Le cercle rouge

Le cercle rouge (1970)
★★★★ / ★★★★

It’s interesting because although Alain Delon and Gian Maria Volontè, a man having just released after serving five years in prison and a recently captured criminal being escorted from Marseille to Paris, respectively, neither of these performers play the most curious characters in the film. While the title refers to them specifically—a phrase off a fictitious quote from the Buddha in which people who are destined to meet are bound to cross paths regardless of circumstances—I found my attention focusing on the older men, at least ten or twenty years their senior, that surround them. It isn’t that Corey and Vogel are not compelling—they are—but the older gentlemen’s vast experience command a special magnetism.

“The Red Circle” is written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, so confident in his vision and execution that nearly every scene is precise and to the point. Although essentially a heist picture, there is no glamor in the posh jewelry store robbery. It is methodical, clinical, certainly cold and impersonal. It is the complete opposite of ostentatious modern heist films in that it does not feel the need to impress the audience with technologies that whir or gadgetries that light up. The writer-director trusts that viewers will find the sequence to be impressive as is because an audacious task is being performed. The threat of getting caught looms and we feel its inevitability creeping in with each second.

The robbery takes place during the second act and it is executed with great skill. There is no score or soundtrack that serve as signposts. In fact, silence is paramount; for example, each time a piece of clothing or body part makes contact with another object, a light scratching noise might as well as be sound coming from a French horn. Every movement counts and must be done with intention and accuracy. We watch in anticipation as Corey and Vogel climb down a relatively unstable ladder, how they slowly skip over sensors that will trigger an alarm, how they utilize shadows to blend in and take breath. They cannot afford one misstep. Meanwhile, the night guard thinks he hears suspicious noises.

Yves Montand and André Bourvil play Jansen and Mattei, a former cop who is recruited to the heist and a policeman in charge of recapturing Vogel since his escape from the train, respectively. These men offer intriguing motivations. Although apparent they have strict moral codes, they do not always follow them. And sometimes their occupation conflicts with their code. This creates great drama and infuses an unpredictability in a story that wears a certain formality. On the surface, there are chess pieces moving around the board. But look closely and observe the stresses that each man undergoes. One gets the impression that they enjoy the challenges simply because it is in their nature to relish danger.

Jansen the marksman is most enthralling. He is the final important character to be introduced; we do not meet him until just about halfway through. And when we do, we are underwhelmed. How can an alcoholic prove essential to the heist? We assume he is a liability, the person to make an egregious mistake that allows for everyone to get caught. But this is no ordinary heist film that is made for mainstream audiences. The story has a thesis that must be followed. This opens up interesting avenues to explore.

Montand stands in one place holding a certain posture. The performer communicates that the character is exhausted—not physically or that it is because he is an alcoholic. Jansen appears tired because he has seen it all, that nothing surprises him any longer. We sense that the man wants to die because there is no more excitement. We wonder later why he opted to join the heist in the first place. To him, bags of jewels or money does not lead to freedom—which separates him from his partners in crime. Perhaps the writer-director is correct in introducing this character last. He provides the grayest of gray. And yet when a specific task is at hand, his approach is that of black and white.

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