Le Cercle Rouge (1970) was French director Jean-Pierre Melville’s second-to-last film. Melville had scored big in 1967 with Le Samourai, which featured an impeccably-dressed, fedora-wearing assassin played by a handsome, thirty-one-year-old Alain Delon. Cercle is Samourai’s kin: dialogue is minimal, moodiness is high, and the screen is washed in a blue, somber ambiance.
There’s nothing complicated about the plot. Delon playes Corey, a recently released convict who, while in jail, was informed by a security guard about a jewelry shop and its troves of trinkets just waiting to be stolen. Corey wants to take the job. To that end, he befriends an escaped convict named Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte). Vogel needs a place to stay and a way to make some fast cash, and Corey offers both. Vogel is Corey’s equal in sensibility and criminal know-how. The two men team up with a mentally troubled marksman named Jansen (Yves Montand) and begin to plot the heist. Alas, Vogel is being hunted by Commissaire Mattei (André Bourvil), who believes in doing what it takes to capture his quarry.
Cercle is filled with Melville’s tropes and types. There’s the swanky but sleazy nightclub with its beautiful but indifferent dancing girls; here, Cercle‘s deal-making characters make the gleaming, Kubrick-like veneer of the place seem both cheap and dangerous. There’s an effective use of minimal music. Above all, there are the small-time, low-life underworld characters who so consistently seemed to fascinate Melville, lonely, beaten-down men who keep coming back for more of the only life they appear to want to know.
The colors, photography and sound design are splendid. Melville and cinematographer Henri Decaë plunge us into a world that is blue and wet and autumnal, damp and foggy, muddy and rainy. There’s an amazing moment when the camera hovers over a pool table and we see cues that enter in at the screen’s corners. Are the filmmakers playing a game with the film’s viewers? The heist sequence is a masterwork of close-ups, long shots, and camera movement. Decaë’s sleek camerawork is enunciated by the film’s sound design. In the opening sequences, for instance, hearing the sound of the car careening through the streets of Marseille at night is like hearing a prolonged and unexpected explosion.
Delon’s return for Cercle is both welcome and, as it plays out onscreen, surprising. In Samurai, he was lithe and smooth. That fedora shadowed mysterious eyes and a face almost satirically youthful. In Cercle, though, while equally handsome, Delon is bulkier, and he sports a moustache and fuller features. His on-screen physical presence suggests Corey’s working-class origins and a life weighed down with care and introspection.
Cercle is much like Corey: it is without humor or sensuousness. Its philosophical premises are stated by one of Mattei’s superiors, who tells him, “All men are guilty” and “We all change for the worse.” This morose world view is one on which Melville built numerous films, and it severely limits our psychological insight into the lives of his characters. The camera in Cercle shows us the surfaces of things, but its characters fail to imply meaning, explanation, depth. Their motives are inscrutable. They are neither anarchists nor moral critics of society’s pursuit of the material. In Melville, there is no there there. Has any filmmaker ever made a life of crime look so unappealing?
For all these faults, however, the homoerotic overtones near the film’s end momentarily lift Cercle beyond its bleak and pensive self. In those seconds, there’s the hint of love, and thus of something grand. That hint is obscured almost as quickly as it appears, but it takes to film to another level, and makes it one of Melville’s best.