It’s a lesson in cultures to see how differently every country views and celebrates the crime thriller. Italy has its giallo, lurid details and sinful sexiness wrapped up in a mechanical shell. The Japanese bathe their tales of cops and robbers in age-old customs and the life or death notion of honor and pride. For those in China—and Hong Kong more specifically—mob bosses and assassins have been turned inside out, fueled by a hyperactive action style and belief that both sides, the legal and illegal, fight the same internal struggles with self and society. Oddly enough, it’s the West that seems to have taken a more caricatured approach to cops and robbers. A typical US gangster film sets up its parameters of bad versus badge, loads up the Tommy guns, and lets the reign of lead ensue.
Or other times, a sultry dame and a private dick try to sort out a case of minor intrigue while falling in and out of love and the web of the real killer. While it didn’t invent it outright, America sure made the mob movie operatic, turning it into Shakespearean tragedy of universal pain and pathos, be it Rico Bandello, Cody Jarrett, or Don Corleone. But leave it to the French to find a way of reinvigorating the crime and caper film. As pioneers (along with the Italians) of neo-realism and the experimental new wave, the filmmakers of Paris understood the nuances of the stateside immigrant epic and went about conceiving it through their own skewed perception. No one did it better than Jean-Pierre Melville. Over the course of a dozen or so films, Melville used the trench coat and hat of the Tinseltown thug/mug and turned him into a man of mystery, an enigma with a gun. And Le Cercle Rouge is one of his best examples.
Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle) is heist film as existentialism. It’s a character study told with events, not words. It’s a stellar work of implied understatement and a remarkably profound look at the rather pedestrian, plebian world of crime and crime fighting. In this seminal 1970 French film, there is no clear division between the under and real world. All segments of society are seen as devious and divisive. The police are intertwined so completely with the local criminal element that they cannot solve cases without their help. Likewise, when seeking accomplices and co-conspirators for their acts of fraud and theft, the street thugs and mafia brute find friends in the dishonored and corrupt ex-members of the force.
As an experiment in fracturing the felon formula, Le Cercle Rouge relies heavily on the nuances and knowledge of past pronouncements on the subject of criminality. It also relies on the classics of noir and gangland sagas of the 1930s thru ‘50s to fill in blanks that it would rather leave un-addressed. It gets us to root for felons and failures and then makes us reflect on why we would champion such scum. Brilliantly directed by Melville, it’s a movie that moves at a deliberate pace, never wasting a shot or shifting its tone. While it does play like a symphony to sin, it’s also a sad story of men without place, people without a part in the normal social structure. We are visiting a forgotten realm in Le Cercle Rouge, a place were everyone knows everybody, even if they didn’t know it before.
This is a film told in sections, three stylistically differing acts (think GoodFellas or Blow before its time). Each movement here adds to the suspense and complexity of the film’s plot and narrative themes. At first, the scenes are all subtle precision, slow and near static, building one on top of the other to lay foundations and create dynamics. Methodically, director Jean-Pierre Melville adds textures and characterization, all the while pushing our protagonists ever further into the story. The second section begins as the plans for the heist commence. The use of wipes and dissolves speeds up the sequencing of events, showing us that, while the devil may be in the details, those specific elements are going to be assumed here. We aren’t supposed to see everything. We are to be given the essence of the job, the concept of crime as a workaday element in these men’s lives.
The final portion of the film, after the deed has been done and a fence is sought, is far more swift and scattered. The interlinking storylines and characters converge and crash into one another in a chaotic attempt at breaking out of the fateful bonds, the ever-present ring of red that constrains and condemns them. We jump from the police station to the gangster bar to a quiet and serene Yves Montand and then back to the cops. All the while, the tension is wound tighter. After the pins and needle necessities of the jewelry store heist, this randomized approach throws the audience off its guard, tossing us into the aftermath where anything can happen, anyone can drop dime and well constructed plans fall apart.
Le Cercle Rouge is all about planning and plotting, about time spent in jail cells or dingy hostiles bidding and trading on the minutes and hours. It is a film about disgraced men, about the lost lone male within society as the ultimate expression of freedom, depression and the anti-hero. We never see any women of substance in Le Cercle Rouge. When Alain Delon’s Corey confronts his old mob boss at home, we see a blousy red head, completely nude, wander up to a closed bedroom door to listen in on the exchange of words. She has some vague connection to Corey (he carries her picture in his wallet). But after robbing the Don, he places her photo in the now empty vault. He is giving her up—whoever she is—for the next phase of his life. Then there is the unsung bachelor amongst the underworld brutes: the dapper, determined police officer Mattei. A methodical man of habits (we see him coming home twice in the movie, and both times he goes through the same routine, even addressing his cats in a practiced fashion), he doesn’t have a wife (though we do see a photo of a woman on his desk) nor does he seem to need one.
Le Cercle Rouge is a movie ridding itself systematically of females once and for all. Certainly they make up a background element to the film: dancers in clubs, hookers, and hat check girls. But there is never a balancing feminine presence within the movie the way there is in standard Hollywood fare: no girlfriend with a heart of gold or accidental sex partner who grows into something more important. No, Le Cercle Rouge denies the obvious sexual representations in its title from the feminine perspective (lips, nipples, etcetera) and instead returns the focus to the guys: hard-hearted and psychologically lone rogues. It gives the story a decidedly tough exterior.
This doesn’t mean that the movie is not ripe with other, overt symbolism. Indeed, Le Cercle Rouge is constantly cluing in the audience as to the meaning behind the seemingly vague confrontations going on. When Corey discovers Vogel hiding out in the trunk of his car, the confrontation takes place in a horrible, muddy field. Corey is getting “dirty” again and Vogel is back to the “filth” he is known for (his exact crimes are never explained). The train taking Vogel to justice never enters its “tunnel” like most other extensions of “manhood.” It merely moves along the track, continually drifting further off into the distance. Montand’s alcoholic ex-policeman Jansen lives in a disheveled flat with a secret doorway in the wall that magically opens and disappears. It leads into a black void, much like his life. We have seen his detoxification hallucinations come pouring out of it, and we see him dread approaching it. Whatever he has done to have himself thrown off the force obviously hides in that closet/alcove, waiting and hungry, but we never discover the sinister source.
Indeed, we do not know what anyone is guilty of in Le Cercle Rouge. It’s as if the past crimes committed by these wayward men are no longer important. They are not beyond some manner of redemption, but they are beyond the grasp of innocence. They will never be pure again, no matter how straight they now walk or how hidden they become. They are forever tainted. As the Chief Inspector says to his lead detective on the case, everyone is guilty. We may be born without sin, but that quickly changes. And that is true about the trio of troublemakers in Le Cercle Rouge. They are men marked by their past and also by their destiny—their fate as part of the red circle.
All the acting here is first rate. Alain Delon confirms why he was such a stellar leading man of French cinema in the ‘60s and ‘70s with his portrayal of Corey. Silent but sinister, there is a strength born of resilience in this ex-con. Similarly, Gian Maria Volenté simmers with a sinister stare as the ticking time bomb Vogel. But just like the dualistic nature of all the characters in the film (working both sides of the law for their own ends, living one way but believing another), he is a valuable asset in the controlled environment of the heist. Yves Montand probably has the showiest role (he gets to give the DTs a good primal scream or two), but he is also the most memorable, a man of principles who is trying to escape the deadening paralysis of alcoholism. While he is a disgraced cop and a pathetic rum head, he is also a dignified dandy, a suave showman with a sauced secret.
Even Bourvil, noted French comedian and songwriter, gives a remarkable performance as Mattei. Asked to essay the role of investigator, instigator, and calm center to a whirlwind of crime and corruption, this small, specific man with the funny hair and wicked smile makes his officer an example of duty torn by practice to forever walk the fine line between the legal and the illicit. These are the men who will be forever defined by the events in Le Cercle Rouge, the members of the sphere of violence and blood.
At its core, Le Cercle Rouge is all about fortune, about how it cannot be forced nor can it be avoided. It’s the answer to the question of why some people are destined to fail while others seem to glide to ever-higher accolades. It’s about place in the pecking order and how choice de-evolves into chance. It’s a story of three men hoping to make one final multi-million dollar score to salvage their otherwise wasted existences. But they learn a lesson that so many of us never even begin to comprehend. They are not meant to be profitable or pious. They are men of a certain trait, of the caliber of crime. And by using the very instrument for freedom that trapped them into a world of vice and lack of virtue, they are completing that bloody cycle, that red circle, that keeps dragging them over and over back into and around each other.
Perhaps we are not all evil, like the police chief thinks. Or maybe we can repent and wash ourselves clean of past mistakes. But once we have taken the steps into the looking glass, once we’ve entered the crimson realm of crime and punishment, we are forever linked to it. Like the social stigma of conviction (Corey), the public outcry of escape (Vogel), or the human misery of deflated hero worship (Jansen), everyone in Le Cercle Rouge wears a scarlet letter on their very soul. That letter is a circle, an “O,” which stands for too many things—outsider, offender, outcast. Certainly this is an entertaining, exceptional crime thriller, but it is philosophically and psychologically so much more.