Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic 1970 film Le cercle rouge is, at it’s center, a heist film. That is to say, the main action of the film revolves around a near impossible jewelry store robbery. Whatever the surface plot is concerned with takes a backseat to themes of honor, loyalty and brotherhood, and the ideas of fate and destiny.
Just as dapper criminal Corey (Alain Delon) is about to be released from prison, a guard comes to him with a plan for a big score on the outside. Despite initial resistance, the reality of Corey’s situation, who wants to hire an ex-con after all, compels him to accept the deal. As Corey returns to his life on the outside, Vogel (Gian-Maria Volonté), another convict, executes a daring escape from a moving train as it rolls through the countryside. It’s unclear what each man is incarcerated for. In Corey’s case you assume it’s theft related, while it’s implied that Vogel’s crime may be related to terrorism of some sort.
Whatever you choose to call it, fortune, providence, luck, or something else, the universe brings Corey and Vogel together. On the run from hardnosed cop Mattei (André Bourvil), the two criminals set their plan in motion for the job of a lifetime. The unlikely pair hooks up with the alcoholic ex-cop Jansen (Yves Montand) to round out their crew.
Though primarily dealing with criminals, the underworld of Le cercle rouge is a world of rigid morality, much more so than the straight world. Santi (François Périer) is a connected man who runs a nightclub where much elicit business goes down and nefarious plans are hatched. Even within the outlaw framework, Santi steadfastly refuses to turn over on his compatriots, despite escalating threats from Mattei. This contrasts sharply with the coercive, backhanded tactics employed by the police, a force led by a commissioner who wholeheartedly believes that all men, no matter what their life and circumstances, are inherently guilty.
“Men” is the key word in this sentence. In the entirety of Le Cercle Rouge, not one line is spoken by a woman. Not one. At Santi’s club there is a chorus of dancers that perform, and a collection of waitresses who stand idly behind the men, waiting to serve them drink and deliver important messages. Beyond that, there is one female character, Corey’s former mistress (Anna Douking) who abandoned him for the criminal Rico (André Ekyan). She shows up mostly in still photographs, and when she does appear live on screen, she is topless, eavesdropping through a door as Cory and Rico argue.
Though about crime and criminals, Melville employs relatively little gunfire, eschewing violence for tension and atmosphere instead of relying on hyped up action sequences like most American gangster films. Each slug fired in Melville’s film carries heavy consequences. A gun does not go off without repercussions. Most end in death, though for Jansen, the firing of a bullet is a form of rebirth.
The former marksman is deep in a bout of delirium tremens when you first meet him. Crabs, rats, lizards, and creatures of all kind seem to swarm over him as he cowers, sweating in a corner of his lonely room. In mid-robbery, Jansen must fire a specially made bullet into a minuscule hole from across the room in order to deactivate the security system. With painstaking precision, his rifle on a tripod, he lines up the shot. At the last second, he snatches the weapon, raises it to his shoulder, and takes the instinctive shot instead. Through this one action, Jansen reasserts control over his life, freeing himself from his demons.
Melville wanted to make a heist film for nearly 20 years, but every time he was on his way, another film about a gang of felons knocking off a jewelry store would surface. He put off filming Le Cercle Rouge multiple times before finally getting around to it in 1970, and as it turned out, it would be his penultimate picture.
The visual scheme in the film is generally muted, a throwback to the classic black and white noir films that Melville loved so much. This strategy gives much more impact to the scenes where Melville prominently features bright swatches of color, notably when Vogel makes his escape through a forest of trees that wear shockingly bold coats of green moss, and the loud interior of the diner where Corey dines as Vogel stows away in his trunk. The new Blu-ray version of Le Cercle Rouge is a perfect vehicle for Melville’s stylistic approach.
True to form, the Criterion Blu-ray release of Le Cercle Rouge comes stacked with an impressive collection of extras to augment the film. The disc includes two lengthy interviews. The first is with Melville’s assistant director Bernard Stora, and the second is with writer Rui Nogueira, author of the book Melville on Melville. These discussions cover a lot of ground. Both men were closely acquainted with Melville, personally and professionally, and both talk at length about him as a man, a filmmaker in the larger sense, and about Le cercle rouge specifically. It is interesting to hear about Melville from the people who knew and worked with him.
There’s also a nice collection of interviews with Melville himself. There are excerpts from four French film shows here, one of which is a nearly half an hour long. Again, these segments touch on a wide range of topics, and listening to Melville talk about how he founded his own studio, where he actually lived, just after World War II, is a must for film fans. He expounds on his cinematic philosophy, about how the two most important elements of filmmaking are the editing and writing, in that order. While some of this material is wider in scope, some is more specific to the film at hand, and includes interviews with Delon, Montand, and Bourvil, though Melville is always at the center.
In addition to all of the bonus material on the disc, the Blu-ray comes with a 26-page booklet that features bits of interviews, photos, posters, and essays from noted film critics. There is a short piece by John Woo noting the influence that Melville, and particularly Le Cercle Rouge, had on his career, especially the earlier Hong Kong films like Hard Boiled and A Better Tomorrow.