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, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle.”
The meanings of the “red circle” are several, and I believe Jean-Pierre Melville placed this epigraph at the beginning of the film to invite us to contemplate them. For Melville’s cinema is contemplative. Although Melville saw himself as a popular artist and wanted his films to give pleasure, the pleasure they provide has nothing to do with what is usually called action.
One avatar of the red circle is the plan, the scheme, the job. First hatched by the prison guard watching Corey (Alain Delon) on the eve of the latter’s release, the scheme swiftly draws Corey in, as if against his will. He draws along with him first Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté), a criminal who has escaped from custody, then Jansen (Yves Montand), a former policeman and expert marksman who has become an alcoholic. The trajectories of these and other characters unite throughout the film at various fateful or fatal meeting places (all “red circles” of a kind): the prison at the beginning; the roadside diner where Vogel picks Corey’s trunk at random to hide in; Santi’s, the underworld hangout where several crucial assignations take place; the jewelry store where the three protagonists converge to carry out their daring heist; the country house at the end of the film.
All the people gathered in these circles are men; Le cercle rouge is perhaps Melville’s fullest expression of his love for a certain idealized masculinity: taciturn, loyal, respectful of dignity. Melville’s treatment of the theme of male virtue is notable for a stylistic emphasis that, for a director usually typed as cold, dry, and undemonstrative, comes off as remarkably operatic, even Leone-like. The moment when Corey wins the trust of Vogel—crucial, since it will silently determine the course of the rest of the action—is underlined by a sharing of cigarettes (à la Hawks), which Melville films in an exchange of frontal close-ups (exceptional within the film’s stylistic parameters) as Vogel puts his gun away in his pocket and stoops to pick up the lighter Corey has tossed to him.
From this moment, the two men’s participation in the jewel heist becomes inevitable. Their friendship, now that it has been established in images, needs to be expressed and explored through action.
Another operatic figure in the film is associated with Jansen. For him, the heist is not a shared adventure (as it is for Corey and Vogel) but a private challenge. When Jansen poses as a customer to case the jewelry store, Melville cuts between extreme close-ups of his face and of the tiny lock that will be his target in the heist. During the heist, Melville repeats the same interchange of shots twice. He thus emphasizes the private nature of Jansen’s success and its importance to his personal redemption. In a lovely bit of mute eloquence, Melville also celebrates Jansen’s private self-reward: merely smelling the contents of a flask he has brought along.
Such moments stress an underlying imperative of male self-proving, in relation to which we must view the exclusion of women from the world of Le cercle rouge. Women have no place here: they exist only as the signs of a lure that no longer attracts (Corey’s former girlfriend, now the mistress of the gangster Rico; the showgirls at Santi’s—as chimerical and repellent as Jansen’s hallucinated beasts). They’re inert decorations, holdovers from a distant past when something interesting might have come from the interaction of the two sexes.
A small, significant example of the film’s insistent subversion of women appears near the end of the film. The rose that a flower girl at Santi’s gives to Corey could be a token of sympathy or a sexual invitation; either way, it expresses the choice and agency of the woman, and her gift of the rose (another red circle, by the way) is the only self-willed, self-expressive act performed by a woman in the entire film. In the next scene, after Corey and Vogel say good-bye in Corey’s apartment, Vogel, by picking up the rose and distractedly twirling it, appropriates the female sign and turns it into a sign of his devotion to Corey.
This spot of bright color against the muted tones of Melville’s mise-en-scène reminds us of the hermeticism of Melville’s work. The pleasure of his films, as I noted above, has little to do with their success as spectacles of action. If Melville’s are, however, films of suspense, this word should be taken in a sense different from the usual one. Melvillean suspense suspends ordinary details and trappings, leaving only a few esoteric symbols and a collection of rarefied settings cleared for combat, tests of skill, and silent victories. Suspense in Melville is the power of cinema to tear life out of time, freeze it, remove it to an abstract space, and make it an object for contemplation.
This brings us to the last of the metaphorical red circles in our survey: the film frame. Melville had the knack of accentuating the arbitrariness of the frame, knowing well how to use the borders of the composition to create a space with the strangeness, the consistency, and the suspended quality of a dream. Perhaps this dream aspect should be considered a primary, rather than an incidental, feature of Melville’s work, and perhaps we should see the director as the heir to two different surrealist traditions in cinema: that of Feuillade, with his parallel universe of signals, chases, and routines, and that of von Sternberg, with his subterranean societies, his dens of innocent vice, and his almost extinct eroticism. As Melville said, “A film is first and foremost a dream.”