Jean-Pierre Melville’s penultimate film, Le Cercle Rouge (1970), which plays matinees this weekend at IFC Center, is the kind of formalist exercise in genre-movie clothes (in this case, a jewelry heist flick) that is rarely attempted, but when attempted, more often than not brought off with at least some degree of success. Perhaps that’s because filmmakers know that to attempt an uber-formal deconstruction of a beloved genre requires the finesse and even-handed balance of a magician, or a tightrope walker—or, well, a jewel thief. Melville’s aesthetic austerity has always jibed in parallel with the detached coolness of his characters—most notably syncing with his alter-ego Alain Delon’s performance in Le Samourai—but it’s in Cercle Rouge, moreso than Samourai, that his ice-cold stylistic magnificence leads to a deeper connection with his characters and themes.
On paper a heist movie like any other (but only on paper), Le Cercle Rouge concerns a just-paroled thief, Corey (Delon) who, after robbing a mob boss and former associate, crosses paths by sheer chance with a recently escaped murderer, Vogel (Gian-Maria Volonte). While police inspector Mattei (Andre Bourvil) works on tracking down Vogel, Corey enlists the escapee and a former cop, Jansen (Yves Montand) in putting together a jewelry heist. While the cops go after Vogel by trying to turn citizens with connections to the underworld into informers, the mob goes after Corey by more direct means.
While easy, it would be a mistake to argue that Le Cercle Rouge is not really a heist film, that it uses the pretense of the heist story as a means for examining the ways in which men of the underworld conduct themselves, the codes they live by, and so forth. Of course the film contains those elements, but rather than unmaking the heist genre or using the genre as a Trojan horse, Melville is remaking it. Anyone who has seen enough by-the-numbers Hollywood crime films will literally see the rules and formal tenets of cinema rewritten before their eyes in viewing Le Cercle Rouge. The adage desperately bandied about film schools today is that “in film, storytelling is visual,” and never has the effectiveness of visual storytelling been more apparent than in Melville’s body of work, especially this film.
Consider the film’s piece de resistance, the jewelry heist itself. Clocking in at 25 minutes long, the scene contains no montages, no voice-over sketching out the plan beforehand, no music, no wisecracking dialogue—indeed, not even a single word. A staggering, audacious work of silent cinema that only could have been made well past that cinema’s death, the scene is both a critique of contemporary filmmaking—most of which, in both 1970 and now, surely contained too much dialogue by half for Melville’s—as well as a shattering of cinematic mythology. Melville seems to be saying to the audience, you want to see a heist sequence? Fine. Then we’re going to focus on the details—the way a rope ladder falls, the sound a bag makes as it touches the ground—and you’ll see that heists are about the nitty-gritty, the minute, not grand sweeping action set-pieces.
Melville’s best films always feel lean, taut, as if they would snap if stretched any thinner, made any sparser, and Le Cercle Rouge is no exception. His characters speak so little, perform tasks so precisely, and act so decisively in the moment that what one comes away with is the sensation of weightiness, the understanding of the gravity of life. The fewer words that are spoken, the more those words mean. By the same token, in an underworld where one false move can alter the course of the rest of your life, action and decision are given a reverence rarely bestowed by the cinema. This is all the more surprising when one considers that cinema is the artistic medium for which the presentation of action, the performing of a complex task, is most naturally suited.
This reverence places the characters in a gravitas-laden light, and it is no surprise that most reviews you find of Le Cercle Rouge will weigh in heavily on the film’s themes of unwritten rules, right and wrong, the deep codes that men of the underworld live by. Those themes are all there, masterfully evoked by the fact that they’re present but often unspoken. The one exception is the moment late in the film where Jansen tells Corey that he is going to forgo his share of the loot from the heist. In what Hollywood genre thriller would this be even remotely believable? In what scenario could you not see an audience laughing such a moment off the screen? And yet, in Melville’s hands, the moment is not only not absurd, but plausible, perhaps even downright profound.