lost his prisoner and must get him back, and he is not without resources, psychological as well as physical, of his own. So we follow his path as well - to a crooked night-club owner, whose floor shows we see on two occasions in the film, shows so bizarre they look like hookers on parade - on whom he uses the leverage of the man's teenage son. Ultimately, as the aphorism tells us, all paths converge in a way and at a place that is the only logical end for everyone.

The film's cinematographer is Henri Decae, who was a favorite of Truffaut and Louis Malle, and later of a number of American directors. His shots and lighting are a whole course in film technique, and could be studied profitably by anyone interested in how to make a movie. But the great discovery for us in this country is Melville himself, almost forgotten for thirty years and now revealed as the master of his genre. It's a pleasure to make his acquaintance.