Saturday, August 27, 2011

Le Cercle Rouge

I've long held a fascination with film noir, but I've never really delved into the genre too deeply.  I blame my eccentric and erratic tastes; it's hard for me to watch too much of one type of film without wanting to mix things up a bit.  I guess that explains many of my viewing choices.  The chance to participate in the Noir-a-Thon has given me a bit more direction when I am in the mood for seriously classic cinema.  More importantly, it has given me a reason to finally get around to some movies that have been kicking around in my Instant Queue for a while.

Le Cercle Rouge, which can be translated from French as (I'm sure you can guess) "The Red Circle" references an anecdote from the Buddha, where the inevitability of fate is explained.  No matter what happens to a person or group along the way, if they are destined to meet at a particular time and place (a red circle, perhaps?), then they will meet then and there.  I tried to Google the exact quotation to see where it came from; apparently, the director made it up.  Maybe some people can make their own fate, then?
Can "fate" explain gaudy wallpaper?

Corey (Alain Delon) is about to be released early from prison, but the night before is approached by a prison guard.  The guard has a job for Corey, if he's interested.  Corey manages not to spit in the guard's face, but that's about the limit of his politeness.  He plans to get out of jail and stay out of jail.  Things aren't that easy for Corey, though, thanks to some chance circumstances (in part) and his own personal tendencies (mostly). Within a few hours of regaining his freedom, Corey has robbed and insulted a mob boss, killed a man, and helped a wanted criminal evade the police.  With problems that serious piling up, Corey has no choice but to take the prison guard up on his offer; one last heist to put him in the clear.  Of course, nothing is that simple; the company he keeps might just attract the attention of the best policeman on the French force.
"This is a tough case.  Get me Clouseau."

Not that the film actually explains much of that plot.  Le Cercle Rouge is perhaps the most minimalist screenplay I have ever seen come to life.  There is precious little dialogue and very little music.  This is a quiet movie, and it doesn't bother explaining things to the audience.  Why was Corey in jail?  That's not important.  Does he know or care where his lover/mistress is now?  I'm not certain.  What's he thinking?  Aside from "I think I'll have a cigarette," I have no idea.
There are a LOT of scenes just like this one
The sparseness of the script would normally irritate me --- I do like knowing what is going on, after all --- but writer/director Jean-Pierre Melville does a fantastic job telling this story.  Most filmmakers would naturally focus on the heist job that the guard lined up for Corey as the focus of the film.  Melville treats the heist almost as a second thought.  Don't misunderstand me --- it's an impressive heist (about twenty-five minutes without a line of dialogue), but Melville has made the characters involved seem so ridiculously smart and competent by this point that the success of the theft is a natural conclusion to their confidence. 
"We are here to chew bubble gum and perpetrate an impossible crime.  And we're all out of bubble gum."

With very little dialogue and an unconventional story structure, the acting becomes all the more important.  Alain Delon was very impressive as the actions-speak-louder-than-words main character.  If noir heroes weren't expected to make clever quips all the time, his would be the prototypical performance for a noir lead.  He's unemotional on the surface, honorable (in his own way, of course), and a bad ass.  Gian Maria Volonte nearly matches Delon's excellence as Vogel, an escaped convict.  He's not the master planner that Corey is, but he's impressive as a man of action.  Rounding out the criminal crew, Yves Montand plays a washed-up drunk with a particular talent.  I thought he was fine, and he fit the rest of the cast well, but his character has one of the most comically fast recoveries from alcoholism in the history of cinema; I was surprised to learn than Montand was a popular French singer as well as an actor, because this part isn't the normal fluff you find actor/musicians taking.  Speaking of actors that sing, the crack police detective, played by Bourvil (just the one name, like Cher), was one of the most likable policemen I have seen in a film that primarily focuses on the lawbreakers.
Maybe Corey should clean out his trunk more often

It's difficult for me to explain just how impressed I was by Melville's direction in Le Cercle Rouge.  He handled the actors perfectly.  There is not one bad performance in this entire cast, even the bit parts.  I loved how much he left for the audience to figure out on their own; if you can't figure it out, then it's not important to the story at hand.  And what, exactly, is this story, if it is not all about the heist?  Well, it's the voyage these characters take on their way to the red circle, of course.  The inevitability of the final meeting leads to a surprisingly swift ending, but it all makes sense within the plot.
French crooks don't talk.  The smoke and groom their mustaches.
I was fascinated by how little is revealed about any of these characters.  Their motivations are, to some degree, a secret to the audience.  There is no back story provided to make us identify with any of the criminals, and we see them at their most professional only.  There is no moment where Corey reminisces over his lost love, or how he got himself into this mess.  Nobody asks why Vogel is on the run from the police; it is even implied later in the film that he was never even arrested, and yet there is a manhunt for him.  And, somehow, none of this is a problem for the viewer.  Well, it wasn't for me, anyway.

Le Cercle Rouge might not be for everyone.  If you watch the original theatrical cutting (not the American one), you are getting maybe forty minutes of dialogue in a film over two hours long.  You've got to pay attention to the little things here, but you are definitely rewarded for your diligence.  This is also much slower than most crime capers, and devoid of one-liners.  While humor-free and relatively action-free, I absolutely loved the tone of the film, the way it was shot, and the acting.  I wish the ending was more satisfying --- it is quite jarring --- but I liked the rest of the film enough to make up for that one (fairly serious) complaint.


  1. nice one brian. thanks for lthe link also. i too love melville for all the same reasons you love this movie. but if this scores a 9 le samourai has to be a 10. alain delon alongside bogey IS noir to me. he has the world weariness like he has studied existentialism, that look that says "i accept that whatever happens is my fate, and it's bound to be bad" that all good heroes of the style have.

    interesting fact about the made up buddhism quote. it felt very real, like it could have been used at the beginning of one of the infernal affairs movies too.

  2. I'm looking forward to watching Le Samurai. The only reason I gave this a 9 is because I'm not sure how I feel about the ending. Next time I see it, I may bump it up a notch --- I don't usually give 10s to movies I have only watched once.

    As for the Buddha quote, I just assumed it was legit...until I tried to find the source. That has to be one of the better fake quotes in movie history, up there with Pulp Fiction's Ezekiel line (which is itself taken from an old Sonny Chiba movie).

  3. i remember being a little underwhelmed by this one actually but im definitely looking forward to seeing it in the noirathon. my melville boxset is so pretty, it's been begging to be viewed for months now.

  4. Personally, the ending had me pause, then chuckle. After that I looked it up online and confirmed my guess: Le Cercle Rouge was released in the 70s.

  5. @NB: Yeah, I definitely chuckled, too. Oh, 70s films and their love of abrupt endings! What did you think of the movie otherwise? I know how much you like difficult French fare.

  6. I agree with everything you enjoyed about this flick (I especially enjoyed the ability to lack dialogue/music and still be engaging), yet I did not like the whole quite as much as you did. The movie seemed a bit hollow, like it needed a soul. It is an odd criticism, seeing that I am sure that was part of the vision. It just rubbed me a bit the wrong way. Still, it is a very solid flick. I much preferred Melville's earlier Bob le Flambeur. It has a ton of raw energy and the characters seem to have life (even the lifeless title character). It is my favorite example of French Noir.