Le Cercle Rouge (1970), the second in my Jean-Pierre Melville double-feature after Le Samouraï (1967) (review), is slightly more mainstream fare. In fact, seeing them together makes me feel slightly odd. Here are two films that ought to be perennials in my top ten garden of all genres to which they have any connection and create in me a drive to make Melville a house-hold name. And yet there’s something that keeps me back. It’s not the French-ness of it ( these are very mainstream movies) and it isn’t the period (other than film quality, they aren’t too dated), but some quality that won’t allow me to fully engage with these movies. With Le Samouraï, I thought it was the fault of the film, but after Le Cercle Rouge, I realize that it’s me. I suspect that having to read the dialogue, while perfectly sound for picking up character, is not conducive for immersing myself in the plot and the suspense.
Corey (Alain Delon) has just gotten out of jail after a five year stint (presumably for burglary of some kind). The day before his release, a guard (Pierre Collet) approaches him about a job. Meanwhile, Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté) a suspect in some other crime is being transported, under guard of Mattie (Bourvil), and escapes. Corey confronts an old boss of his, Rico (André Ekyan), and shakes him down for a few thousand and a gun, buys himself a car and drives to Paris (after a deadly altercation with some of Rico’s men). On the way, Corey stops at a diner and while he’s eating, Vogel sneaks himself into the trunk of the car. Little does Vogel realize, Corey knows full well what’s in his trunk. The two bond very quickly and come together to pull off the aforementioned job. But they need a third man, a sharpshooter, and that brings them into contact with former police sniper Jansen (Yves Montand) who is in a gritty battle with the bottle.
Le Cercle Rouge is a typical film noir of the The Asphalt Jungle (1950) variety. Like Le Samouraï, many films will come after it that will borrow from the story or the filmmaking. The Asphalt Jungle reference is elucidating, but I feel like if I go any further, it’ll look like bragging (I’ll just mention Heat (1995) and Chinatown (1974)). Unlike many films noir of the robbery subgenre, Le Cercle Rouge also incorporates an interlocking web narrative whereby every character is playing off some other character in a way that ties the film together. Again, like Le Samouraï, it is imperfectly done. The resolution is not as neat and tidy as Snatch. (2000) or L.A. Confidential (1997) (different subgenres, I know), but most are more than narrative milestones passed on the way to some unrelated climax (or deadend). The red circle in question refers, according to the opening titles, to a Buddhist quotation whereby the coming together of certain individuals is marked by a red circle on their day of interaction.
Unlike Le Samouraï (finally), Le Cercle Rouge is quite chatty. There are prolonged moments of silence, but those are momentary and of necessity. It isn’t a character trait. For that reason, Le Cercle Rouge is the more accessible of the two films. There’s no work but the reading and even that is optional. I bet that if I watched Le Cercle Rouge without subtitles, I would have enjoyed it much more. I’ll have to perform that exercise and report back. On the first viewing, I’d probably have missed only two plot points for all of the dialogue, so that sort of puts Le Samouraï in perspective. Would that too have benefitted from my inattention to detail? Possibly. Hmm.
Le Cercle Rouge is available on Blu Ray, but that price is nonsense, so I’ll just link to the Criterion Collection DVD, which, used, is reasonably priced.