With his 1970 gangster epic Le cercle rouge, Jean-Pierre Melville finally landed his white whale.
The French maverick who changed his last name from Grumbach out of admiration for Herman Melville had long since established himself as that most contradictory, elusive, and essential character in narrative moviemaking—an individualistic genre master. Bob le flambeur (1956), Le doulos (1962), and Le samouraï (1967) stood out as elegant explorations of underworld style, duplicity, and professionalism. Of course, Melville had other credits, including his formidable 1950 rendering of Jean Cocteau’s Les enfants terribles. But his on- and offscreen affection for hard-guy glamour (he always wore a signature Stetson hat) and his aesthetic preference for the tough-minded, strong-boned storytelling of American directors such as John Huston (another Herman Melville admirer) drew him toward life-or-death drama in a criminal vein.
Melville set out to synthesize all the thoughts and feelings he’d acquired about cops and robbers in fifteen years of genre moviemaking and a lifetime of movie watching in Le cercle rouge. He emerged with something greater than a summing up. With Le cercle rouge, Melville hikes to the fictional heights of his adopted namesake. Seeing this movie restored to its full 140-minute length and proper 1.85:1 widescreen ratio persuaded me that Jean-Pierre’s assumption of Herman’s last name was the act of a creative heir, not just a fan. Alain Delon’s Corey and his crew pulling off an epochal Paris jewelry heist may not seem as grand as Ahab and his crew harpooning Moby Dick. Yet the director imagines the preparation, execution, and aftermath of Corey’s quest with such an unerring command of human and technical detail that the film becomes a net capturing everything the auteur intuits about hubris, strength, and fallibility. Moby-Dick teaches you about rigging a whaling ship and steering her and hauling in a huge cetacean; Le cercle rouge teaches you about casing a joint, manufacturing custom bullets, and orchestrating a heist. In both these works, the creators’ cunning combination of hardscrabble physical authority and characters who prompt identification with their honor and their weakness compels audiences to enter a world of genuine moral ambiguity.
Le cercle rouge carries a Buddhist epigraph basically stating that people who are meant to meet will do so “in the red circle,” no matter what crazy routes they take to it. To illustrate his own aphorism (we are told), Buddha took a piece of red chalk and drew a circle. In the movie proper, Corey is the only one we see wielding red chalk and tracing a circle—on the tip of his cue in a billiard hall. The men in this film make their own fates. True, the red circle refers to their common, bloody destiny. But it also conjures a bullet through the heart.
If bourgeois viewers of Le cercle rouge find themselves alarmingly sympathetic to these bandits, it’s because they navigate ethically compromised waters that register as a true, if bleak, projection of a polluted social mainstream. Amoral is a term often used to describe the Melvillean universe. Le cercle rouge, however, proves rigorously moral in its dramatic evaluation of five men and their responses to a heist and its aftermath.
Delon’s Corey is the catalyst: just out of jail, he counts as his biggest asset a plan to strip clean a bijouterie on the place Vendôme. He lands an impromptu partner when Gian Maria Volonté’s wild-eyed mystery man, Vogel, escapes arrest and hides in the trunk of Corey’s car. Vogel knows just the marksman and getaway artist for the job: an ex-policeman named Jansen (Yves Montand). Meanwhile, the police captain Vogel gave the slip to, Mattei (André Bourvil), moves to hunt down his former prisoner. His best bet for information: nightclub owner Santi (François Périer), who knows everyone—and vows to rat on no one.
The way Melville’s script presents each of these characters, they’re battle-scarred and newborn. Corey cancels his relationship with Rico, a Marseilles-based Mr. Big who rewarded his courthouse loyalty by stealing his mistress. Although Melville once referred to Corey and Vogel as “professionals,” Vogel himself insists that he’s an amateur, at least at this sort of game; when Mattei tells a colleague that Vogel is “no terrorist,” he suggests that violent political crime is precisely what Vogel stands accused of. Jansen has an awful bout of the DTs right before Corey calls on him; he sees the job not as a chance to net millions but as a shot at regaining self-respect. Santi, a mainstay of the criminal demimonde, finds himself facing unprecedented pressure to inform. Mattei must exert it because he too is at a crossroads: the head of Internal Affairs calls him on the carpet and derides him for not believing that all men are guilty—“They’re born innocent, but it doesn’t last.”
Melville uses music minimally, deploys natural sounds like a virtuoso, and, along with cinematographer Henri Decaë, evokes vibrant color with a restricted palette by staying alert to the shifts in light that come with changing time and weather. One could call the result a feast for the senses, except that would imply satiation, even gluttony, and one emerges from this film with senses primed. That’s not only because of Melville’s cinematic mastery but also because he draws the viewer into the drama surely and intimately. His instinctive understanding of theatrical psychology and real-life grace—and gracelessness—under pressure (he was a veteran of the Resistance) heightens every scene with a scabrous subtlety.
His partnership with the actors borders on the miraculous. Delon’s Corey may look like a men’s-magazine mannequin, but he’s no dummy. When Corey confronts Rico with pictures of their mistress in his pocket, Delon somehow conveys Corey’s knowledge that the woman is in the bedroom—and that she is eavesdropping from behind the door. Viewers might predict a punchy confrontation, but by playing off a stock expectation, Melville gives himself and his actors the time and space to show their characters in the process of creating new selves and testing them. Corey doesn’t slap his former gal around; he takes the money and gun from her new boyfriend’s safe and deposits his pictures of her there.
Corey wants to make a clean break from his past, but partly because of the volatile Vogel, he’s always getting blood or mud on his hands. Melville’s handling of Volonté in the role (the director said that he disliked the actor) showcases the filmmaker’s ability to exploit associations audiences bring to stars. Volonté’s collaborations with directors like Elio Petri (We Still Kill the Old Way, Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion) had already placed him as a member of cinema’s left-wing vanguard. That’s one reason why, when Mattei says “no terrorist,” the audience thinks, Yes, terrorist. When he ruthlessly knocks off a couple of gunmen after he and Corey already have the drop on them, it’s clear the criminal code means nothing to Vogel. François Périer’s Santi functions like a corrupted version of his Heurtebise in Cocteau’s Orpheus: there, he was a kind intermediary between the realms of the living and the dead; here, he’s a humane yet vulnerable, and ultimately destructive, intermediary between the straight world and another kind of underworld. (There’s something Cocteau-like, too, about the elegant leather masks the gang members wear for the jewel heist.)
Casting a famous actor-singer-personality like Yves Montand to depict a character sobering up may have been a nod to Otto Preminger’s using Frank Sinatra to play a junkie going cold turkey in The Man with the Golden Arm; Montand pulls it off with a minimum of histrionics and a similar rhythmic flair. Best of all, André Bourvil—usually billed only as Bourvil, and beloved for his team-ups with fellow farceur Louis de Funès—imbues Mattei with a mildness and ruefulness that enrich his character. He may run like a jeune fille and live with three cats, but he has a knack for applying his low-key touch to others’ excruciating pressure points.
It’s Bourvil’s Mattei who presides over the devastating denouement. In early action scenes, Melville shows his command of action-film geometry with a train window exploding across half the screen, or Corey’s blocky American car bisecting the landscape. In the heist scene, he progresses to action trigonometry as he keeps us focused almost simultaneously on Corey, Vogel, and Jansen. But the end is a portrait of disaster rendered in movements as abrupt and spasmodic as the killings in Bertolucci’s The Conformist. Mattei shakes his head and concludes that the Internal Affairs boss was right—innocence doesn’t last, so all men are guilty. But Melville doesn’t ask us to agree with him. The final effect of Le cercle rouge is to fling at the audience the same question the American Melville hurled in Moby-Dick: “Where do murderers go, man! Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar?” As Huston said of Moby-Dick, Le cercle rouge is a great blasphemy.
Michael Sragow, the author of Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master, writes on new movies for the Baltimore Sun and old ones for the New Yorker. This piece was originally published in the Criterion Collection's 2003 edition of Le cercle rouge.