“Le Cercle Rouge” – A.J. Hakari

It’s safe to say that Jean-Pierre Melville has a firm grasp of the criminal mind. He’s a man who knows his way around the underworld, getting inside the psyches of his subjects rather than take them for granted as genre archetypes. This way of handling the film noir with respect and dignity comes through in just about every frame of his next to last film, 1970’s Le Cercle Rouge. Another example of Melville delving into the psychology behind a life of crime, Le Cercle Rouge is a rather strong attempt at doing just that, spinning a traditional heist flick into something that’s part case study, part cautionary tale.

The main story centers on Corey (Alain Delon) and Vogel (Gian-Maria Volonte), two strangers whom fate has decided should get to know one another. Corey is a convict who’s just earned an early release from the slammer, thanks to his good behavior. But he’s hardly stepped out the door when our friend runs into a spot of trouble, leaving a corpse or two in the wake of an impromptu stick-up. Whilst heading off to start life anew, Corey finds Vogel hiding out in the trunk of his car. Himself on the run from the law, Vogel sees no other options but to team up with Corey and join him in plotting a jewelry heist a helpful prison guard tipped him off about. As the pair inducts washed-up cop Jansen (Yves Montand) into their fold, dogged lawman Mattei (André Bourvil) follows in hot pursuit, depending on years of experience dealing with criminal ilk to catch the crooks before they make their big move.

There aren’t enough crowbars in the world to pry your average heist film away from its most deep-seated conventions. Most movies show little interest in developing such cliched characters as the veteran thief pressed into one last score, treating them as just another stop on the road to the big steal. Fortunately, there’s no room for this kind of thematic abuse in Melville’s world, which is what makes Le Cercle Rouge all the more intriguing to watch. I’m as much a fan of the escapist fun provided by the likes of the Ocean’s pictures, but this is simply not Melville’s objective. As with Le Doulos and Bob le Flambeur, Melville approaches the criminal world in a cerebral manner, playing around with elements of style to pick apart the characters’ psychological make-up. In the case of Le Cercle Rouge, the man goes about his duties almost academically, with just a hint of those themes that escape the comprehension of the main players.

The film introduces us to a bit of Eastern philosophy that states how two individuals, no matter how hard they try, are destined to come face to face. Here, the means bringing Corey and Vogel happens to be crime. Their respective felonious histories are purposefully kept on the down-low; what matters is how they react once trapped in such a lawless cycle. According to one character, all men are guilty in one way or another, but leave it to Melville to put this theory to the test. Through the mulish Mattei, Melville ponders whether criminal behavior is so easy to predict, eventually coming to the wise conclusion that tragedy is the only sure bet. Various scenes demonstrate this point, but I dare not reveal them, for fear of spoiling their poignancy and effectiveness. Le Cercle Rouge rewards viewers not with a grand heist sequence (which, while falling short of Rififi’s greatness, is still a pulse-pounder) but with performances that communicate the story’s emotions perfectly. Delon and Volonte are both solid as the partners in crime, and Bourvil’s Mattei comes across as a tragic figure in his own interesting ways. But the prize here definitely goes to Montand, whose quiet performance as a former corrupt cop speaks volumes about the terrible roads his character has traveled upon.

Suffice it to say, Le Cercle Rouge isn’t an “exciting” movie. This being Melville, a deliberate pace is in effect, one that tends to drag and gets irksome from time to time. Because of its more trudging and repetitive moments, I can’t bring myself to bestow as high a rating on Le Cercle Rouge as I’d like to. But don’t let this discourage you from checking out the film for one minute, for there’s more intelligence at work here than most Hollywood studios could churn out in a decade’s time.

Rating: ★★★☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

One Response to ““Le Cercle Rouge” – A.J. Hakari”

  1. Robert Holloway Says:

    Yeah, nice review. More Melvile is the chant from the peanut gallery

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