Crime · Criterion Collection · Drama · France

#218 Le Cercle Rouge (1970)

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#218 Le Cercle Rouge

1970 // France // Jean-Pierre Melville

Criterion Collection (LINK)

Le Cercle Rouge holds a very special place in my heart, it’s the first Melville film I have seen, owning to the reputation that John Woo is a big fan of Melville as well as this particular film; secondly, it’s also one of the first Criterion disc I have bought, alongside Paths of Glory (1957). I remembered the two-and-a-half-hour long running time totally took me off guard, its deliberately slow pace yet conventional plot, its minimalistic expression yet highly stylised mise-en-scène, its masculine depiction and fatalistic point of view, altogether awed me at that time being. After going through the complete filmography of Melville this time, I have to say I still very much admire the atmospheric buildup Melville did in creating the underworld that takes brotherhood and loyalty as the code of practice, as all Melville’s works did.

Here the brotherhood is born out of chance encounters, or should I say fateful encounter, as the opening “quote” by Rama Krishna stated all men from separate divergent paths will inevitably meet again in the same red circle, hence the title of the film. We know immediately the characters will meet again, for better or worse, at the end of the story. The “reunion” is kind of like the arrival of judgement day, the “bad” guys will pay for their crimes more likely due to a betrayal than a mistake in their professional skills. Although the climactic “silent” (dialogue free) 20-minute heist scene, the robbery of a second-floor jewelry store, is extremely tense and gripping, we still trust their craftsmanship. There’s a man’s pride when the alcoholic ex-cop Jansen (Yves Montand) shot the bulls-eye of a security mechanism with a rifle, not with a tripod that he brought along, but with a steady pair of hands. For Jansen, the heist is not for money but a cure of his previously damaged pride and inferiority.

Melville tells the plot but let us image the story, he let us to fill the void of the characters’ history, by that we participate in humanizing them, so that we can feel for them even they are as “cold” and alienated as a professional hit man in solitude is (very much like Le Samouraï). We firstly meet Corey (Alain Delon) getting released from prison and Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté) being escorted in handcuff by Captain Mattei (André Bourvil) on train. Throughout the entire film we have no idea why they Corey was in prison or what crimes Vogel did, nor do we know the reason Jansen left the police force (or was he fired?). There’re subtle hints here and there, Corey visits his former acquaintance Rico (André Ekyan) and we know he didn’t give Rico’s name at court, Mattei described Vogel as “not a terrorist”, and we heard Jansen had been working in a corrupted police force. We begin to draw a bigger picture of the network but there’s no definite answer since that’s unnecessary and joyless.

For all we should care, they are the representative of the macho world, the highest rank in their respective skills. When Corey realized an escaped convict (we know he’s Vogel) is hiding in his car trunk, he sort of help him escape, and a male bond formed when Corey shares a cigarette with him. There’re unspoken trust and loyalty, almost like an innate code they born to learn. Women, like in the majority of Melville’s works, are marginalized and inconsequential. Corey’s ex-girlfriend has a brief scene in Rico’s bedroom when Corey visits him. Other than that, women are mostly seen as a night-club dancer in Santi’s (François Périer) club, the place where the police and criminal appear simultaneously, sometimes not knowing each other. Here, Mattei threatens Santi to give out the whereabouts of Vogel, Corey meets the fence that could help him to sell the jewellery, or so he thinks. Women are the backdrop while the male execute their professionalism in Santi‘s nightclub, one could say it’s the entry point of the red circle, where the major characters appear before end up inside the red circle (that’s is a countryside house by the way). Henri Decaë‘s desaturated, cold-color toned cinematography has a grandiosity comparable to black-and-white, though less bleak than Army of Shadows, Le Cercle Rouge nonetheless has a sense of desolation, like Mattei’s pragmatic apartment with three kitties.

By the end it’s the family tie that breaks a man’s loyalty, and the “red” of the red circle is blood. Melville doesn’t linger on the dead bodies, but ends the film with Mattei exiting the circle and encounter his superior, asserting that everyone “is born innocent but it doesn’t last,” ain’t it the same with Melville’s fatalism?

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