Written by Carmine Dicostanzo
Melville’s penultimate and perhaps finest work, Le Cercle Rouge was filmed three years after his personal studios burned to the ground in 1967 during the production of Le Samourai. He described 1968 as a year of “nothing” and “completely wasted time” as he was forced to retool his production methods while being simultaneously shackled by a go-nowhere contract with the Hakim Brothers to make La Chienne. After filming his enduringly gritty adaption of Joseph Kessel’s book Army of Shadows the following year, Rouge was released in 1970 to critical acclaim and commercial success in France, but his films never translated well to American audiences and went largely undiscovered until the Criterion reissues of 2003, which are now years out of print and have resulted in extremely high prices for the physical copies. Nevertheless, his unique spin on the crime genre has had great lasting impact on the medium being frequently copied by the great John Woo, referenced again in the Woo inspired Keanu vehicle John Wick, and heavily influencing one of the greatest anime series of all time, Cowboy Bebop, among countless others. His vision of the trenchcoat clad steel-eyed criminal operator have become archetypal and have no historical root beyond Melville’s imagination. Few however, if anyone at all, has been able to recreate the surreal personae that lives beneath these men of icy virility, leaving the archetype little more than visual in the hands of imitation.
Born Alsatian French in 1917, Jean Pierre Grumbach was forced to flee Paris as German panzer tanks rolled into the city in May 1940. He fled South, joining the ranks of the French Resistance and chose the surname Melville as an alias in honor of his favorite writer, American author Herman Melville. Towards the end of the war he participated in Operation Dragoon, a large scale uprising of the La Résistance in tandem with the allied invasion of German occupied Southern France in August 1944. The resistance suffered more than ten thousand casualties but was ultimately successful in playing an integral part in France’s liberation.
A lifelong lover of movies, Melville applied for an assistant director’s position immediately following the war. He was rejected and resolved to construct his own film studios in an industrial section of Paris, a multi-year endeavor that would eventually allow him to operate under the reclusive night owl conditions required to reach the levels of inspiration and productivity necessary for his visions. These conditions seem to echo those of a resistance operator, working in near total darkness, for durations exceeding 24 hours and the extent of which he controls all aspects of his projects echo those of a person who cannot afford mistakes. His efforts in the medium began before the French New Wave and continued until he suffered a heart attack in 1973, tragically ending his life during the prime of his career.
In his 1969 masterpiece “Army of Shadows” a certain code of behavior is displayed, one almost completely devoid of any ethics other than “to the cause”, between members of the French Resistance. They don’t say anything unnecessary and follow a strict set of rules as they dispassionately carry out maneuvers of great logistical complexities under increasingly riskier circumstances. This behavioral code permeated all of his films–not just the biographical ones, and was especially featured in the legacy defining gangster films in which he collaborated with Alain Delon. Melville worked with many of the great European actors of his time including Belmondo, but always said that he and Delon possessed a special connection. Delon inhabits a similar exactness and solemnity as a resistance member in a completely different setting and through meticulous direction becomes a vehicle for Melville’s masculine idealism.
Rouge tells the story of three criminals who are brought together by chance to take part in an elaborate jewel heist one night in the Place Vendome, Paris. The plot is secondary, however, to the experience of watching these men of indomitable stoicism adhere to an ancient code, because they aren’t just thieves; they are dignified clinicians plying their craft within the confines of Melville’s magisterial touch. Although they do not serve a cause like The Resistance they conduct themselves in a very similar manner. They regulate their emotions to the point you wonder if they have them at all in a never-ending attempt to exert control over their environments and the situations they find themselves in. They waste no time or energy and carry out their tasks with a calm efficiency while living their lives according to a code that appears to be something similar to “Omerta,” the Italian Mafia rule that one never betrays another to the authorities, not even one’s greatest enemy, and the general guideline that the behavior and courage one approaches to their work is more valuable than one’s success. Characters on the other side of the law follow these principles as well, stripping all sense of righteousness from it. Inspector Mattei (played wonderfully by out-of-type actor Andre Bourvil) hails from the island of Corsica, a place known for its systemic ties to mafia rule, and follows essentially the same behavioral principles, albeit with a little more humanity. What is left of these men of silent conviction is purely distilled masculinity and it is something to behold nowadays given how severely scrutinized manhood is in the modern world. Melville, with his own brand of extravagant machismo (he wore stetsons and trenchcoats and drove a huge green Mustang), also works with extreme precision and lets nothing go to waste. In this sense the content of the suspense of the movie takes a backseat to the form in which it is executed as Melville also operates by his own code of filmmaking fundamentals.
The films opens with Buddhist scripture that tells of a mythological principal in which certain men are fated to come together in an event known as The Red Circle. This quote, like the supposed line from the Bushido Code in Le Samourai’s opening (his first film with Delon), is actually another Melvillean fabrication. He announces this concept from the beginning because he intends for us to ponder its meaning as the story unfolds, and encourage the viewer to derive pleasure from contemplation rather than straightforward action. He may have drawn inspiration from the Chinese myth known as the Red String of Fate, wherein two mates are bound to marry by a red string tied around the ankle before they come into existence. Another source could be the Enso, a Zen Buddhist symbol for the “no-thing” and enlightenment. Melville is widely known for drawing influence from gangster underworlds in America created by directors like Howard Hawks and John Huston, but Eastern philosophies have always been another integral part of his work and as a result his films possess mysteriously spiritual undertones in contrast to his otherwise procedural and emotionally distant storylines. Combined with Melville’s dedication to delivering a realistic approach to things that are not real Le Cercle Rouge takes on the aura of a dream.
Inspector Mattei begins the film escorting prisoner Vogel (played by Spaghetti Western legend Gian Maria Volonte) aboard a train en route to wherever criminals go in this world, a scene heavily reminiscent of an American Western. One of the first things you will notice about the characters of Le Cercle Rouge in addition to the exactness of their movements and their taciturn demeanors is the care in which they make decisions. Mattei, having handcuffed his captive to the bedrail, has earned himself a moment of reprieve and prepares to light a cigarette. On second thought, he opts to return the cigarette to his pocket for later and switches the light to illuminate only the above bunk occupied by Vogel. Mattei then reconsiders the placement of his revolver and returns it to his shoulder holster where it is closer within reach. Melville and Bourvril’s approach to these actions do not give us the sense that Mattei is an indecisive man, but one that weighs his decisions carefully. Meanwhile, Vogel prepares his escape as he produces a hidden paperclip and bends it against the wall of the compartment into a lockpick. He looks at it once, then bends it further to the ideal angle because he too is of a calculating nature. For several breathless minutes Vogel silently undoes his restraints before leaping through the window of the moving train. This scene tends to throttle people not ready for the film and the “Rex plan” put into effect that follows features some of the film’s most memorable images and a hip jazz drum track to juxtapose with Vogel’s daring flight through labyrinthine forests.
It is important to note that the sleeping car bunk closely mirrors the setup of a jail cell with the top and bottom bunk layout within a confined space, and this configuration features two elastic restraints confining Vogel’s bunk that Melville frames to look like prison bars. Following this, Melville’s camera suddenly exits through the train window, continuously retreating to the altitude of a low-flying helicopter while never losing focus on the tiny light of the sleeping car window. This move is one of the film’s biggest technical statements and serves to tell us that will we be watching this story’s events unfold not through the immediate perspectives of its characters but from a detached vantage point. Melville relies heavily on the wide shot to tell his story not only to provide an objective viewpoint of every scene in its totality but to allow the actors to perform entire scenes without their nuances being handcrafted through edits.
Delon’s character, known only as Corey, begins the film in his last night in prison as he’s offered a job in the form of a high stakes jewelry heist to be conducted after his release. It is another Western genre opening–the bandit released from jail, but Melville intentionally does this, emphasizing how he prefers to craft his dreams from a familiar formulae. Despite his aloofness and status as a hardened criminal, Delon’s eyes are deeply expressive. John Woo said of them, “I will never forget the emotional depths of Alain Delon’s blue eyes. One could see not only his exterior but his interior, his emotions and his past . . .” Melville is notorious for “cold” tone of his films, particularly this one, but too often are the cold feelings of isolation and contemplative self-reliance confused with nihilism. Joining them in contemplation reveals that Rouge’s characters actually hold strong beliefs and are at times even naive.
Corey, more than any other character in Rouge, inhabits the brooding Parisian gangster archetype envisioned by Melville. He smokes cigarettes more often than he blinks, rides across the winterscapes of France in a black Plymouth Fury purchased practically on a whim with money he stole from the mob boss that wronged him. As he sits at a diner along a snowy highway he notices the fugitive Vogel crawl into the Fury’s trunk outside with an almost nonchalant curiosity. He reacts in the cool, collected way that we’ve come to expect of Corey, because it is in his nature to do so, but part of that is because of his awareness of fate. While he values his approach to his work with correct behavior as much as success, he is ultimately powerless to the machinations of fate.
Back on the highway and aware the trunk of his car harbors a fugitive Corey drives out to the middles of a muddy field and enjoys a cigarette on an old wooden cart before telling Vogel the coast is clear. Vogel climbs out of the Fury’s trunk holding the Colt .45 Corey had stowed in the trunk and they converse in isolated singles the camera moves directly onto the 180 degree line as the matching singles move to closer and closer coverage implying that there is a paradigm shift inbound. Exiting the matching series is a sudden wide with Corey and Vogel facing each other at opposite thirds of the frame with nothing but country void as distance between them. As Vogel crosses the gap the camera lens zooms in to reframe them in a closer 2 shot, which in itself creates the feeling of the men being drawn together. Vogel takes Corey’s wad of cash and disengages, but the camera zooms back out rather than cutting to a single, reinforcing the sense that their connection insists on forming.
In almost comical fashion, Corey starts throwing cigarette paraphernalia at Vogel in reaction to his reticence to form friendship. Eric Demarsan’s foreboding piano led theme kicks in and from here are the film’s most memorable closeups in which Volonte and Delon look directly into the lens as it zooms into their eyes as the unbreakable bond is formed between them. Dermarsan’s score, like all elements of Le Cercle Rouge, is remarkably restrained yet consistent. His music glides beneath the surface, carrying its metaphors subliminally, and with the feeling of inevitable dread as they move towards their dooms. Eric Demarsan was the only composer to meet Melville’s demands well enough to work with the director on two different films.
Once Corey and Vogel are united, the combined ruthless pragmatism between them is quickly realized. Rico’s (the mob boss Corey ripped off earlier) gunmen chase Corey’s Plymouth down unaware that he has united with notorious criminal that lurks in his trunk. Corey calmly allows them to pull him over and march him into the woods for execution because he trusts not only in Vogel’s ability to save him, but in his loyalty as well. Vogel does, callously killing the gunmen while simultaneously staging their deaths to look like a simple money feud; leaving only a second set of tire tracks as evidence of their involvement. Their work is detached and economical, but not without a dreamlike elegance, and the ruthlessness of the killing is equalled by the impressive depth their friendship and chemistry has already reached. Here is a frame from that scene:
Observe the balance of blocking and color in this shot. The two dark coated men occupy the left side of frame and the yellow coated men the right; the two held-up men bordering the rule of third lines and trapped between Corey and Vogel physically as well as within the frame itself. Bisected in half, either vertically or horizontally, or even separated into quadrants, this frame would maintain its balance when held up to a mirror. The Plymouth Fury behind the captives not only helps orient the scene’s geography but separates the gunmen from the endless autumnal background. Were the Fury not there, subconsciously the viewer will feel a greater opportunity for their escape. The silver line running along the car cuts them in half visually, foreshadowing the bullets about to pass through them. Another key rule of Melville’s is the restraint at which he applies to his actors and himself as the cameraman.
At this point in the film most of Melville’s filmmaking rules have become clear and foremost of them is his restrained color palette which consists of black, green, blue and gold. Red is used rarely and with purpose: a rose mysteriously offered to Corey by a server in Santi’s bar–one of the only women seen in the film appears out of nowhere like a burlesque apparition, and the famous insert shot in which Corey applies the red chalk to the pool cue in a clearly defined circle. These colors are reminiscent of the famous American painting “Nighthawks,” by Edward Hopper. Of the painting Hopper’s wife Josephine noted: “Man night hawk (beak) in dark suit, steel grey hat, black band, blue shirt (clean) holding cigarette. Other figure dark sinister back–at left,” a scene that could easily exist in a Melvillean dream.
The film’s dearth of close ups is also deliberately in line with Melville’s contemplative approach to storytelling. He leans heavily on the wide shot so we can maintain an omniscient perspective on the totality of scenes. From this vantage the actors are allowed to simply perform rather than having their performances handcrafted though edits. The conscious level of depth and restraint Melville injects into this film is impressive given that assistant director Bernard Stora said in an interview with Studio Canal that Melville often formulated his precise executions after arriving on set and taking in the atmosphere he conjured up in the darkness of his country home.
In order to pull off their jewel heist at Place Vendome the two men require the skills of a rifle marksman. Vogel suggest Jansen, a former police sniper come alcoholic shut-in played by Yves Montand. Jansen lives in the outskirts of town in a creepy house suffering from alcohol detoxification hallucinations. These manifest in a terrifying way as Jansen lays in the corner of a blank room, paralyzed as tarantula’s emerge from a crack in the far wall and proceed to crawl up his screaming body. Unlike the other characters Jansen seeks redemption, not for transgressions of police corruption, but for having lost his dignity as an excellent workman, something the others still possess with confidence. He exists on the fringes of their circle, but their fates intertwine regardless. He meets Corey at Santi’s bar (one of the many circles bound by fate in the film), and as per the code, has Corey’s trust because Vogel already does.
Jansen’s job as marksman is to manufacture a custom bullet and snipe it across the store into a “wall-key” the size of a nailhead in order to engage its tumblers and release the final lock separating the thieves from their quarry, but his first task lies in getting in disguise and casing the jewelry store’s security systems as a customer. On the way he looks at himself in a stairway mirror in a beautifully composed shot. He looks every bit the part in his tailored suit and fedora, but you can feel the doubt rising within him as he too is calculating the value of what he sees. This time it is not a lockpick or revolver however, but a man. He continues up the stairs and while appraising the worth of bracelets and watches sees his nemesis for the first time–the wall-key. The sequence of shots between he and the object mirror the matching close ups in which Vogel and Corey first met, establishing that Jansen’s destined meeting is primarily with this object, and his redemption rests upon it.
The heist in Le Cercle Rouge is legendary for a reason, and showcases the pinnacle of Melville’s storytelling prowess, so it must be seen to be believed. In Roger Ebert’s review and summary of the film he said of the sequence, “We are a little startled to realize it is not the point of the film. In most heist movies, the screenplay cannot think beyond the heist, is satisfied merely to deliver it.” Face to face with his nemesis in the form of the wall-key’s challenge, Jansen and his companions asses the trajectory of his shot by having them look down his scope while the rifle remains fixed to his tripod. They nod in approval only to witness Jansen rip the gun from its tripod and line up the shot in his own two hands. He pulls the trigger, aiming true, killing his demons and restoring his honor. It is the most cathartic moment in the film and fits perfectly in rhythm with the climactic heist sequence.
Having redeemed himself Jansen gifts his cut of the incoming profits to his associates. He smiles at Corey, a truly rare occurrence in Le Cercle Rouge, when he tries to put these things to words. “I’ll pick you up in an hour,” Corey replies. Before going to meet the man who will fence the stolen merchandise, Corey looks across his house wistfully, a signature of Melville’s work he cannot explain his fascination with. He tells Vogel that it seems legitimate but this look across the room suggests another kind of understanding, one of fate’s hand pulling the strings, and Vogel knows it too, as he is compelled to join Corey later in the final confrontation to come. Many have stated the bleakness of Le Cercle Rouge’s ending as the circles of Mattei, Corey, Vogel, and Jansen finally converge in a bloody, yet noble massacre, but a happier ending would betray the concept laid out by Melville’s opening epigraph. These men stand by their codes admirably, but are still bound by fate, and do so to the death as fate proves itself to be the only truly indifferent force in the film.
Was Melville continually reconciling the grey areas running amok during his time in the resistance by turning it into a dream under his own control? The men of Le Cercle Rouge live in a world of converging grey morals united by the concept that it isn’t morals that make the man, but in the courage and grace with which he follows his own. We live in a time where friendship tends to boil down to weighing several text messages at once and choosing the one that suits the day best. We also live in a culture where masculinity is more often a scapegoat for deeper societal downfalls instead of a well of strength and guidance from which a man can draw. Melville insists his worlds are complete fabrications, his attempt at sharing dreams he found in the darkness of his country home’s boarded up rooms, but they echo previous eras of stronger convictions and even stronger dreams.
Interview with Bernard Stora by Studio Canal seen on Criterion Collection DVD
Interview in the Criterion booklet with composer Eric Demarsan conducted by Stephane Lerouge
Le Cercle Rouge IMDB page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0065531/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm