“The Buddha took a piece of red chalk and drew a circle, saying: ‘When men, though unaware of it, must meet again someday, they may follow diverging paths to the given day when, ineluctably, they will be reunited within the red circle.'” — Rama Krishna
“All men are guilty.” — L’inspecteur général de la police
While watching Studio Canal’s newly released Blu-ray of Le Cercle Rouge, it struck me that Jean-Pierre Melville is to the French crime film what Sergio Leone is to the Spaghetti western: Melville, like Leone, made outrageously entertaining films that reflected a punch-drunk love for American genre fare, the conventions of which he inflated to a near-operatic scale after refracting them through his own unique cultural sensibility. And there is evidence that Melville wanted Le Cercle Rouge to be his magnum opus, as Once Upon a Time in the West was for Leone; it was his penultimate film and is permeated by a mood of fatalism even more pronounced than usual for this master of film noir. At times it feels like an epic, self-conscious attempt to outdo every heist picture ever made, including The Asphalt Jungle, Rififi and Melville’s own Le Doulos. As a series of bravura set pieces and a statement of existential despair, it just might succeed.
The quote that begins Le Cercle Rouge is a bit of nonsense attributed to Rama Krishna but apparently invented by Melville himself to justify the chief narrative contrivance of his plot: Vogel (Gian Maria Volante), a murderer who has just escaped police custody, seeks refuge in the car trunk of Corey (Alain Delon – to Melville what Clint Eastwood was to Leone), a man he has never met but who happens to be a master criminal just released from prison. The two form a fast friendship and immediately conspire to rob a jewelry store with the aid of one of Vogel’s acquaintances, an alcoholic ex-cop named Jansen (French icon Yves Montand).
Vogel and Corey aren’t the only two characters fated to meet within the “red circle.” Joining them is Mattei (Bourvil), a police detective hot on the trail of Vogel who appears to be the opposite number of our criminal protagonists while being simultaneously cut from the same cloth as them. Mattei describes himself as a “hunter” and Vogel as “intelligent prey”; in other words, while on opposite sides of the law, he considers Vogel a worthy adversary. (Mattei is also visually linked to Corey through his steely blue eyes, trench coat and fedora.) At first, Mattei balks at his superior’s claim that men are born innocent but, without exception, become guilty during the course of their lives. By the end of the film, however, he seems to recognize the tragic kinship he has with the men he is hunting. They are all “guilty”; it’s just a question of to what degree.
The highlight of Le Cercle Rouge is the film’s climactic heist sequence, which is sustained for an exhilarating twenty five minutes (about 20% of the film’s two hour and twenty minute running time) and contains no dialogue. We watch, hypnotized, as the trio of robbers break into the building, take a security guard hostage, disable a series of alarms and clear the joint out of $20 million dollars worth of merchandise. The surgical precision with which they pull off the operation is mirrored by the rigorousness of Melville’s elegant camera movements and deft cutting. This sequence, from the muted colors to the balletic choreography of the performers, is the epitome of cool. How cool is it? It’s so cool that you can’t help but feel cool just by watching it.
Because the film’s drama has its origins in Melville’s movie memories, it is arguable that the most prominent quality of Le Cercle Rouge is its cinephilia. In the age of Quentin Tarantino (who has repeatedly cited Melville as someone who proved you could make a movie if you simply loved movies enough), this may not sound like a big deal. But Melville was the prototypical cinephile-filmmaker, pre-dating the Nouvelle Vague by more than a decade and always examining genre conventions in a way that was both critical and playful. For instance, in Le Cercle Rouge you know who the characters are not because of what they say but because of their trench coats, fedoras and the fact that they smoke a lot. This iconic “costume,” based on the look of American movie gangsters, had been employed by Melville since the mid-1950s but by 1970, the sense of disconnect between the “real” France and Melville’s iconographic images was pronounced to the point of abstraction. The Paris of Le Cercle Rouge is a Paris that only existed in Melville’s imagination: a jazz-inflected, nocturnal world populated by professional, well-dressed and taciturn criminals, all of whom drive classic American cars. This is a Paris in which rock and roll and the Nouvelle Vague do not exist and the events of May 1968 never happened.
I hasten to add that Melville’s lack of engagement with contemporary society does not mean Le Cercle Rouge lacks a moral dimension. On the contrary, Melville’s morality is precisely the difference between him and most of his imitators and I would argue that the film’s theological inquiry into the nature of evil is its raison d’etre. Melville was deeply concerned with the concepts of right and wrong and there’s a sense in each of his films that he believed in the importance of conducting oneself the “right” way, especially in the face of certain death. Melville’s concept of the right way to live (and die) has to do with old fashioned values such as honor, loyalty to one’s friends and chivalry, all of which are exemplified by Delon’s Corey. Melville may even have had Corey in mind when he delivered one of my favorite of his many memorable quotes: “Classical cinema, basically, had to do with heroes, so-called modern cinema is to do with grubs. I have always refused to go along with this regression… I always arrange my characters – my ‘heroes’ – to conduct themselves within their environment, whatever it might be, the way I would conduct myself […] To be frank, I’m only able to become interested in characters who reflect some aspect of myself.” (Film Dope, 42, October 1989 p.16)
To paraphrase Marlene Dietrich in Touch of Evil, Melville must have been some kind of a man.
Studio Canal’s new high definition transfer of Le Cercle Rouge is unquestionably the best presentation the film has ever received on home video. It corrects every flaw in the standard definition Criterion release from several years ago. Most notably, it restores the film’s original deep-blue color scheme, which perversely skewed more towards green on the Criterion. It also sports a healthy amount of film grain; there were times when I felt like I was seeing a 35mm print being projected onto my television screen. Finally, it should be noted that this is a dark, dark movie. The interiors are illuminated by low-key lighting and the exteriors seem to always take place at night or during the day when everything is bathed in the indirect light of a dusky sunset. Because darkness has always been the enemy of compression, this Blu-ray represents a more substantial leap in quality than the typical HD upgrade.
Although Studio Canal has tended to be hit or miss in terms of Blu-ray image and sound quality thus far, Le Cercle Rouge is one of their most impressive releases, alongside of Belle de Jour. It is a very welcome addition to my library.