MUBI UK has streamed some of the films of Jean-Pierre Melville over the last couple of months. They have tended to be the better-known titles but at least it has given the opportunity for new younger fans to see what all the fuss is about. Le cercle rouge still has 3 days left I think and, if you miss it, you will still have the chance to catch Un flic (1972) which as around 10 days to go.
Melville died in 1973 so these were his last two films. His later films suffered in UK distribution by being cut and sometimes dubbed for release in circuit cinemas and it wasn’t until a successful re-release of Le samouraï in 1993 that Melville began to get proper treatment in the UK. Like the other two titles mentioned here, Le cercle rouge is a polar and a film imbued with Melville’s unique combination of American gangster tropes, French policiers and East Asian philosophies, the latter contributing to a code of sorts among criminals and some police officers.
Le cercle rouge refers here to a Buddhist reading (possibly written by Melville himself) which appears at the beginning of the film in the credit sequence. This suggests that men who meet, albeit randomly, are destined, even if they take separate paths, to all end up within the red circle. The plot is relatively simple for a narrative that extends over 140 minutes. A prisoner handcuffed to a Police Commissaire is taken to a Marseilles station one night where they board a Paris-bound sleeper. Early the next morning the man makes his escape. That same morning a second prisoner is released from prison, having been told by a warder about how a jewel robbery could be successfully carried out in Paris. After a series of incidents this man, Corey (Alain Delon) hears about the escaped prisoner when he is stopped at a road-block in his newly acquired car. He parks at a diner near where he thinks the escapee, Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte) might be hiding. When he leaves the diner, Vogel is in the car. There are more incidents before the couple arrive in Paris. Meanwhile Commissaire Mattei (André Bourvil) has come to the attention of Internal Affairs and is under severe pressure to re-capture Vogel. The robbery is accomplished with the help of a former police marksman, Jansen (Yves Montand). There is one other significant character, a nightclub owner and underworld fixer, Santi, played by François Perier.
There is no real mystery about what will happen – Melville revealed his hand in the opening credits. The focus is instead on the heist – completed in just under 30 minutes in a bravura dialogue-free sequence – and on the relationships between the characters who will all end up, one way or another in the ‘red circle’. Le cercle rouge follows the rules of previous polars from Melville. Corey drives an American car and has Japanese prints in his apartment, much like his character in Le samouraï . He wears a hat (a fedora) and a trench coat with the belt tied. When Corey meets Jansen for the first time in Santi’s club, he is already seated, in his trench coat, when Jansen descends the stairs from the street. We see his feet in shiny black leather shoes, dark trousers and then a coat – a long blue-grey tweed coat – and on his head a grey fedora. We perhaps remember then that in the preceding scene Mattei also wore a grey fedora – but all the other plain-clothes police were bare-headed. Jansen is immaculate with a neat dark tie and a button-down striped shirt. Corey is without his hat at this point. His trench coat is grey and crumpled, his tie is slightly awry and his shirt collar is crumpled. As he and Jansen talk, we see the arrival of two plain-clothes police, hatless but one has a light-coloured ‘shortie’ trench coat. They’ve come to escort Santi to the police HQ. When he is summoned from a back-room, Santi emerges with his long coat and, of course, his fedora. He glances very quickly at Corey and Jansen. Everything is communicated by costume and looks in this scene. The nightclub itself which features in three separate scenes with a different dance routine in each, is another convention lovingly explored by Melville. The club features a raised square dancing platform on which a group of immaculate dancers, all beautiful women, perform.
All of this creates an almost timeless ‘dance’ of crooks and cops. The characters seem ‘out of time’ to me with their hats and trench coats, more early 60s than 1970. I am aware though that in 1970 I was more influenced by hippies than middle-aged guys in suits. But I do think that Melville creates his own universe governed by codes of honour. I’m tempted to say that the codes resemble those that Peckinpah’s Western characters display in both The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
The triumph of a Melville polar is usually based on pacing, attention to detail and performance. All are on display here. Alain Delon was one of Melville’s regulars with his good looks (slightly challenged here by his moustache?) and deadpan expressions. There is no Lino Ventura unfortunately but Gian Maria Volonte is a good replacement with his curly hair (so he does match the times tonsorially). What a year it was for him. In 1970 he was also the lead in Elio Petri’s Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Italy) and Godard-Gorin’s Le vent d’est (Italy-France-W. Germany), the one as a fascistic Italian police chief (with the neat, oiled hair), the other as a Latin American bandit type in the Dziga-Vertov’s group’s best-known ‘political’ film. Yves Montand, fresh from his two successful leading roles in the Costa-Gavras political thrillers Z and L’aveu seems to me to have been perfect casting. The surprise for me this time round was Bourvil. I last watched the film about 15 years ago and I remembered thinking that the almost imperceptible comic air about the Commissaire was a brilliant touch – Melville nearly always seemed to ‘play’ on the relationship between cop and crook. I hadn’t at that point realised that ‘Bourvil’ as the star tended to be known was the same star of the 1950s comedy films that used to be imported and shown in the UK. That was clearly a time when there might have been less titles distributed in the UK but we saw a wider range of French films.
The jewel heist is a stunning piece of work, a masterwork in constructing suspense and using the details of the security system. But what do we make of the nearly complete absence of women in the narrative? There is a brief reference to Corey’s ex-girlfriend but she has no ‘agency’ whatsoever. The dancers in Santi’s club are there seemingly as icons for a certain sense of style in much the same way as the fedoras and trench coats. This is a film about masculine codes of honour. The characters could be samourai or Western gunfighters. It may just be about style but there is romance (in its ‘knightly’ medieval meaning) as well. And there is always Alain Delon for the female gaze.
The original French trailer: