Le Cercle Rouge (1970) 4.71/5 (2)


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Rating: The Good – 88.4
Genre: Crime, Film-Noir
Duration: 140 mins
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Stars: Alain Delon, Bourvil, Gian Maria Volonté

Jean-Pierre Melville’s stunning crime opus is cinema at its most visionary and effective. Four men get drawn into the same gloomy world framed by opaque motivations and with an audacious jewellery heist at its centre. Alain Delon is Corey, a recently released prisoner who is recruited for a lucrative but difficult heist the day before his release by one of his prison guards. Corey is ice cool and with seemingly few weak spots (if any since doing his time), he follows the path of chance and spends little time procrastinating. When this path intersects with a kindred spirit, Gian Maria Volonté’s escaped prisoner Vogel, they intuitively move forward together in preparing for the heist. Vogel’s involvement prompts the inclusion of an alcoholic former police marksmen (played wonderfully by Yves Montand) into the caper who, combined with the dogged but philosophical detective in pursuit of Vogel, closes the red circle in which their drama will be contained. Andre Bourvil is that detective and it’s in him that the true point to the tale is subtly reflected.

Le Cercle Rouge is a truly masterfully crafted film made by a director who was just simply operating on a level above the vast majority of his peers. From the photography and set design to the acting and writing, there’s an exquisite attention to detail so much so that it seems the pensively investigated tropes are physically painted right into the landscape of the film. The deliberate pace combined with Melville’s awe-inspiring unobtrusiveness allows the film to glide over the drama only to rest softly on key moments. Thus, rather than the immersivness of something like Reservoir Dogs, Melville’s lens seems to stay one step ahead of the drama and more specifically, the protagonists’ momentum. An interpretive quality whispers through the extended moments of silence as the writer-director auteur seems disinterested in the fuzziness of words and only concerned with the clarity of undiluted intent. The intensity of this world provides a focused heat as the cool calculating personalities (accentuated through the prevalence of the colour blue throughout every scene except the jewellery snatch itself) are warmed in a controlled manner. This is the Red Circle to which the film’s title refers.

The story underlying this film (as opposed to being at the centre of it) is an intuitive blending of John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle and Jules Dassin’s other French classic Rififi which ensures that the basis to all this reflection-heavy crime drama is rock solid. The characters reflect the best ideas the film-noir genre has had and while being perhaps too visually flamboyant to be classed in the traditional noir bracket (not to mention lacking the dialogue drive of the best American noir), the same emphasis on innovation is present also. In fact, in Le Cercle Rouge, Rififi’s 35 minute heist sequence (where no sound is heard but the characters’ movements) is magnificently gestured to in a similarly shot 25 minute robbery.

The four heavy hitters of French acting are all scintillating in their roles and while little of their backgrounds are revealed, they each offer a different but equally compelling interpretation on the slick antihero construct. In fact, any one of these characters on their own could serve as a basis to a classic crime feature so assured and magnetic is their presence. That four such characters are colliding here in one film, therefore, emphasises its impressive scope. Le Cercle Rouge may take its lead from stellar titles in the film-noir catalogue but it shouldn’t be considered just a homage piece or even a copycat. It’s picks up where those films left off and like Melville’s other masterpiece Le Samourai, lets the spirit of the genre take precedence over plot and character. In fact, Melville’s film stands right next to Dassin’s and Huston’s films in the pantheon of important cinema.

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