Ex-con Corey (Alain Delon) aims to settle the score with the crime boss who stole his girlfriend. To that end Corey recruits escaped convict Vogel (Gian Maria Volontè) and alcoholic ex-cop-turned-precision marksman Jansen (Yves Montand) to pull off a major jewel heist at Paris’ prestigious Place Vendôme. But the police, led by the determined Commissioner Mattei (André Bourvil) are on their trail…
Jean-Pierre Melville had been making classy crime thrillers for years before the superb Le Samurai (1967) won him international acclaim. After the wartime resistance thriller Army of Shadows (1969), Melville returned to his beloved gangster genre with the hugely ambitious Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle). Armed with a precise plot, an all-star cast and superb photography by Henri Decaë, to say nothing of the director’s own virtuoso technique, the film became Melville’s biggest commercial success. Le Cercle Rouge encapsulates Melville’s key qualities as an auteur: his passion for “absolute cinema”, his love of American culture, and the humane yet profoundly pessimistic outlook derived from his experiences in the French Resistance during the Second World War.
“All men are guilty”, says the Inspector General (Paul Amiot) who believes crime resides inside all of us, waiting to arise. Unlike his later imitators, Melville is not a sentimentalist when it comes to criminals. Nevertheless, the laconic camaraderie between his philosophising gangsters is more affecting than the efforts of the cold-hearted cops out to apprehend them. Three powerhouse performances propel the film: steely-eyed Alain Delon, brutal-yet-oddly-moral wild card Gian Maria Volontè (who replaced the unavailable Jean-Paul Belmondo and clashed with the notoriously authoritarian director), and a haggard, haunted Yves Montand. So unlike his usual suave self. Strange to think that same year, Montand was singing and dancing opposite Barbara Streisand in Vincente Minnelli’s On A Clear Day You Can See Forever.
However, the most interesting performance comes from André Bourvil, or simply Bourvil as he was known to his many fans. Bourvil was a comic actor with a string of hit comedies under his belt before producer Robert Dorfmann persuaded him to replace the departing Lino Ventura (another casualty of Melville’s temper tantrums). As the dogged, yet conversely cat-loving police commissioner, Bourvil displays a remarkably taciturn cruel streak, although sadly this was to be his final film role. He died only a few weeks before the film’s release in November, 1970.
Melville borrowed the iconography of the Hollywood gangster film, but set them in a mythically stylised world where the existential turmoil only alluded to in American noir was writ large. His joy in the mechanics of cinema counteracts the pessimism of the narrative. Each set-piece is impeccably crafted with stellar imagery: the wide open spaces that mirror Corey’s existential void; the show-stopping dance numbers with surreally-attired chorus girls; Jansen hallucinating his bed is crawling with spiders, lizards and rats; then later firing a needle-thin bullet through a keyhole. The robbery itself is executed with silent precision and cinematic panache, with none of the clichés associated with heist movies. Nobody panics, throws a hissy fit or lets greed get the better of them, but everything unravels anyway. Such is the doomed world these desperate men inhabit.