The Movie Waffler Re-Release Review - LE CERCLE ROUGE | The Movie Waffler

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Re-Release Review - LE CERCLE ROUGE

le cercle rouge review
Three criminals unite to pull off a jewellery heist.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Jean-Pierre Melville

Starring: Alain Delon, Andre Bourvil, Gian Maria Volonté, François Périer, Yves Montand

le cercle rouge bluray

We encounter so much professional incompetence and corner-cutting in real life that one of the great joys of cinema comes from watching characters perform a task with skill and pride in their work, legal or not. The criminal anti-heroes of Jean-Pierre Melville's crime thrillers are very, very good at their jobs. His movies are often as much about the task at hand as the men attempting to pull it off.

Such is the case with his penultimate film, 1970's Le Cercle Rouge, in which three taciturn criminals come together to pull off the daring heist of a jewellery store located in a locked down Parisian apartment complex.

le cercle rouge review

The plan is set in motion when Corey (Alain Delon, obscuring his famous pretty boy looks with a moustache) is released early from his stint in a Marseille prison for good behaviour. A crooked prison guard tips him off to the specifics of the new security system that has been installed in the aforementioned jewellers. Trouble is, it's not a one-man job, and Corey doesn't exactly have a thriving network of buddies.

Corey lucks out when a fellow criminal, Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté, looking prettier than usual without the rugged facial hair he sports in his spaghetti western roles), escapes from police custody and hides in the trunk of his car. With both men recognising the other as a fellow criminal tradesman, Corey and Vogel instantly bond, with Corey bringing Vogel into his plans.


The triangle of robbers is completed with the addition of Jansen (Yves Montand), a former police marksman whose rifle skills will be required to fire a custom made bullet into the locking mechanism of the jeweller's security system. Whether the alcoholic Jansen can keep his hand steady enough to take the shot is another matter.

On the trail of Vogel is Inspector Mattei (André Bourvil), the police officer whose clutches he escaped from. Unbeknownst to Corey, this threatens the success of the heist, as Mattei strongarms local mobster Santi (François Périer) into setting a trap for Vogel.

le cercle rouge review

Le Cercle Rouge may not be the definitive Melville film (that's probably 1967's Le Samouraï), but it boasts all the elements that define his work, and so serves as the ideal starting point for anyone taking a dive into his filmography. The protagonists and antagonists (who falls into which category is left to the viewer to decide) sport the traditional Melville uniform of a trenchcoat tied tightly around the waist in the manner of Bogart in Casablanca. They speak only when words are absolutely essential. Their work is observed by Melville's camera with something approaching reverence.

You get the sense here that Melville is envious of Corey and his crew, who get to perform their work without anyone's approval or interference. What filmmaker wouldn't envy such freedom? Most filmmakers are forced to go about their craft handcuffed to various producers, backers and execs, so it makes sense that so many are attracted to the crime genre.


Melville doesn't ask us to sympathise with his criminals. He doesn't ask us to like them. But he clearly wants us to respect their talents. This is most evident in the character of Jansen. Still only in his late forties but resembling a man 20 years older, Montand was considered past his sell by date when Melville cast him. As a piece of method casting, it was a stroke of genius. When we're watching Jansen desperately try to prove that he still has something to offer, we're simultaneously watching Montand attempt the very same. Both men go about their business quietly and efficiently, and by the end we're left in no doubt that they've still got it. Jansen is introduced with a horrifying depiction of alcohol induced night terrors, with every imaginable type of creepy crawly creature scurrying and slithering across his bed, but later on, following his vital contribution to the heist, he takes his flask from his pocket and merely sniffs the spirit, a smile of contentment beaming across his face.

If Jansen is out to prove his worth, Corey and Vogel have no such redemptive motivations. They're simply doing what they've always done. You never feel like they're in this for the money, and so morose are the two men's demeanours that you can't imagine them enjoying spending it. This is just a job. It's all they know.

le cercle rouge review

This may seem like strange praise for a movie that runs for 140 minutes, but Le Cercle Rouge is a masterclass in economical filmmaking. Melville tells us so much with so little detail that his storytelling skills are easy to overlook. Take Corey's relationship with his former mob boss Rico (André Ekyan). Melville never explicitly tells us that Rico screwed over Corey, that Corey served time in prison to save Rico's skin, or that Corey's girl (Anna Douking) is now on the arm of Rico. Instead he does what all great filmmakers do, he shows us these details. When Rico leaves prison he's presented with the possessions he had on his person when he was initially interned. These include several photographs of his girlfriend, sporting a very '70s mop of curly red hair, which Corey discards before a prison guard forces him to take them with him. We then see the same ginger mop splayed out on the pillow next to Rico's when Corey calls around looking for money he feels is owed to him. Barely any dialogue is exchanged between Rico and Corey, but we know exactly how both men feel about each other from the glances they exchange and the passive aggressive ballet they engage in. Before leaving Rico's home, Corey leaves the photos of his girlfriend in his boss's safe, an ultimate silent acknowledgment of this lack of honour among thieves.

Le Cercle Rouge is best known for its Rififi-esque climactic heist, played out in total silence. Where most heist movies are primarily concerned with detailing the preparation for the big job, Melville conceals the specifics until the three men enter the jewellers. It's the very opposite of flashy, but in its own quiet way it's a cocky piece of filmmaking. When Jansen removes his shoes so as not to alert the building's guard with his footsteps, it's a gesture that's emblematic of Melville's approach to filmmaking. Like a master criminal, Melville operates under the radar. You may not notice the brilliance of what he's doing, but it is brilliant nonetheless. Like the criminals he subtly fetishizes, Melville gets his job done in quiet fashion. In Melville's cinema, actions speak louder than words, even if said actions are as silent as a robber's stocking feet on soft carpet.

Le Cercle Rouge
 
is on UK blu-ray/DVD/Digital November 23rd from Studiocanal.