“Le Cercle Rouge” - Jean-Pierre Melville (1970)

Film noir master Jean-Pierre Melville’s penultimate film, Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle, 1970), was perhaps his greatest and most satisfying work.  One of the reasons for this is that, even with the always grim film-noir outlook notwithstanding, the film cast a relatively more positive light on its principal characters.

Of course like all the hard-core films noir, as I have discussed in my reviews of Melville’s Le Doulos and other films [1], the viewer doesn’t really get to know much about the main characters in these stories. There are no backstories concerning these characters.  All we know about then is that they are lone outsiders whose desperate lives are dominated by
  • Fatalism – they have no long-term goals and only seek an escape from their current desperate circumstsance
  • Truth – the world is dark and deceptive, with many people ready. to doublecross you.
  • Loyalty – the greatest virtue is to remain loyal to the precious few one can trust.
In many of Melville’s films, some of these dark protagonists’ cynicism and  unprincipled behavior (outside of their “honor among thieves” loyalty) may lessen our ability to empathize with their characters. They are just too despicable.  However, in Le Cercle Rouge all of the four principle characters are of interest and merit our concern.

Each of the four main characters embodies a different persona:

  • Corey (played by Melville favorite Alain Delon) is cool and calm.  But he is not a coldly detached narcissist, as the Delon character is in some of Melville’s other films.  In this film Corey is tough-minded and willing to accept the situation he faces; but he is also many times trusting and loyal to the people he meets.  When people let him down, he moves on without being obsessed by revenge.  He embodies loyalty.
  • Vogel (Gian Maria Volontè) is an escapee from police custody.  He is more overtly passionate than Corey, but also coldly ruthless when the occasion demands it. He embodies the desperate fight against fatalistic inevitability.
  • Jansen (Yves Montand), the former policeman, is a loner and embodies the goal of principled self-reliance.
  • Mattei (André Bourvil), the police inspector, is a tough cop, but he believes in social harmony and the institutional instruments that promote such harmony.  He seems to believe in the inherent goodness of all people (and cats).  Incidentally Bourvil, who was a much-loved French comic actor, was to die of a fatal illness in the year Le Cercle Rouge was released (and Melville’s premature death occurred shortly thereafter), so an extra aura of fatalism was to hang over this film when it was viewed by the public.
The film focalizes on all four of these characters, and the audience can empathize with each of them.  Though Corey, Vogel, and Jansen are at odds with the law, we cannot help but see things from their existential point of view.  This being a Melville film noir, however, means that their ultimate outcomes are unlikely to be anything but disastrous.  Their dim fates are predetermined. To signify this fatal future, the film opens with an epigraph (composed by Melville, not by Buddha):
“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.’”
This highlights Melville’s inclination to portray expressionistic nightmares.  As he once said [2],
“A film is first and foremost a dream, and it’s absurd to copy life in an attempt to produce an exact recreation of it.”
This dreamworld is presented visually. There isn't much dialogue in the film, and one can basically understand the entire film through the visuals alone. This leads me to mention another feature of Le Cercle Rouge that makes it stand out in the Melville oeuvre: the outstanding cinematography of Henri Decae (The 400 Blows, 1959; Les Cousins, 1959; Sundays and Cybele, 1962). Decae’s work involved not only providing the film with an overall expressionistic tenor, but also the careful composition of many closeups and medium shots that are artfully edited together to create the existential tension that permeates the film.

The story of the film proceeds through four phases or acts.

1.  Corey and Vogel
The first third of the film’s running time is devoted to showing in parallel the separate activities of Corey and Vogel.  There is no real backstory on either of them, and the viewer must piece things together as revealed by slow disclosure.  The film jumps back and forth between the two threads, and they don’t connect until 43 minutes into the film [3].

Corey is about to be released from prison, presumably in Marseilles, after serving a five-year term. On the day before his release, he is informed by a corrupt prison guard about another criminal “job” that he could take up once he’s out.  Corey is less than enthusiastic about undertaking anything that could put him back in jail, but he can’t help listening to what’s on offer.

Meanwhile Vogel is some sort of criminal associated with political unrest who is being transported by train from Marseilles to Paris by Inspector Mattei.  Vogel manages to get out of his handcuffs and jump from the train, with Mattei and others in mad pursuit.  The filming of these scenes is very evocative of the seemingly hopeless circumstances of Vogel, as he runs helter-skelter through the bush.

Corey meanwhile pays a visit to a criminal associate named Rico who was connected with the crime that sent him to prison.  Thanks to Corey’s loyal silence, Rico escaped capture on that occasion and then stole Corey’s girlfriend in return.  Corey grimly accepts his girlfriend’s unfealty, but he needs cash, so he strong-arms Rico and grabs his gun and a handful of money and departs. 

After getting past a confrontation with two of Rico’s hit-men who have been sent out to recover Rico’s money, Corey uses the money to buy a car. (Melville always likes to evoke American gangland culture in his films, so his characters drive the decidedly un-French American models.  On this occasions Corey buys a Plymouth.)  He then heads off towards Paris and stops on the way at a roadside restaurant.

Vogel somehow manages to escape a massive police manhunt and, running past the restaurant where Corey has stopped, begins looking for a possible hiding place by checking to see if any trunks are unlocked among the parked cars.  As fate (or karma) would have it, Corey’s trunk is unlocked, and Vogel gets in and hides.  In fact there are many improbable and unlikely events that occur throughout this story.  I won't list them, and we will just have to assume that they have all been dictated to occur by fate.

Corey drives away knowing there is someone hiding in his trunk, and he stops in a lonely field to find out if his suspicions are correct: that his hidden passenger is the recently escaped prisoner that he has heard about on the road from Marseilles to Paris.  Vogel gets out of the trunk, and the thieves’ brotherhood takes over – Corey and Vogel quickly become friends. This is crucial, because they are soon again confronted by Rico’s hit-men, and Vogel saves Corey by killing the two men.

2.   Planning the Caper
Now with a partner, Corey can go ahead with preparing for the criminal job that he had heard about while in prison.  This section shows various details of that, including their apparent need to find an expert marksmen, as well as a fence to whom to pass some goods that they will steal.  The marksmen they select is an ex-policeman Vogel knows about, Jansen, who is trying to cure himself of his acute alcoholism.

During this act we learn that the job is to steal all the jewels from an upscale jewelry store at the Place Vendome in Paris.

Meanwhile Mattei, under pressure for having let Vogel escape from the train, is trying to talk to his various underworld informants concerning the whereabouts of Vogel.  His most important contact is a nightclub owner Santi, who is known to have underworld connections, and over whom Mattei can threaten in connection with some past nefarious, but unpunished, activities.

3.  The Heist
The jewelry heist itself is a masterly sequence of about 25 minutes, mostly without dialogue, and comparable to other famous heist sequences, such as those in Rififi (1955) and Topkapi (1964).  Here Corey, Vogel, and Jansen carry out what apparently has been a meticulously planned operation to break into the posh jewelry store and circumvent the elaborate electronic security system that is used to protect the jewelry.  This is where the expert rifle marksman is needed: to fire a bullet that will deactivate the system.
They pull it off, just barely, and make off with the jewels.  But now they have to find a fence, because the original one they had secured has backed out.

4.  The Outcome
Mattei, of course, has been working all along to thwart Vogel, and he learns through Santi that Vogel was involved in the jewel heist.  So with Santi’s help, Mattei sets himself up as the fence that Corey and Vogel can use to pass on their jewelry.  There is a final confrontation, and you can guess that it doesn’t work out very well for Corey, Vogel, and Jansen.  The national police commissioner had admonished Mattei that all men are corrupt sooner or later.  But it was the individual virtues of the robbery team – Corey's trust and both Vogel's and Jansen's self-sacrificing loyalty – that ultimately did them in.

There are haunting, lingering images in this story that seem to have a metaphoric character – for example, Vogel crashing through windows, Corey’s enigmatic gaze, Mattei’s reflective visage, and the red rose that is passed to Corey by a cocktail waitress and which Vogel clings to later.  They seem to have some kind of vague significance beyond our understanding.

Overall, the story is relatively straightforward, and it is less complicated and littered with double-crosses than some of Melville’s other films.  What makes it all work is the charisma of the main characters, including Bourvil, who evinces a relatively compassionate humanity that is often missing in other Melville films.

But there is something else about Le Cercle Rouge’s charm that must be mentioned.  It has a kind of existential epic quality that characterizes American Western film and that has often fascinated European filmmakers. This was something that Sergio Leone intuitively understood and captured in his "spaghetti Westerns", notably For a Few Dollars More (1965) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Leone’s most famous films came just before Le Cercle Rouge, and Melville was certainly aware of them [4].  Indeed actor Gian Maria Volontè had been a star of For a Few Dollar More. As Melville, himself remarked,
“The Cercle rouge script is an original in the sense that it was written by me and by me alone, but it won’t take you long to realize it’s a transposed western, with the action taking place in Paris instead of the West, in the present day rather than after the Civil War, and with cars instead of horses. So I start off with the traditional—almost obligatory—conventional situation: the man just released from jail. And this man corresponds pretty much to the cowboy who, once the opening credits are over, pushes open the doors of a saloon.” [5]
We’re not just talking about a “horse opera”.  Melville and Leone (and, to some extent, Hitchcock, too) each understood that one can convey the dream-like nature of conscious existence by exploiting the expressionistic possibilities of deep social metaphors, such as the Western and the noirish underworld. They were not academically-oriented intellectuals, but they had an intuitive understanding of how to visually evoke and explore some aspects of life’s mysteries.

  1. The Film Sufi, “Jean-Pierre Melville”, The Film Sufi.
  2. World Film Directors, Vol. II., John Wakeman (ed.), Wilson, co., NY 1988, quoted in “Conversations About Great Films: Le Cercle Rouge”, Diane Christian and Bruce Jackson (eds.), Buffalo Film Seminars, XVIII:8, The Center for Studies in American Culture, State University of New York, Buffalo, NY (3 March  2009).
  3. I am referring to the uncut two-hour-and-twenty-minute version of the film.  Shorter versions of the film were released initially.
  4. Chris Fujiwara, “Le cercle rouge: What Is the Red Circle?”, The Criterion Collection, (12 April 2011).
  5. Jean-Pierre Melville, “Melville on “Le cercle rouge”, The Criterion Collection, (excerpted from Rui Nogueira, Melville on Melville, 1971) (12 April 2011).


Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Great analysis of a great film... congratulations!

The Film Sufi said...

Thanks, Murtaza, it's always good to hear from you.