Available for the first time on video and DVD in the UK and following a hugely successful theatrical revival and complete retrospective last summer, Jean Pierre Melville’s penultimate film is arguably the pinnacle of his career. A perfect combination of the Hollywood gangster film – although in the insightful Ginette Vincendeau introduction it is posited as a western transposed to a French context; both descriptions are apt – with Melville’s uniquely French existentialism, it is a masterful, pessimistic and achingly fatalistic and melancholic work.
Regular Melville conspirator and quintessential anti-hero Alain Delon (La Samourai, Melville’s other noir inflected masterpiece, un Flic) stars as Corey, a master thief, Yves Montand as Jansen, an alcoholic ex-cop and Italian star Gian-Maria Volonté as escaped criminal Vogel. The trio plan and spectacularly execute a daring robbery of an upmarket Parisian jewellery store against impossible odds and with tragic consequences. The quintet’s destinies lie in the rapidly closing ‘red circle’, the trap set by the steely-eyed inspector (André Bourvil in one of his final roles) doggedly on their tails.
The godfather of the Nouvelle Vague and an avowed admirer of American culture, Melville (who drove only American cars, wore a Stetson hat, and of course took his name from American author Herman) frequently indulged this admiration and his fondness for the Hollywood movies of the 30’s and 40’s and the Depression era gangster on screen; Le Cercle Rouge is certainly no exception. However, as Melville expert Vincendeau argued in her authorative book An American in Paris, it would be wrong to simply view Melville as an American copyist, his films, and Le Cercle Rouge in particular, succinctly highlighting the feeling of ennui and hopelessness nagging at the heart of both French society and a more general European sensibility.
A uniquely stylish Gallic film noir, the film is perhaps most fondly remembered for the robbery sequence that forms the central set piece. Itself owing not a little to Dassin’s Rififi and Houston’s The Asphalt Jungle, it is a wordless execution, balletic in it’s synthesis of grace, action and motion. The extended sequence has been frequently imitated in modern cinema, most recently by cineaste Steven Soderbergh in Ocean’s Eleven. Contemporary film-makers have been quick to cite the influence and visual fluidity of Melville, with accolades from John Woo and Quentin Tarantino peppering, somewhat unnecessarily, the otherwise sumptuous DVD packaging.
There is so much more to Le Cercle Rouge however than the heist sequence. The performances, especially Delon’s, whose cool façade refuses to betray anything as mundane as an emotion, are first rate and Melville’s sense of composition and use of space is astounding. Witness the scene where Delon’s Plymouth drives into the parking lot of a roadside restaurant and you’ll be instantly transported to the spatial expanse of Wenders’ Paris, Texas. Melville famously said that his aim was to shoot film noir in colour and the coolly muted and chilly (the film takes place, appropriately enough in winter) cinematography by Henri Decaë achieves this and more. The jazz tinged score offers similar perfection, none more so than in the hunters in the snow sequence wherein the net surrounding the criminals draws fatally tighter.
The DVD transfer is absolutely first rate and sound and picture quality are pin sharp. Equally excellent are the vast array of extras, including the original theatrical trailer, an illuminating filmed interview with the film’s assistant director Bernard Stora in which Stora reveals Melville’s preference for single take shots, made possible through extensive and frequently pain staking rehearsals. There is also a director’s biography that acts as a perfect summation of Melville’s career and provides a comprehensive film-by-film chronology.
Best of all however is the filmed interview with Vincendeau. Running at over twenty minutes it’s an intelligent, fascinating piece replete with contextualising images of Melville and stills from his films that is not only a perfect companion piece to the film but rewarding viewing in its own right. Obvious and very genuine care and attention has gone into the British Film Institute’s presentation of Le Cercle Rouge, that, and the obvious quality of the film, means that I cannot recommend it highly enough.