LE CERCLE ROUGE

1970; written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville; 135 mins

The penultimate film of Melville‘s career is a crime movie that precedes Fargo with it’s opening bullshit text. Utilising a made up story with Buddha saying something unfathomable; “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.'”

What the hell it means – your guess is as good as mine. I think, rather like the obscure, Polish prologue to another Coen Brothers’ movie, A Serious Man, it’s meant to be nothing other than a tone setter and in lieu of trawling through all of classical literature, looking for an appropriate quote, he just thought; “Sod it!”

Vogel is on his way to prison, Corey is just getting out and Jansen is seeing spiders and lizards in his bed. Vogel escapes the train carriage in which he is held but his escort, Inspector Mattei is hot on his heels. Corey has a terse meeting with Rico, an old friend, walking off with a few thousand from Rico’s safe. A screw has already tipped Corey off about a jewellers that’s ripe for robbing and though reluctant, a fatal meeting with Rico’s men forces him to take the job on. Along the way, he, Vogel, Mattei and Jansen will cross paths but what fate may befall them in the red circle is anyone’s guess…

Looking at Melville’s films, particularly the colour ones, you can see a definite influence on Michael Mann, with it’s steely blues and Melville’s eye for both the flash and the grit of organised criminal life. Like Sergio Leone, he doesn’t feel the need to overload the audience with dialogue either. Much is said about the silent heist itself but there are many scenes throughout where we simply watch the dark routines of these career gangsters and the film is all the better for it.

Henri Decae (who’s come up a lot on the blog), once again shoots with precision and a hard-edged sensibility. He works superbly with the locations where even the most grandiose of buildings has a grotty alcove, out of public view wherein thieves may operate. On the flip side, you have The Fence‘s house, which is a derelict shithole on the outside but luxurious on the inside.

Alain Delon is proper, old-school cool, Gian Maria Volonte is reliable as always and Yves Montand does a lovely job of pulling his character together, piece by piece. The aforementioned heist sequence is a moviemaking masterclass: meticulous, methodical and palm-sweating. Even the smallest movement of a curtain sets your alarm bells ringing. The heist movie is a many and varied subgenre and this easily sits near the top of the tree along with Rififi and Reservoir Dogs.

If you’re a Melville newbie, this could be the best place to start: a good, old-fashioned, no-nonsense, gangster movie that, hallucination sequence aside, works perfectly.

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