Le Cercle Rouge or for us non-French speaking moviegoers, The Red Circle. With some leftover b-day money, I bought the pricey Criterion Collection DVD, and 18 months later after initial viewing, here's the review.
Over a three-year span, French director Jean-PierreMelville had one of the best strings of movies ever for a director starting with Le Samourai in 1967, continuing with Army of Shadows in 1969 and wrapping up with 1970's Cercle Rouge. I've yet to see a Melville film I didn't enjoy, but 'LCR' was my favorite. It's a slower-paced heist movie that features the director's typically cool gangsters in a world where everyone looks out for themselves and anyone would turn you in if it would benefit them even a little bit. But more than that, it is a surprisingly deep look at the criminal underworld, and the way complete strangers bond and work together in strenuous situations...in this case a jewelry heist.
In Paris, three men are about to work together for the first time on a perfectly planned jewelry heist that will net them almost $20 million francs. There's Corey (Alain Delon), a recently released prisoner who has nothing left for him back home and vows to never return to prison. Supremely cool, calm and collected, nothing seemingly can get to him. Second is Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte), an escaped fugitive who accidentally meets Corey, the two forming a quick friendship when they realize how similar they are. Last there's Jansen (Yves Montand), a former cop and expert marksman struggling with a drinking problem, a man just looking for redemption and a second chance. But while these three conspire together to pull the jewelry heist, a police inspector (Andres Bourvil) investigates anything and everything he can about Vogel, wanting to catch the man who slipped through his grasp.
For fans of Melville, this is a prime example of when a director figures everything out in the moviemaking process, knowing exactly what he wants in a finished product. He puts it together here. His characters are loners, men of principle who even in the underworld hold honor and respect to a high degree. The gangsters wear suits, trench coats and hats, smoke cigarettes and drink hard liquor. There is always a cool, light jazz soundtrack playing over their actions. They populate late night clubs and lonely, dusty apartments. And no matter what, these guys are cool to the utmost. It is a highly stylized, very suave and most likely idealized view of the criminal underworld, but you know what? It doesn't matter. Melville drops you into this gangster's world, and you just go along for the ride.
We go into this world with the three men who've never worked together, and know very little about each other. But with little to no background on Corey (what was he in prison for?) or Vogel (why was he arrested?), Melville makes these characters who would be very easy to dislike the ones you side with. This is a performance that ranks with Le Samourai as Delon's best. His Corey is so quietly understated you wonder if Delon is even acting or just playing himself. In terms of pure cool, it doesn't get better than this character. The same for Volonte as Vogel, an intense part as this mysterious crook we know nothing about. Montand gets the most background for his character and doesn't disappoint. Separately, all three parts are perfect, but together, they're as good as it gets in movies. The scenes among the three are pitch perfect, each character knowing what is expected of them. These men are professionals and they know how to get the job done.
The tour-de-force scene is an almost 30-minute extended sequence with not a word spoken as Corey, Vogel and Jansen pull off the heist. With an obvious comparison to Jules Dassin's Rififi, Melville creates a tension that is hard to explain. You're so geared up during the scene because any sound, any sound at all, will spell doom for this criminal trio. The security system they're going up against features sensors, hidden locks, and a wide array of technology to deter them. In terms of pure moviemaking skill, I don't know if Melville was ever better than he was here. The whole heist is about as ideally laid out as a movie could do. The whole movie is good, but that extended scene sets it apart from most.
MILD SPOILERS If you've watched any Melville movies, you'll know he's from the old school way of thinking; if your character has done something bad, he's going to have to pay for it. Le Cercle Rouge applies in every way. I'm not going to spoil it here, but it's certainly not a happy ending. The police closing in as the three desperately look to get some cash out of the deal, they make a gutsy play. It's an ending that caught me by surprise the second time around as much as the first one. It is a surprisingly moving if downbeat ending that shows the honor and loyalty these crooks have working together. They're partners, and that's how it is, end result be damned.
It all comes together with a fictional quote that explains the title, the red circle. Men of a certain ilk like these criminals are destined to end up in the same place as unpleasant as it assuredly will be. There's nothing they can to do avoid it, this is the path they've chosen. In the end, they're going to end up together in this 'red circle.' And in the end for Melville, that's where they'll be no matter if it's far from happy. A great ending to one of my favorite movies.
Le Cercle Rouge <----French trailer (1970): ****/****