Friday, February 15, 2013
Le Cercle Rouge
Jean-Pierre Melville returns to the neo-noir with Le Cercle Rouge (1970), his next-to-last film. Similar in structure to Jules Dassin's Rififi, it's another stylized tale of French cops and robbers.
Corey (Alain Delon) receives a tip for a jewel heist right after leaving jail. He teams up with fugitive Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte) and Jansen (Yves Montand), a sharpshooting ex-cop. The heist goes perfectly, but the criminals run afoul of Captain Mattei (Andre Bouvril), already tracking Vogel. Mattei is a ruthless investigator who uses methods fair and foul to trap the crooks.
Le Cercle Rouge sees Melville return to his favorite theme, criminals bound to a code of honor. This theme is introduced comically: Corey doesn't bat an eye when Vogel sneaks into his car trunk. Vogel soon repays the favor by shooting two rival gangsters. Jansen suffers from guilt and alcoholism but proves meticulous. The three men form an unlikely comradeship: even when one backs out of the proceeds he risks his life to rescue the others. This contrasts with the unscrupulous Mattei, who's not above entrapping informers and outright trickery to nab his prey. Melville's contrast of criminal chivalry with police ruthlessness prefigures John Woo and Michael Mann's crime sagas.
Le Cercle Rouge is an exercise in style, its simple plot and abstract characters secondary to Melville's direction. He presages Fred Zinneman's The Day of the Jackal in showing the criminals' preparations and the police manhunt in meticulous, almost tedious detail. The movie builds tension efficiently, paying off with the actual heist. Running over ten minutes, it's a remarkable sequence, all impenetrable shadows and tense sounds, staged without music and little dialogue. The more conventional action and outdoor photography pale in comparison.
Alain Delon repeats his minimalist turn from Le Samourai, adding a bushy mustache and wry sense of humor. Yves Montand underplays Jansen's alcoholism and moral shadiness quite well. Even Gian Maria Volonte, so delightfully hammy in his Spaghetti Westerns, dials down as a desperate, hunted criminal. The standout is Andre Bouvril, making his final appearance. Best-known as an amiable comedy star, Bouvril plays brilliantly against-type as the implacable inspector.
Le Cercle Rouge won't offer much new to Melville fans. From this director though, more of the same certainly isn't a bad thing.