a commentary by Tony McRae

Jean-Pierre Melville's "Le Cercle rouge" begins with a Buddhist quotation:

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 their diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle."

Some of the best French films are screen adaptations of American crime fiction and noir movies, what the French call films policiers.  I'm thinking of Ren Clment's "Plein Soleil" (from Patricia Highsmith's "The Talented Mr. Ripley"), Truffault's "Shoot the Piano Player" based on the David Goodis novel "Down There"),  Dominique Molle's "With a Friend like Harry," a clever take-off of Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train," and any number of Jean-Pierre Melville's film noir thrillers.

The Criterion release of Melville's "Le Cercle rouge" affords us the chance to see the best French film noir since Jules Dassin's 1955 "Rififi chez les hommes," and to realize that though there are affinities with American film noir, the French films are a different breed, due not only to their settings and the era they were made (most ten or so years after the heyday of American noir) but also because of a certain reticence, a reluctance on the part of the protagonist to think about himself, to put himself before the job at hand.

What is most surprising for me is Melville's refusal to explain his characters or their motivations; rather he is content to let the crystal spareness and inexorability of the plot line, and the tenacious professionalism of the three gangsters and their pursuer, to get under our skin.  If we come away from "Le Cercle rouge" with morally ambiguous feelings, so much the better.

This is certainly the case with Corey, the protagonist of "Le Cercle rouge." 

Corey (Alain Delon), the thieves' leader, is a loner with his own moral code.  He's a thief, but not a killer.  We have no idea what motivates him, only that he is highly motivated.  We learn early on that he has been betrayed by his boss, a Marseille criminal, who lets Corey plead guilty to a crime, then steals his girlfriend while he is in prison.  We think Corey is now out for revenge, but every time we begin to read him we are fooled.  In the scene when he visits his old boss in his luxury apartment, Melville shows Delon coming out of the elevator, hands in pockets, looking for all the world like an assassin, a cool killer in a trench coat.  Wrong again.  This is the way he dresses.  He is a dignified man, conscious of the proprieties of society.  One thing we are certain of is his determination, which moves the film's action inexorably toward the robbery and its aftermath.  Corey's flaw, it seems, is the simple fact that he is a thief.  He appears indifferent to the things that money can buy, indifferent to those motives we associate with gangsters, at least movie gangsters:  revenge, jealousy, greed, lust.  

To illustrate the lust bit.  While Corey and his boss are talking in the apartment, Melville cuts to the bedroom and the boss's mistress, Corey's former girlfriend, eavesdropping on their conversation.  She is naked, having just gotten out of bed.   Having seen scores of noir movies in which women often feed off masculine insecurity, we might not be amiss in thinking that this gorgeous creature and Corey would soon cross paths.  The problem is Corey feels neither insecure or lustful.  Yes, there is a brief scene in a caf just before Corey enters his former boss's apartment building.  He is drinking coffee at the counter and a young woman passes behind him.  For a brief moment he looks at her, but we are not certain what is on his mind, only that he's eyeing a pretty woman.  The fact that it comes immediately prior to his seeing his boss--and we seeing his former girlfriend--can be no coincidence.  Melville sets his scenes meticulously.  As for the girlfriend, we never see her again.  For Cory she--along with the woman in the caf--has nothing to do with the jewelry caper.

In Melville's films society is seen as infected, venal.  The criminals are no worse than those they steal from.  They are, in fact, highly motivated.  They have their own reasons (we never know what they are) and their own code of ethics.  Only once, and for a brief moment, we are permitted a glimpse into one of the thieves.  

During the famous jewelry heist, the centerpiece of the movie, there is a brief cut to Jansen (Yves Montand), a former policeman and now a heavy drinker who is abstaining from liquor for the duration of the robbery.  As his two fellow robbers are stripping Broussard Jewelers in the Place Vendome clean, he pulls a silver flask for his vest pocket, unscrews the lid, smells its contents, screws back the cap and returns it to his pocket.  We've already learned that Jansen is a serious alcoholic--the first time we see him he is going through delirium tremens.  Ah ha, we now think, here's the beginning of the end for these guys:  at some point Montand will get stinking drunk and blow the entire operation.  But it doesn't happen.  We never see the flask again; Jansen stays iron-rod sober.  So why the cut to the flask if it doesn't play into the plot?  For Melville it's not a gimmick but rather a brief entre into Jansen's head.  Perhaps he is testing himself.  Or he thinks about taking a drink, maybe to ease his tension, but he does not.  He can hold off drinking as long as others depend on him.  It's a question of self-esteem, and to watch Montand's almost balletic moves throughout this  sequence is to see that he is self-assured, in control of himself.  Will he go back to drinking after the heist?  Probably, but that is of no concern here.   

This emphasis on the individual and his motivations lies at the heart of Melville's film; the fact that they are never stated does not diminish this.  Melville's camera remains outside, so that what we experience is a hard reality.

Unlike his superiors in the police force, Captain Mattei (Andr Bourvil) does not consider every prisoner guilty before proven so.  The chief of police despises Mattei for this weakness, tells him that all men are guilty and should be treated as such.  "They're born innocent but it doesn't last."  It seems to me that these opposing beliefs are close to being at the heart of Melville's film.  It is curious that the final words spoken in the movie belong to the police chief and not to the humanist Mattei.  After the final bloodletting, the chief arrives on the scene and then looks at Mattei and says, "Tous les hommes, Monsieur Mattei." ("All men, Mr. Mattei..")  But Melville isn't quite finished.  The last image is a slow tracking shot of Mattei returning to the scene of the shooting.  He says nothing to his aide.  We don't know what he's thinking, only that he is profoundly sorrowful--and troubled.  Does he agree with his superior that these men  were guilty of a crime?  No doubt.  Yet he is still unwilling to condemn them out of hand.  Melville seems to be asking, "Who should condemn them?"

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