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Le Cercle Rouge

Le Circle Rouge - 1970

Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

Written by Jean-Pierre Melville

Starring Alain Delon, André Bourvil, Yves Montand & Gian Maria Volonté

We miss nothing in Le Circle Rouge - Jean-Pierre Melville takes us on a very deliberate, step-by-step process which lingers on each fated step his characters take. They exist in a very muted, dark-toned wintery world - away from the light, with all of the coldness that implies. Three criminals - Corey (Alain Delon), Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté) and Jansen (Yves Montand) eventually come together in the red circle as the film's epigraph defines it : "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 the diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle."" Both the way they eventually come together, and what they do once they become a trio of thieves about to commit a heist is patiently explored in this film.

At the start of this film, Corey, Vogel and Jansen are as far apart as you could imagine. Corey is in prison, just about to be released - and through that process he's tipped off about the big-time jewellry shop he'll eventually target once free. Vogel is going through the inverse process - caught by the law, he's being transported by train to his eventual incarceration, guarded by Inspector Mattei (André Bourvil), but manages to escape. Chased through the countryside, he loses the team searching for him and ends up hiding in the trunk of Corey's car - leading to their chance meeting. Once it's established that the pair will pull off the heist at the jewellry store, Corey gets in contact with Jansen, who is suffering from the DTs due to his alcoholism. Despite that, Jansen will pull himself together to perform the needed feats of markmanship and find a fence for the goods they're about to steal. For that, he sees Corey as a personal saviour.

To get the most out of Le Circle Rouge you have to be in the moment, and admire the style and the composition of each shot and every scene as it plays out - the pace very purposely lets us soak it in. The overall rhythm of the film is perfect, and enjoying the cinematography is pretty darned easy - because it's absolutely beautiful and breathtaking. It manages to capture the dark and shadowy aspects of early film noir, all the while using a colour pallet that's full of muted greens, greys and dark blues. Director of photography Henri Decaë pulls off some marvelous shots - the slow zoom back from the moving train, the perfect line of police searching for Vogel, the spherical eye-glass shot of Delon through the door, the pool table from directly above and the silhouettes from on top of the jewellry shop building are a few that come immediately to mind, but the entire film is simply a visual treat for a cinephile, and draws from the extensive experience of Melville and Decaë.

Eric Demarsan’s score also goes for an old-time film noir atmospheric feel, with a very sedate jazz style of accompaniment to much of what goes on. Lots of saxophone and other brass along with a little percussion and wind instruments (to heighten tension) keep the slow pace of the action rooted into that relaxed, easy rhythm of film. Much of the film plays out in a very quiet way, with only sound effects and dialogue for us to keep our attention rooted upon - and sometimes the score will slip in almost inaudibly before slowly ramping up a little, but never overwhelming the cool mood of whatever scene it's being used sparingly in. The jazzy style is easily amplified when our characters step into the nightclub the film spends moments in, with the very nice visual element of dancers adding spectacle that gives a little feel of how so many heist films have that connection to nightlife, drinking and cabaret. The heist itself plays out nearly silently.

The heist - yes, it's the centerpiece of nearly every film that's like Le Circle Rouge, and here it runs for around 27 minutes, during which the film is completely free of dialogue. There's the odd ticking of a clock, footstep or dull thump depending on what's going on - but the scene is tense enough to make us forget about anything else, and not even realise just how quiet this portion of the film is. I love how characters can sometimes converse dialogue free - one swift turn of the head says "oh no" or "what's happening?" One outstretched arm means "be careful". I also like how the sound department also adds an almost imperceptible jangle to the jewellry being put into the thieves' bags. I don't know if it's the quietest cinematic heist ever, but if not it'd come close. The film becomes a completely visual cinematic experience, with every move the characters make intensified - especially considering the risks and circumstance.

When you add it all together it's a moody, great looking film which pulls you into the world it's characters seem destined to inhabit without question, just as they seem destined to meet each other and share their ultimate fate. It's a world of deceit, nerves, patience, swift movement and fast-thinking. It's an impressive movie whichever way you look at it - worthy of being one of the last movies Jean-Pierre Melville would ever make. I feel that watching it only once does it a little disservice, but take my word when I say I'll be watching it again - it takes a little while to get used to that slow rhythm and find what the movie wants you to focus on. It's a film of perfected techniques, carefully crafted story and cool, calm, characters - professionals at what they do. They have a certain mastery that can only be attained by a lifetime of practice - but when it's the police versus the crooks - one party must lose. Cinematically though, this film is definitely a winner.