In Revival and Streaming: “Le Cercle Rouge,” a Crime Thriller in Which Knowledge Is Power
When I first saw Jean-Pierre Melville’s French crime drama “Le Cercle Rouge” (“The Red Circle”) decades ago, in a significantly truncated version that was circulating then, I found it to be a unique kind of movie—an automotive ballet. The Parisian gangsters at the center of the film prowl the nation’s landscape in American sedans that seem to move with a feline grace and pounce with a panther-like power, embodying, in heavy metal, the finely calculated mechanisms on which the story’s criminal schemes run. In 2003, a full, hundred-and-forty-minute version of the film was released, and, as of Friday, it’s out in a new restoration at Film Forum. (It’s also streaming on Amazon and other services.) In this longer version, the vehicular majesty is still a key part of the film’s delights. Yet what comes to the fore even more brightly is the regime of knowledge, the intellectual infrastructure of crime that pervades society like an invisible gridwork, and which Melville brings to the screen in coolly analytical images with a kind of infrared camerawork.
This revival marks an odd coincidence in New York’s repertory programming: like “Crimson Gold,” which opens today on Film at Lincoln Center’s virtual cinema, “Le Cercle Rouge” is centered on a jewelry-store robbery. Melville’s film fits more squarely than Jafar Panahi’s in a specific tradition: it’s a heist film, in which the complex climactic sequence of the extremely grand larceny runs a majestic twenty-five minutes. It opens with a quick, nocturnal vehicular panic, as police hurriedly drive a suspect named Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté) to a train en route to prison, in the company of the high-ranking police inspector Mattei (André Bourvil). Meanwhile, a convict named Corey (Alain Delon), who’s being released from prison at the end of a five-year term, is tipped off by a guard to a Parisian jewelry palace that’s ripe for a heist. Corey is freed and making his way to Paris, Vogel escapes, and the perspicacious Corey—while being pursued by his gangland enemies—brings Vogel in on the jewelry-store scheme. Meanwhile, Mattei, whose job is on the line, vows to find and catch Vogel. To do so, he trawls the nocturnal Parisian underworld and puts pressure on a nightclub owner and acquaintance of Vogel’s named Santi (François Périer), who, for his part, vows never to snitch.
The movie is a game of multiple cats and mice, with the pursuers being pursued and the tables turning with a mercurial wonder—and Melville captures and conveys those marvels of survivalist conception and execution in tersely geometric ricochets. (Home viewers will be grateful for the chance to double back and marvel again.) Corey’s early confrontation with a Mob boss named Rico (André Ekyan) depends on an amazing tidbit of knowledge and on the bold deftness to act quickly upon it. A showdown at a billiard table is a model of cinematic synecdoche; a deadly confrontation in an open field is among the most thrillingly minimal of confrontations, with the world turning upside down in a perfectly timed breath. The exchange of silent glances between Corey and Vogel, in the midst of a moment of mortal tension, is among the high points of criminal bromanticism. When it comes to the heist, the duo recruits an ostensible sharpshooter, a former cop named Jansen (Yves Montand), who turns out to be as much of a sharp-seer, a criminal mastermind whose marksmanship—filmed with breathless aplomb—actually involves multiple mechanical and scientific crafts, which are dramatized with tight-lipped wonder.
The heist itself is filmed in a grandly extended cinematic showpiece that depicts, with impeccable logic, the meticulous crime-craft that goes into breaking, entering, hoovering, and exiting. Yet the heist is of oddly secondary significance to the mighty mass of hard-won knowledge on which the crime’s composition depends. That strange shift of emphasis is what makes “Le Cercle Rouge” one of Melville’s best—and most significant—works. Many of his most celebrated films, such as “Le Doulos” and “Le Samouraï,” are smothered by the director’s tendency toward neoclassicism, a distillation of the manners and formats of American crime dramas, a vision so staunch that it allows no room for what’s going on in the wider world, let alone the inner lives of its protagonists. Yet in the machinations of Mattei—who, in turn, is the target of machinations by the head of the police department’s internal-affairs division (Paul Amiot)—Melville goes beyond the macabre fun of crime to contemplate the relentless crush of punishment. His vision of the power of statecraft, from its tentacular surveillance to its carceral system, is a dreadful, fatalistic realism that shadows the romance of individualistic outlaws with the bureaucratic grid above the grid. It’s a metapolitical view of government that tacitly delivers something like a political philosophy: don’t bet against the house.