LE CERCLE ROUGE / JEAN-PIERRE MELVILLE / 1970
I have no real respect for Jean-Pierre Melville, and don’t understand how anyone could. I have more respect for Tarantino, whose 2009 film INGLORIOUS BASTERDS showed that he was evolving as a film-maker, trying to free himself from the constraints of genre. Of course he didn’t change enough to get past his exploitive “signature” style. Melville appears to work in the same genre throughout his career, recyling the same formula in the same style: from BOB LE FLAMBEUR (1956) to LE SAMOURAI (1967) to this film, LE CERCLE ROUGE, from 1970, all minimalist, hard-boiled films about men planning heists. With neat editing tricks, on-location filming, and a boiled-down precision of direction, Melville has an unmistakable style and his effect on the nouvelle vague is obvious, but Godard and Truffaut had the sense to change their methods, recognizing formula as the evil thing it is.
LE CERCLE ROUGE is about Corey (Alain Delon), a convict about to be released from prison on good behaviour. He is approached by a crooked cop and told about an easy heist. He meets Vogel (Gian-Maria Volonte), a criminal on the run, and they take a moment to bond in a muddy field: this is one of the few scenes in the film that develops a relationship between two characters. André Bourvil plays Commissaire Mattei, the policeman hunting Vogel, and Yves Montand plays Jansen, a sharpshooting ex-cop and the third member of the gang. We are shown certain habits and characteristics of characters, but for the most part they go unspoken, and occur separate from the others. This is the film’s most obvious flaw: the various threads of connecting stories never connect. The actors have no emotional relationships with each other, so how can I possibly feel for the outcome? In the end, the various stories have no connection, causing the moral to fall flat. “We’re all criminals, it’s just a matter of time,” has no meaning in a film populated entirely by characters introduced unabashedly as such. Yves Montand’s Jansen, the ex-cop now involved (but barely) in the heist, appears out of nowhere ⅔ of the way through the film and has no apparent motivation; he is apathetic, giving away his share of the loot, and casually killed off in the climax.
Despite the self-consciousness typical of French film-makers, LE CERCLE ROUGE is pop fare, populated by easily loveable “badassery,” the same casually violent schlock that’s been bouncing back and forth between France and America since the noir film was invented. Melville’s minimalism and subject formula was undeniably important in influencing others; there is also no denying his ability to direct precisely and well, but to me Jean-Pierre Melville is a footnote, a stepping-stone, worth reading about but whose films are worth hardly anything in themselves.