Will the Circle be Unbroken?

Le Cercle Rouge

LE CERCLE ROUGE
Egyptian-Rigler, 11/5/2011, 4:00 PM

By Melissa Politte

Jean-Pierre Melville’s icily beautiful heist film, LE CERCLE ROUGE (1970), begins with a premonitory quote for the five unforgettable characters we are about to meet: “Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, drew a circle with a piece of red chalk and said: ’When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day, whatever may befall each, whatever their diverging paths, they will inevitably come together in the red circle.’”

Melville made a trilogy of films with his favorite actor, Alain Delon, and LE CERCLE ROUGE revisits themes from their earlier collaboration, LE SAMOURAI (1967), and looks forward to their future film, UN FLIC (1971). Melville’s canon, which also includes BOB LE FLAMBEUR (1956) and LE DOULOS (1962), often concerns matters such as loyalty between friends; adherence to a moral code, pride in one’s profession; and the tension between the need to connect with others and the inevitability of always being separate and alone.

In a role he virtually patented—the enigmatic, impossibly handsome loner who answers to nothing but his own set of values—Alain Delon is the first of the five men whose intertwined paths will end inside the circle of red. Delon’s Corey is about to be released from prison when he gets wind of a scheme to rob an elegant jewelry store in Paris’s tony Place Vendome. Upon his release, Corey visits his former mentor in crime, hitting him up for money and a gun. Since Corey’s boss has stolen his mistress while Corey was in prison—and in fact has her waiting in bed for him in the next room—Corey manages to insult them both by coolly depositing her photos in the safe from which the boss has just given him “start-up” money and a weapon.

In a parallel story line, we meet the next two members of Melville’s circle game: Captain Mattei (Andre Bourvil) and his prisoner, the ominous Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte) whom he is escorting to a Paris prison via train. When the crafty Vogel picks the lock on his handcuffs and kicks out the train window to escape, we are plunged into a police manhunt of mammoth proportions, piqueing our curiosity as to Vogel’s past. Who is this man whom Mattei insists to a subordinate is “no terrorist,” but whose danger to society seems great enough to warrant the participation of every policeman that can be found?

After Vogel succeeds in eluding the cops and their search dogs by swimming across a stream, he approaches a roadside diner and tries the locks on several car trunks, looking for a place to hide, and hopefully, a ride to freedom. Meanwhile Corey, eating lunch inside, observes Vogel slip into the trunk of his car. Corey calmly finishes his meal, pays his bill and drives out into the country, where he stops, knocks on the trunk lid, and says “You can come out now.” When Vogel, emerging from the trunk, asks “Aren’t you afraid?” Corey, an old pro at all of this, merely replies “What of?” and tosses Vogel his cigarettes and lighter. Thus a friendship is born, and once Corey informs Vogel that “Your best bet is Paris,” the viewer is about to be treated to one of the most technically astute and beautifully filmed robbery pictures ever made.

All our two anti-heroes need now is a marksman and getaway driver, and Vogel has just the man: an ex-policeman and crack shot named Jansen (Yves Montand). However, in his retirement, Jansen has become an alcoholic and is currently holed up in a rundown tenement, fighting a horrifying case of the DT’s and convinced that he’s being attacked by a closetful of snakes, lizards and rats. When he is offered the robbery plan by his future cohorts, he looks upon the opportunity as a way to return to form, to prove his professionalism. He later thanks Corey for the chance to “escape from the beasts,” and when Corey doesn’t understand, Jansen merely walks over to the now-empty closet, looks inside and smiles. The blackness of the closet interior forms a visual wipe and the beautifully restrained acting by both men highlights the depth of the bond they have just forged.

One more character will meet the others inside Melville’s circle, and he is a familiar type from crime films: The Informer. In this case it’s Santi (Francois Perier), a nightclub owner who knows everyone and vows to rat on no one. But time is running out for all involved, as Captain Mattei’s Chief of Internal Affairs (Paul Amiot) wants Vogel; Corey, Vogel and Jansen want to pull off a flawless crime; Santi wants to keep the respect of the criminal world he oversees; and Mattei, who has a flawless 15-year record with the police force, wants to maintain his reputation but also keep his humanity intact.

How all of this plays out will be left to the viewer’s delight to discover, but it is certain that cinemagoers will thrill to their chance to step inside Jean-Pierre Melville’s cercle rouge, where, as Captain Mattei’s Chief insists, all men are guilty. “They’re born innocent,” he tells a doubting Mattei, “But they don’t stay that way.”

Melissa Politte is a retired professor of literature and humanities who makes her home in Door County, Wisconsin. She makes frequent trips to France, where she indulges her passion for French cinema.

Notes

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