Our review of Le Cercle Rouge (Blu-Ray) Criterion Collection , published April 12th, 2011, is also available.
"All men are guilty, Le directeur?"
The red circle is everywhere. Call it fate or destiny, the undeniable force that makes our planet's population seemingly coalesce into one small world, but it's always there. It's in the street signs and traffic signals. It's in the taillights of cars and the advertising on billboards. It magically appears and disappears with every puff of a cigarette and suddenly shocks and spreads with a life-draining devastation from a bullet hole. If what Buddha says is correct—that all men, no matter how divergent their paths in this world, are destined to be enclosed in a single sphere of existence—then there must be some cosmic connector, some supernatural glue that does the binding. Perhaps it's emotion, that linking sensation that finds collective meaning in tears and laughter. Maybe it's physicality, the idea that we are all cellular based beings needing the same fuel and fire to keep us going. Or maybe it's morality, the universal integrities of good and evil that guide us and we occasionally fight so hard for and against. Or maybe it's all three, a trio of traits that when added up equal one easily recognizable entity: the human being. Perhaps it's our very nature as individuals within the order that keeps us forever locked within the red circle. In the 1970 crime film Le Cercle Rouge, the thread that connects us, the common aspect of existence within this set plane of reality, is examined from the standpoint of four men, three criminals and one cop who all find themselves fighting for the same notion: hope. Hope for freedom—from crime, from drink, from jail—but also hope for the removal of the crimson stigma of sin.
Facts of the Case
Corey has been in jail for years. Just before he is released, a guard tells him of a simple robbery job. He would be willing to help arrange it for the ex-con. Corey wants to change, but the lure of easy money is powerful. After confronting his ex-mob boss and fleeing to the countryside, Corey inadvertently picks up Vogel, an escapee fleeing from justice. On his way to prison with Officer Mattei, he escaped the train and gave the cop the slip. Mattei is now desperate to catch him. And Vogel is desperate not to get caught.
Corey drives them both to Paris and lets Vogel stay in his apartment. He tells him of the jewelry store heist idea and Vogel immediately wants in. He offers the services of an old friend, an ex-police sharpshooter named Jansen. Corey contacts the now alcoholic bum who agrees to the job. After casing the joint and setting up a fence for the goods, the gang goes about a late night break-in and precision burglary. All the while, Mattei combs the streets of the city of light, using his contacts, informants, and legal pressures to draw ever closer to Vogel, Corey and the gang.
It's a lesson in cultures to see how differently every country views and celebrates the crime thriller. Italy has its giallo, lurid details and sinful sexiness wrapped up in a mechanical shell. The Japanese bathe their tales of cops and robbers in age-old customs and the life or death notion of honor and pride. For those in China—and Hong Kong more specifically—mob bosses and assassins have been turned inside out, fueled by the a hyperactive action style and belief that both sides, the legal and illegal, fight the same internal struggles with self and society. Oddly enough, it's the West that seems to have taken a more caricatured approach to cops and robbers. A typical US gangster film sets up its parameters of bad versus badge, loads up the Tommy guns, and lets the reign of lead ensue. Or other times, a sultry dame and a private dick try to sort out a case of minor intrigue while falling in and out of love and the web of the real killer. While it didn't invent it outright, America sure made the mob movie operatic, turning it into Shakespearean tragedy of universal pain and pathos, be it Rico Bandello, Cody Jarrett, or Don Corleone. But leave it to the French to find a way of reinvigorating the crime and caper film. As pioneers (along with the Italians) of neo-realism and the experimental new wave, the filmmakers of Paris understood the nuances of the stateside immigrant epic and went about conceiving it through their own skewed perception. No one did it better than Jean-Pierre Melville. Over the course of a dozen or so films, Melville used the trench coat and hat of the Tinseltown thug/mug and turned him into a man of mystery, an enigma with a gun. And Le Cercle Rouge is one of his best examples of this.
Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle) is heist film as existentialism. It's a character study told with events, not words. It's a stellar work of implied understatement and a remarkably profound look at the rather pedestrian, plebian world of crime and crime fighting. In this seminal 1970 French film, there is no clear division between the under and real world. All segments of society are seen as devious and divisive. The police are intertwined so completely with the local criminal element that they cannot solve cases without their help. Likewise, when seeking accomplices and co-conspirators for their acts of fraud and theft, the street thugs and mafia brute find friends in the dishonored and corrupt ex-members of the force. As an experiment in fracturing the felon formula, Le Cercle Rouge relies heavily on the nuances and knowledge of past pronouncements on the subject of criminality. It also relies on the classics of noir and gangland sagas of the 1930s thru '50s to fill in blanks that it would rather leave un-addressed. It gets us to root for felons and failures and then makes us reflect on why we would champion such scum. Brilliantly directed by Melville, it's a movie that moves at a deliberate pace, never wasting a shot or shifting its tone. While it does play like a symphony to sin, it's also a sad story of men without place, people without a part in the normal social structure. We are visiting a forgotten realm in Le Cercle Rouge, a place were everyone knows everybody, even if they didn't know it before.
This is a film told in sections, three stylistically differing acts (think GoodFellas or Blow before its time). Each movement here adds to the suspense and complexity of the film's plot and narrative themes. At first, the scenes are all subtle precision, slow and near static, building one on top of the other to lay foundations and create dynamics. Methodically, director Jean-Pierre Melville adds textures and characterization, all the while pushing our protagonists ever further into the story. The second section begins as the plans for the heist commence. The use of wipes and dissolves speeds up the sequencing of events, showing us that, while the devil may be in the details, those specific elements are going to be assumed here. We aren't supposed to see everything. We are to be given the essence of the job, the concept of crime as a workaday element in these men's lives. The final portion of the film, after the deed has been done and a fence is sought, is far more swift and scattered. The interlinking storylines and characters converge and crash into one another in a chaotic attempt at breaking out of the fateful bonds, the ever-present ring of red that constrains and condemns them. We jump from the police station to the gangster bar to a quiet and serene Yves Montand and then back to the cops. All the while, the tension is wound tighter. After the pins and needle necessities of the jewelry store heist, this randomized approach throws the audience off its guard, tossing us into the aftermath where anything can happen, anyone can drop dime and well constructed plans fall apart.
Le Cercle Rouge is all about planning and plotting, about time spent in jail cells or dingy hostiles bidding and trading on the minutes and hours. It is a film about disgraced men, about the lost lone male within society as the ultimate expression of freedom, depression and the anti-hero. We never see any women of substance in Le Cercle Rouge. When Alain Delon's Corey confronts his old mob boss at home, we see a blousy red head, completely nude, wander up to a closed bedroom door to listen in on the exchange of words. She has some vague connection to Corey (he carries her picture in his wallet). But after robbing the Don, he places her photo in the now empty vault. He is giving her up—whoever she is—for the next phase of his life. Then there is the unsung bachelor amongst the underworld brutes: the dapper, determined police officer Mattei. A methodical man of habits (we see him coming home twice in the movie, and both times he goes through the same routine, even addressing his cats in a practiced fashion), he doesn't have a wife (though we do see a photo of a woman on his desk) nor does he seem to need one. Le Cercle Rouge is a movie ridding itself systematically of females once and for all. Certainly they make up a background element to the film: dancers in clubs, hookers, and hat check girls. But there is never a balancing feminine presence within the movie the way there is in standard Hollywood fare: no girlfriend with a heart of gold or accidental sex partner who grows into something more important. No, Le Cercle Rouge denies the obvious sexual representations in its title from the feminine perspective (lips, nipples, etcetera) and instead returns the focus to the guys: hard-hearted and psychologically lone rogues. It gives the story a decidedly tough exterior.
This doesn't mean that the movie is not ripe with other, overt symbolism. Indeed, Le Cercle Rouge is constantly cluing in the audience as to the meaning behind the seemingly vague confrontations going on. When Corey discovers Vogel hiding out in the trunk of his car, the confrontation takes place in a horrible, muddy field. Corey is getting "dirty" again and Vogel is back to the "filth" he is known for (his exact crimes are never explained). The train taking Vogel to justice never enters its "tunnel" like most other extensions of "manhood." It merely moves along the track, continually drifting further off into the distance. Montand's alcoholic ex-policeman Jansen lives in a disheveled flat with a secret doorway in the wall that magically opens and disappears. It leads into a black void, much like his life. We have seen his detoxification hallucinations come pouring out of it, and we see him dread approaching it. Whatever he has done to have himself thrown off the force obviously hides in that closet/alcove, waiting and hungry, but we never discover the sinister source. Indeed, we do not know what anyone is guilty of in Le Cercle Rouge. It's as if the past crimes committed by these wayward men are no longer important. They are not beyond some manner of redemption, but they are beyond the grasp of innocence. They will never be pure again, no matter how straight they now walk or how hidden they become. They are forever tainted. As the Chief Inspector says to his lead detective on the case, everyone is guilty. We may be born without sin, but that quickly changes. And that is true about the trio of troublemakers in Le Cercle Rouge. They are men marked by their past and also by their destiny—their fate as part of the red circle.
All the acting here is first rate. Alain Delon confirms why he was such a stellar leading man of French cinema in the 1960s and '70s with his portrayal of Corey. Silent but sinister, there is a strength born of resilience in this ex-con. Similarly, Gian Maria Volenté simmers with a sinister stare as the ticking time bomb Vogel. But just like the dualistic nature of all the characters in the film (working both sides of the law for their own ends, living one way but believing another), he is a valuable asset in the controlled environment of the heist. Yves Montand probably has the showiest role (he gets to give the DTs a good primal scream or two), but he is also the most memorable, a man of principles who is trying to escape the deadening paralysis of alcoholism. While he is a disgraced cop and a pathetic rum head, he is also a dignified dandy, a suave showman with a sauced secret. Even Bourvil, noted French comedian and songwriter, gives a remarkable performance as Mattei. Asked to essay the role of investigator, instigator, and calm center to a whirlwind of crime and corruption, this small, specific man with the funny hair and wicked smile makes his officer an example of duty torn by practice to forever walk the fine line between the legal and the illicit. These are the men who will be forever defined by the events in Le Cercle Rouge, the members of the sphere of violence and blood.
At its core, Le Cercle Rouge is all about fortune, about how it cannot be forced nor can it be avoided. It's the answer to the question of why some people are destined to fail while others seem to glide to ever-higher accolades. It's about place in the pecking order and how choice de-evolves into chance. It's a story of three men hoping to make one final multi-million dollar score to salvage their otherwise wasted existences. But they learn a lesson that so many of us never even begins to comprehend. They are not meant to be profitable or pious. They are men of a certain trait, of the caliber of crime. And by using the very instrument for freedom that trapped them into a world of vice and lack of virtue, they are completing that bloody cycle, that red circle, that keeps dragging them over and over back into and around each other. Perhaps we are not all evil, like the police chief thinks. Or maybe we can repent and wash ourselves clean of past mistakes. But once we have taken the steps into the looking glass, once we've entered the crimson realm of crime and punishment, we are forever linked to it. Like the social stigma of conviction (Corey), the public outcry of escape (Vogel), or the human misery of deflated hero worship (Jansen), everyone in Le Cercle Rouge wears a scarlet letter on their very soul. That letter is a circle, an "O," which stands for too many things—outsider, offender, outcast. Certainly this is an entertaining, exceptional crime thriller, but it is philosophically and psychologically so much more.
Criterion has delivered a remarkable print for this film, part of an overall package that is absolutely stunning in its breadth and scope. As for the transfer, it is unbelievably beautiful. Looking as if it was shot last week and not 34 years ago, there is a gorgeous richness to the color palette and a sumptuous feel to the landscapes. By preserving Melville's original 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio, Criterion maintains the original look and visual style of the film. Melville completely understood the camera frame as a compositional artist's tool, and there are several shots that rank with some of the most magical ever placed on film: a long view of policemen, all lined up along a pastoral green field, marching ever diligently toward the audience in a fantastic show of force; long shadowy views of back alley entranceways and rooftop alcoves; snow sweeping briskly about the French countryside; a '70s recreation of a '20s speakeasy. Along with lighting and location, color is the final important element in the film (Montand's nausea inducing wallpaper, the Police Department's stylized, Brazil-like façades), and the preservation of said by Criterion is magnificent. One cannot say enough good things about the way this movie looks. It adds a great deal to the movie's magic and ambiance.
As does the sound. This is a movie whose aural atmosphere is as important as its look. Using the original Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack, Criterion cleans up any hiss or pops and produces a minimalist marvel of theatrical sound. Everything—from the near silent ticking of a jewelry store security device to the brazen call of an alarm—is bright, vibrant, and exceptional. Sometimes so tranquil that you can hear the characters holding their breath, other times so sonic it's like being front and center at a floorshow, the audio elements of Le Cercle Rouge are just as important as the visuals for helping to tell the untold story here, and Criterion's handling of the sonic is sensational.
With such a wonderful audio and visual treat on their hands, the company was wise to move the majority of the bonus material to a second DVD offering. Just like the basics found on the first disc, the material here is superb. Disc Two is really a primer on the life, times, and talent of director Jean-Pierre Melville. Using everything from archival film interviews and produced pieces for French television to recent interviews with key players and scholars, the wealth and depth of material here is unbelievable. Of this rare footage, the best is probably the long form piece entitled Cinesastes de notre temps: Jean Pierre Melville (portrait en 9 poses). Basically an attempt to cover every aspect of his life, we get to know Melville in five of his nine "poses"—as businessman, recluse, worker, etcetera. Fascinating because, over and above all the phony artifice used in the presentation (title cards, winking self-absorbed narrative), we get to dig beneath the surface of the man and discover what made him and his films work. Melville was a notorious night owl, usually wanting almost complete darkness and silence in which to write. He enjoyed the life of the loner, escaping to his country estate or the living quarters above his studio business offices. He comes across as a burly, brusque man with a penchant for cowboy hats and sunglasses. But we learn in the later interview material (with assistant Bernard Stora and author Rui Nogueira) that Melville was a sensitive animal lover, a wicked comedian, and a man of many dapper, discrete tastes. A more complete portrait of Melville the man will probably not be found anywhere.
But as a filmmaker, the on-set material is truly revelatory. We learn that Melville was very much like Hitchcock in that the best part of the movie making process for him was the creation of the screenplay and setups and working in the editing. And just like the English master of suspense, Melville detested the filming procedure itself. We also gain a great deal of insight into his approach with actors, with details and with the themes in his films. Melville did not feature women because he claimed not to be able to write for them. He liked crime thrillers and returned to them often since they recalled his love affair with Hollywood film noir and the classic Cagney/Bogart vehicles of the time. But we understand that the symbols scene within his movies (and especially in Le Cercle Rouge) are indeed there, planned and purposely provided by the auteur himself. Even with the truncated nature of this material (when they say "excerpts," they mean it), it's fascinating to see how the actors respond to their questions and how intelligent and commanding Melville is. Add to this the wonderful liner notes booklet provided by Criterion in the case, and you've got an informative and engaging look at this film and filmmaker.
Actually, "book" is more like it. Featuring a few words from John Woo, a discussion of the "red circles" within the film, and an excerpt from Nogueira's book Melville on Melville, we get a multifaceted look at this film that is as engrossing as the movie itself. From a straightforward analysis of the film and its meaning, to the work of composer Eric Demarsan, we're provided with a thorough, detailed examination of this movie. And Le Cercle Rouge is a film that deserves all the attention it can get. Call it a gangster epic. Call it a heist film. Call it a tale of retribution through male bonding and loyalty or a denouncement of the true nature of man, but to call it ordinary would be a mistake. Le Cercle Rouge, while repaying the pioneers of the past for the entire cops and robbers genre, uses the very means of filmmaking (the camera, the lights, the lens, and the frame) to simultaneously celebrate and deconstruct the crime thriller. Just like the noir classics of the past and the frenzied free-for-alls of the future, all mob movies end up somewhere in the red circle with Melville's miraculous film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
About the only thing missing from this DVD package of Le Cercle Rouge is a commentary and, in actuality, hoping for one would probably seem foolish. Director Melville died in 1973 and Yves Montand passed away in 1991. Alain Delon is still alive and active in film, as are several of the crewmembers. Because it keeps most of its secrets so close to the vest, a narrative about the visual cues and subtle symbols (as well as obvious ones) would have been welcome. It might help those whose patience is tried when guns aren't blazing or cars are chasing in a crime film. Maybe a film critic or Melville scholar could have provided one of those usually dry but always intriguing examinations of the movie, giving us shot by shot what we are supposed to interpret from the screen. Sure, the added disc of material is wonderful. It's like meeting Melville at the height of his powers and chatting with him for a few moments. But the time we spend with him is too brief, and the movie he created too complex and deep to benefit from a chance encounter. We needed more scholarship and spoken history about this movie, its players, and its creator. What Criterion gives us is a wonderful set of hors d'oeuvres, but what we could really use is a complete, hearty meal.
It's an old phrase, but people always love to throw out the notion of "honor among thieves." When viewed at a glance, most individuals probably think that one rat won't squeal on another for the sake of a deal at the hands of the fuzz. But in reality, a better way to look at this concept is that, once you've entered the world of the lawless, you've entered a realm where real world ideals like sympathy and grace may be dead, but notions like honor and loyalty are protected and embraced. Just like the red circle of conspiracy that binds a gang together, or a crimson cult of mob bosses making peace before more of their individual factions "sleep with the fishes," the code of the crook is vital. It is something that, like destiny and fate, creates lasting bonds amongst those unlucky enough to find themselves stained within the life. There is no rebirth, no real chance at a moral makeover of redemption. Once you've entered the lower depths, you stink from the association forever. For Corey, Vogel, and Jansen (and even the meticulous Mattei), another old phrase is equally true: you are the company you keep. And in the underworld of wickedness and lawless despair that fills Le Cercle Rouge, it's hard not to see how this is true. Loyalty and friendship may connect them. It may even free them from a sense of self-loathing. But there is really no escape from the red circle. It is everywhere: In the signs along the street, in the words of a law book, at the end of a gun muzzle, and in the aperture that opens onto the doorway to the Gates of Damnation.
Le Cercle Rouge is a brilliant, challenging film and is free to go. Criterion is also cleared of all charges and acquitted handsomely.
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