Le Cercle Rouge, first released in France in 1970, was the 12th of writer-director Jean-Pierre Melville’s 13 films and it’s the ultimate distillation of the rigorously detached and coolly observant approach that he first bought to the gangster genre with Bob le Flambeur (1955). It’s a style whose muted ambience can border on tedium, especially when maintained for two hours and 20 minutes. It’s not just that Melville concentrates on the minutiae of crime and pursuit, it’s that he puts them in the context of more mundane details, leaving in what other movies, especially those dealing with an underworld milieu, tend to leave out.
If somebody parks a car or walks down the street or up a staircase, we’re going to be shown this apparently nongermane activity at length. In American B movies of the ’40s and ’50s, this was a common device to pad out the running time (one is reminded of the “MST3K” joke: “Nobody will be seated during the tense ‘parking the car’ sequence.”), but with Melville it’s a matter of elaborating on a directorial point of view. A mood of contemplation is being encouraged. In Rouge, hurtling toward one’s doom can be a very slow process.
As a result, everything seems emotionally flattened, at least while it’s happening. What in a more conventional film would be moments of heightened reality — with the action or violence enlarged to cathartic dimensions — is presented by Melville as matter-of-fact incidents growing out of the general malaise. Even the film’s centerpiece, the daring robbery of a seemingly impenetrable jewelry store, seems more a matter of process than passion; it’s a good night’s work done by skilled craftsmen whose single-minded and obviously dangerous pursuit of money seems motivated by neither greed nor perversion but rather a sense of professional obligation. One would be hard-pressed to imagine this dour trio of thieves actually enjoying the fruits of their labor. They rob the place because that’s what they do.
The film benefits greatly from the iconic presence of Alain Delon as Corey, the man who gets a tip about the jewelry store heist just before he’s released from prison. Corey is a slight variation on the character Delon played for Melville in Le Samourai (1967), where his hit man, Jef Costello, had a cold heart but an innocent gaze. Corey seems more thoroughly steely, his handsomeness a mask of enigmatic cool. His partners in crime are an escaped convict named Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte) and the corrupt and alcoholic ex-cop Jansen (Yves Montand).
Jansen is in the film noir tradition of the emotionally crippled criminal genius, reminiscent of Alan Napier as the alcoholic who sobers up just long enough to plot the robbery in Robert Siodmak’s Crisscross (1949) and of Sam Jafee’s fatally horny mastermind in John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950). (There’s no question that Melville was very familiar with both films.) Montand also gets the one sensationalistic scene in this most low-keyed of thrillers, being terrorized by a huge imaginary spider during a bout of delirium tremens. And though he quickly recovers a semblance of cool, as befitting a Melville character, there’s also a lovely moment during the heist where he takes a flask out of his pocket, holds it up to his face as though to sniff it, then puts it away unopened.
Originally released in a cut and dubbed version, Rouge has been restored to its full lingering length. Now we can see more of the tacky nightclub where Delon hangs out — which must have the worst floor show in the history of France — and, one suspects (it’s been years since I saw the edited version), more scenes involving police captain Mattai (André Bourvil), another professional whose effort to recapture Vogel leads him to the trio of thieves.
In Melville’s world, predestination is such a given that his characters seem to carry the knowledge of their doom even as they try to forestall it. How else to explain their pervasive joylessness? In its way, it’s a very moral universe he depicts; all the bad guys are heading down the same drain and they know it. Meanwhile they do their job, concentrating on the details, losing themselves in the process.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.