Le Cercle Rouge
"Thanks to Melville's spare approach, the film feels cool in both senses of the phrase and there's time to really focus on the look." | Photo: Studiocanal

Jean-Pierre's Le Cercle Rouge is a crime thriller so hard-boiled, if it was an egg, it would bounce like a powerball. Although, this being Melville, the egg in question would be impeccably dressed at the time. The scripting has been scraped away in favour of lean visual storytelling as the paths of four men unexpectedly converge for a low-key heist with high stakes consequences.

Mystery surrounds the situation initially, as we meet some of them individually, each bringing with them their own brand of loneliness. Corey (Alain Delon) is being cut loose from jail in Marseilles, but not before getting a tip-off about a jewellery store ripe for the taking from a crooked guard. Underlining his 'lone wolf' credentials, he is keen to leave the photos of a woman behind him, when his possessions are returned to him and, though, he takes them with him, he'll dispense with them later in meaningful fashion.

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Not a million miles away, another criminal, Vogel (Gian Maria Volontè) is being escorted by train, handcuffed to policeman Mattei (André Bourvil, acting against comic type in what would be his final role and one that he would never get to see as he died shortly after the film wrapped). We know something will happen on that train, but Melville makes us wait for it, building the tension almost imperceptibly until action comes in a burst and Vogel takes flight through the woods. Corey, meanwhile, is busy settling scores and lining his pocket with cash, establishing his take-no-prisoners attitude along the way. Everything Melville is about show, not tell so we don't need to hear lingering conversations to be clued in to the kind of men we're dealing with- they are what they do, operating alone even when in tandem and with seemingly little to occupy them beyond their next crime. Even Mateii is leading the life of a loner - although he at least has a trio of cats waiting for him back home.

The first encounter between Vogel and Corey is another example of Melville's ability to offer lingering set-ups with sharp pay-offs. This one comes with the flavour of a western, as the two face off in a muddy field, Henri Decaë's camera carefully studying the face of one man and then the other sizing them up at the same time as they get the measure of one another before deciding to become partners in crime. As Bouvril works on a trap to recapture his man, the criminals enlist corrupt and alcoholic ex-cop Jansen (Yves Montand), who we meet in the middle of the most evocative set of DT hallucinations since The Lost Weekend - although to my eye, at least, the chameleon seen crawling up his bedstead is a bit on the cute side to be menacing. The heist, as you would expect, recalls the earlier French classic Rififi in its complexity and lies at the heart of the film, running in almost real time - a decision that does mean it suffers from slight longueurs in its initial phase.

Melville was a fan of Americana and you can feel it here, both in the choice of enormous car for Corey - the extras on the Studiocanal release suggesting the director had something quite similar - and the strong influence of noir, all given a brush of Gallic style, from the costuming to the feel of the bar where Corey wheels and deals. Thanks to Melville's spare approach, the film feels cool in both senses of the phrase and there's time to really focus on the look. It may be 40 years old this year, but many of the shots feel innovative even today, such as when the camera pulls back further and further from the train window in an early scene. There's a diamond hard edge to everything about this film, Melville's stripped back style meaning it is unencumbered by the sort of dialogue or attitudes that lead some films from the same era to feel like museum pieces now. Simply put this is existential excellence with a French flourish.

Reviewed on: 25 Nov 2020
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Le Cercle Rouge packshot
After leaving prison, a thief crosses paths with a notorious escapee and an alcoholic former policeman. The trio proceed to plot a heist.

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CFF 2017

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