Jean-Pierre Melville Season – Le Cercle Rouge (1970)
A new year begins, new resolutions are quietly internalised, so let’s christen a new beginning with an end – the final film of Jean Pierre-Melville. I had planned to get another article in my current season under my belt before Christmas but that was simply not to be, despite my intentional leap from Melville’s earlier material to the penultimate film to see what perspectives might materialise. Opening with a title card quote solemnly stating that ‘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’ deception and suspect motives are the order of the day, as much like the Coen’s vertite claims for Fargo the quote was entirely fabricated by Melville. Le Cercle Rouge opens with a handcuffed duo rushing to grab the last train out of Paris on a quiet, chilly Sunday evening. One of the men is dangerous career criminal Vogel (Gian Maria Volontè), the other his authoriatrian chaperone Commissaire Mattei (André Bourvil) whose unfortunate mistakes enable Vogel to slip his shackles and flee to the suburban urban wilderness, initiating a major high-profile manhunt. Initially unconnected we are also introduced to the jailbird Corey (a moustachioed Alain Delon), the stoic, unemotionally deadly Melville archetype, patiently biding his time until his parole is corruptly provided and he can take his vengeance on those how betrayed him to the cochon’s. Rather than shooting on location Melville had established his own production studio by this point so apart from some of the early rural exteriors Le Cercle Rouge is internalised, it’s centrepiece a long and expertly choreographed heist scene which is an ideal companion to either Rififi or The Killing’s celebrated scores. At this late stage of Melville’s career almost every dramatic function seems to have whittled away to extinction – performance, soundtrack, dramatic framing and pacing – his vision instead plyed as a cold and formalist examination of the criminal class and their predators, the authorities who stalk them in a never ending cycle of futility.
Like Hitchcock and his symbolic stirrings in 1972’s Frenzy Melville also embraces a more permissive approach toward violence and nudity, especially when compared to the more chaste, classification board restrictions that shackled both their work in the 1950’s and 1960’s. It’s a man’s world in this milieu which has almost no female speaking parts, merely one naked gangsters moll figure whom it is suggested has switched allegiances from one antihero to the next, a vivacious limpet who has moved on from Corey to his mob boss once he was banged up in the big house. Alongside Le Samurai this film is considered the apex of Melville’s mournful masculinity, of men defining themselves through their underworld activities and archaic moral codes, exchanging their trophy women as casually as they trade their getaway cars or fedoras. The cool aesthetics are as edifying and implacable as always, there isn’t a dialogue exchange for the first seven minutes of the film, just a tense story told through images and glances that leave the viewer to insinuate the backstory of these mannequins as they are carefully animated through their mysterious missions. Once Corey is released by some crooked gendarmes he methodically revisits some old decrepit haunts, a sparse pool hall here, a faintly squalid drinking den there, liaising with some old companions and accomplices who wither under his intense stare. Silently he weathers their empty platitudes and apologies for how they had to turn away from him when he was pinched to keep themselves safe, before events turn ugly and he takes purloins some resources from his old crime-boss and flees the city. Before long the two narratives are intertwined in heartbeat alignment, Vogel evading the authorities barking attempts to apprehended him, until his path crosses with Corey who acquires a similarly desperate itinerant stowaway…..
On a first watch I assumed this was one of Melville’s less regarded works, one of his second tier efforts when perhaps his mojo wasn’t firing on all cylinders, but the jury still seems to be out as some reviews have likened it to the glorious achievements of Le Samurai or Army of Shadows – my mistake. Whereas the former seemed as taut as tightly controlled as a sniper’s crosshairs Le Cercle Rogue felt a little indulgent and exhausted to me, but if you enjoy walking the mean streets of the gallic underworld then there is much to enjoy from Corey’s implacable team-up with Vogel, and the whole ‘putting the crew together for one big score’ narrative that the film shifts into gets a fantastic pay-off with the expertly executed, centrepiece heist. It’s another procedural built around long, wordless sequences which embroider a tapestry of implacable drives and unswerving intensity, with only the musical score percussion heavy algorithms to signal the dramatic heartbeats that the crooks and cops are wading within. Another obvious influence is Mann’s Heat as the film oscillates emphasis across both sides of the law, showing how their shared moral strictures and devotion to their professionalism are essentially the inverse sides of the same coin. As the lead detective on the case of the missing prisoner Commissaire Mattei’s sparse bachelor home life visually expresses his exacting dedication to the job, as his superiors dolefully inform him that ‘all men are guilty’ of something, a sour ideology which harkens back to Melville’s wartime occupation experiences. The film trades in the ‘show, don’t tell’ mandate of the best cinema, the criminals never discuss their tactics and there is no audience pandering reconnaissance to impart information on the location and structure of the obstacle, instead we are presented with a cold reportage of a quasi-military operation which is fascinating in its illicitly illustrated efficiency.
For all austere ambitions Melville took his time with this picture, as at a laborious two-hours fifteen minutes Le Cercle Rouge doesn’t feel brisk, some of the repeated loops of characters planning their next criminal escapade has dated fairly badly, and the picture meanders quite ponderously until the crew comes together to take down the jewelry boutique, which is when the methodology and machinations of the trade start to gain traction and get cinematically interesting. The robbery encompasses the last forty-five minutes of the film, with a forensic working through of the various booby traps and obstacles, as each of the crew members fulfil their specific specialisations involving suction cups, glass cutters, silencers and gags – or a regular Friday night at chez Minty if we’re in a party mood. The fictionalisation of the musical score drops away as the narrative shifts to a dedicated realism in time, space and sound, climaxing on a dramatic ‘magic shot’ to hit the alarm button and deftly spring the safe. Once completed there is just enough time for genre mandated comeuppance in the dramatic coda, with a final showdown between Corey and his nemesis in the grounds on a frigid chateau, all concluded with Melville’s trademark, unmoralising nihilism. If you’re a fan of Melville then this is essential as his last great work, as even his fondest acolytes grudgingly admit that his final piece Un Flic which followed two years later is one of his weakest pictures. In any case this is a perfect alibi to escort us at gunpoint into a weekend dominated by a Q.Tarantino esq, as we indulge in one of the rarest cinephile treats imaginable – an Ultra Panavision 70mm anamorphic widescreen 2.76 presentation of his new film although this road-show has not escaped a ‘storm in a teacup’ controversy. I have to say that as a somewhat lukewarm Tarantino fan (really enjoyed Inglorious Bastards, was less fond of the nevertheless provocative Django) I am looking forward to this immensely, in part just for the whole ‘event’ aura it has engendered, unless the Odeon staff get ambushed by some murderous crossfire with the Picturehouse crew just round the corner on Piccadilly circus. To complement this activity I shall also be revisiting one of Quentin’s earlier crime films on Sunday which is screening at the BFI in original 35mm of course – any other approach would be simply…….criminal;