aware that the only way they’ll ever see themselves break free from the chains of their misery is perhaps through a police-assisted takedown through which they might not live.
Such is the difference between the characters residing within the films of Jean-Pierre Melville versus the ones found in the features of American noir heavyweights like Anthony Mann or Fritz Lang. Melville often fashioned his movies after the distinctly American genre, his films reminiscent of ensemble pieces like The Asphalt Jungle (1950) or The Killing (1956).
But whereas the antiheroes of U.S noirs frequently carried depth comparable to that of a page-bound gumshoe, lived-in and yet still too stylized and self-regarding to feel tangible, the protagonists of Melville’s works are achingly real. They have the cool and the confidence of their American counterparts, but not a moment goes by in which we aren’t very much aware that they’re playing their suave parts in an attempt to gloss over their fears and their desires.
Melville (1917-1973) was a Frenchman who saw his growing up coincide with raging cinephilia that would eventually manifest itself into a filmmaking career. Not many of his movies — with the exception of Army of Shadows (1969), the universally acclaimed war epic that painted a bleak view of the French resistance — have seen crossover success. We can reason that this makes sense: Melville’s career concurred with (and pointedly avoided the trappings of) the French New Wave, and he died before he could build enough of a legend to have his name uttered with prompt appreciation every time it was mentioned.
His movies are also ominously quiet, favoring facial expression and bodily movement over dialogue, the watching of a routine to quickly elucidated characterizations. Audiences aren’t always so willing to accept such contemplative filmmaking. But Melville, so detailed, should be considered to be one of the great auteurs. So few directors are as aptly able to take elements of another era's (and country’s) genre and so thoroughly transform it, all the while keeping a personal style prominent.
His penultimate feature, Le Cercle Rouge, is his magnum opus. A slow-burning crime chronicle, it captures everything to have made Melville’s style so distinctive: his washed-out, icy use of color; his minimalist dialogue; his magnificently careful pacing; his way of reproducing the allure of crime but underlining it with a shade of immorality. And, of course, his knack for choreographing wondrously suspenseful heist sequences. (Here, we have a completely silent 30 minutes devoted to its central criminals’ emptying of an upscale jewelry store.)
It also stars some of the biggest names in European cinema at the time: the self-possessed Alain Delon, the snake-eyed Gian Maria Volontè, and the region’s premier star, Yves Montand. But all are rid of the personae that had made them so widely revered. Delon dons a greasy mustache that keeps us from getting lost in his classic beauty; Volontè is desperate rather than dependably wicked; Montand is damaged instead of the epitome of gallic sophistication.
In Le Cercle Rouge, all play criminals who will, by the film’s end, have knocked on death’s door. Melville foreshadows this inescapability with a written epigraph supposedly made famous by the Buddha himself. (In actuality, Melville came up with the quote.) Reads the iteration: “Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha drew a circle with a piece of red chalk and said: ‘When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day, whatever may befall each, whatever the diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle.’”
The “they” is comprised of four men, three of whom (Delon, Volontè, and Montand) are thieves. The fourth is a law enforcement official (André Bourvil) hot on their trail. But none play up to their stereotypes. Delon is a criminal recently released from prison on good behavior who initially plans to start life anew, only to be coaxed into a heist job when he hears of the opportunity. Volontè is a fugitive who happens by Delon by chance when he thoughtlessly hides in the trunk of his car. Montand is a former cop who’s lost his mind; always in a cold sweat, he usually sits at home alone with his thoughts amid Munchesque wallpaper and dozens of unpacked boxes. Bourvil is a detective without much of a life outside his job, his only personal responsibility feeding a handful of stray kitties every night.
Much of the storyline swirls around the pre and post stages of a heist, with the robbery being, predictably, the juiciest. But Melville almost treats that focal action as secondary. True, everything these characters do is more or less bent around getting their hands on millions of dollars worth of jewels. Or, if we’re talking about the detectives on the other side, on getting their hands on the villains trying to cheat their way into wealth. But Melville is in on the secret that it’s these individuals themselves who are so engaging; the action encouraging them to move forward is there just to keep them busy. (Though the climactic heist is pretty spectacular, on par with Jules Dassin’s archetypal sequence in 1955’s Rififi.)
The movie is a daunting 140 minutes only because Melville is so committed to studying how these characters move. On how they react, how they perceive themselves. That takes Le Cercle Rouge to heights that had not been reached in 1970 — and perhaps still have not been conquered in 2017. It avoids the usual crime thematics, especially the “crime doesn’t pay” sentiment, and concludes not so much as a genre masterpiece but more a character study with sizable aspiration and genre conformity to avoid.
Melville achieves a sort of astonishing perfection with Le Cercle Rouge, and it’s a perfection he likely could have achieved again had he lived longer than his brief 55 years. The movie’s follow-up, Un Flic (1972), also headlined by Delon, would extend Melville’s talent for staging heist sequences and generally stitching together a chilly, atmospheric world wherein nothing is more important than criminals, the women in their lives, and the men trying to catch those criminals and their women. It is a film that hints at more to come. Heaven knows Melville’s career should not have ended just a year later. A
Gian Maria Volontè
2 Hrs., 20 Mins.
Le Cercle Rouge
he criminals populating crime saga Le Cercle Rouge (1970) are miserable. With cold eyes and steely dispositions, dark hair a shock atop their ghostly faces, they never appear to relish making bad. They're destroyed by it. We imagine them years ago, young, porcelain-skinned, and stupid, incidentally getting into the crime racket thinking it would be a temporary thing. Now we find them years older and without a hint of light in their eyes; hopes to turn their lives around vanished long ago. They resent the rotten men they’ve become, but they're also