The police thriller is the only modern form of tragedy possible.
— Jean-Pierre Melville
French director Jean-Pierre Melville was a creature of habit and conviction. He could only write at night; he always drove an American car; he did not leave home without his Stetson hat and Rayban sunglasses; and he believed that it was possible to address substantive issues within the crime film. While a few of his thirteen films are adaptations of classic French novels, such as the deliriously overwrought version of Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles (1950), the majority of his other work lies in the genre the French call the I>policier, in which criminals and flics, or cops, vie for supremacy.
At the same time, Melville had little interest in the kind of pyrotechnics that Americans sometimes adopt when working in this mode today. Take, for example, a picture like Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), a notable example of the Frenchman’s influence on a domestic picture and a successful piece of work in its own right. The dour countenance that Robert DeNiro’s master thief adopts resembles the affectless stance of a number of Melville’s protagonists, and the memorable confrontation between his character and Al Pacino’s policeman has direct analogues in the foreigner’s filmography.
However, the ballistic blowups in Mann’s film come across like overkill compared to Melville’s occasional and always consequential exchanges of gunfire. Melville permits the firing of few bullets in his films, and each shot stands for a significant statement of character. Since Melville does not put his characters’ motivations into dialogue, we have to examine their behavior for keys to their personalities. As these are men or action, not meditation, shooting a gun at a deliberately chosen moment can amount to a statement of purpose in life.
In 1970, at the height of his fame and commercial success in France, Melville constructed a narrative that amounts to something close to a calculated sequence of such moments of character definition, Le Cercle Rouge. The film also contains all the essential elements (in Melville’s estimation) of the heist narrative. An aficionado of classic American cinema, Melville modeled the plot on two of his favorite pictures, John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Robert Wise’s Odds Against Tomorrow(1959). He was conscious as well of the most successful French example in the post-war period, Jules Dassin’s Rififfi (1955), which he was, in fact, originally meant to direct. In Le Cercle Rouge, the next to last film of his truncated career, Melville wanted not only to outdo all his predecessors but also create the most fully realized heist story, one that no other director could equal.
The Criterion Collection’s typically painstaking DVD features the complete 140-minute version. An additional disc of supplementary materials includes several television pieces from the period on the production, portions of a revelatory French TV documentary on the director, and interviews with the assistant director, Bernard Stora, and the critic Rui Nogueira, who published the first extended interview in English with Melville the year Le Cercle Rouge was released. This material reveals how masterfully he manipulates the parameters of genre in order to make statements of universal importance that flatter the viewer’s intelligence while satisfying his appetite for action.
The film traces two converging narratives. Inspector Mattei (André Bourvil) escorts Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté) to prison by train, but the criminal escapes. Another thief, Corey (Alain Delon), is released from incarceration, but not before being informed by a guard of the opportunity to participate in a jewelry robbery. On his way to Paris, Corey visits Rico (André Ekyan), a former associate who now lives with Corey’s former mistress. He convinces Rico to give him a gun and money, which leads Rico to send some cohorts after him, whom Corey kills. Escaping the scene, Corey stops to eat while Vogel, still on the lam from Mattei, hides in the trunk of Corey’s car.
Two more of Rico’s henchmen waylay Corey, but Vogel emerges from the trunk of the car and kills them. The men join forces to complete the robbery in Paris. They plan the crime along with the assistance of an alcoholic ex-policeman and sharpshooter, Jansen (Yves Montand). Simultaneously, Mattei combs Paris for Vogel. He attempts to draw out information from Santi (François Périer), a nightclub owner and member of the underworld, who refuses to comply until put under excessive pressure. The trio of thieves plunders a chic jewelry establishment on the Place Vendôme. As they try to fence their loot, the men draw closer together and meet, eventually, in the imaginatively conceived locale to which Melville assigns the film’s title.
Le Cercle Rouge was one of Melville’s most commercially successful features, which comes as little surprise considering the pedigree of its stars. Delon and Montand were French, if not international, icons. Bourvil was the premiere French comedian of the time, and Volonté starred in many politically salient Italian films. In some cases, Melville uses the actors’ images, such as Delon’s virile physicality, whereas in others, with Bourvil especially, he required that they step outside customary parameters. Each, however, takes on the contours of a Melvillian figure: taciturn, principled, reluctantly violent.
The director keeps both the visual dynamics and the performances clamped down. For example, the film’s palette remains distinctly muted, for, as Melville stated, he wanted to make a “black and white film in color.” The characters serve specific and narrow purposes: to rob a jewelry store or to capture an escaped criminal. The precision of the filmmaking mirrors, in effect, the deliberateness of the characters.
At the same time, the film is weighted with the inevitability conditioned by its title and opening epigraph, a construction of Melville’s own and not an actual quotation from Vedic scripture. “Sidhartha 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 their diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle.'” The proceedings are fated, the parsing out of an equation whose sum is known from the start.
One might think the film is overdetermined to the point of tedium, but such is not the case. Melville remained, in all his work and particularly his policiers, a classicist of calamity, a master of transforming the chaos of criminality into a form as refined as a sonnet or a minuet.