Le cercle rouge

France, Italy, 1970

Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

With Alain Delon (Corey), Gian Maria Volonté (Vogel), Yves Montand (Jansen), André Bourvil (Police Lieutenant François Mattei), André Ekyan (Rico), François Périer (Santi), Pierre Collet (the prison officer), Paul Amiot (the police inspector general)

As it was the case of his 1967 gangster movie “Le samouraï” director Jean-Pierre Melville begins the titles with a quote reflecting Asian spirituality – an anecdote from the Buddha about men who stand within a red circle the Buddha has drawn on the ground and then move on with their lives, straying from each other, carried away by their respective destinies, before meeting again in the hereafter as if they were stepping again within the red circle. This is an apocryphal story, once again, which however points to the film’s sense.

The strange night conversation between a chief prison officer and a prisoner sets up the plot’s dynamic but also illustrates the undercurrent driving the interactions of the characters and shaping the moral dimension of the film. This is after all an egregious example of corruption, presenting the pervasive influence of evil and the strange attraction and bonds it can naturally, spontaneously fosters. It is really disturbing to watch a prison officer carefully tinkering with a lock to secretly come into a cell and offering a gangster on the verge of being released a new job – a criminal job, that is. Corey has every right to be confused and dismissive – but then he quietly stands up from his bed, dresses up and listens intently. His initial rejection is now forgotten and the day after, once he is back on the street, he starts to behave as if he was busy doing a job.

And so they step in the red circle: Yves Montant (left), Gian Maria Volonté (center), and Alain Delon

The circle starts to be drawn, simply by the tranquil pacing up and down in a cell before a man calmly making his case – though the conversation has never been shot in full; the film cuts from the beginning of that chat right into the moment Corey is waiting to retrieve the stuff he had when he entered the jail four years earlier. The narrative would show how a group of men is put together and then how the connections go even further than it seems, in unexpected ways; the link turns out to be that attraction for crime, running against the social call for honesty and decency, and the only man standing apart proves to be the only one who does believe innocence is possible. The narration, meanwhile, would be wonderfully based on a consummate use of silence – even more than “Le samouraï”, “Le cercle rouge” neglects words, dialogues, explanations, to focus intensely, precisely on gestures, actions, performances that are about efficiency, smoothness, quiet, a silent choreography defying expectations and expressing the most obvious truth.

Little words need to be exchanged on that muddy country path between Corey and the dangerous passenger hiding in the trunk of the old American car he bought: shot in medium shots, the way Vogel looks at the cold-blooded, daring fellow who has spared him from getting nabbed again by the police, and the reaction of Corey convey the relief, the satisfaction, even the pleasure of recognizing the other as a brother – they are cut from the same cloth and are equally determined to make it, relying on their thuggish skills. Instantly, Vogel becomes the partner of Corey and helps him to find the third man to pull off the big plan contrived by the warden: a sharpshooting former police detective, Jansen; apparently widening, the circle actually falls back to its corrupt origin, a rotten cop taking over the crooked jail officer.

But even as they get ready to rob a big Paris jeweler, they are under a cloud. Corey, a striking simile of Jef Costello, the eponymous hero of “Le samouraï” confidently and impressively played by the same actor, that is to say remarkably dashing, clever, hard to deceive and to trouble, is chased around by Rico, the mobster he paid visit after he was released, an old partner he was keen to rob to get a head start, if only because the middle-aged fellow has never been very supportive. Vogel, for his part, has escaped the watch of Police Lieutenant François Mattei while the two enemies were traveling by train; when he meets by chance Corey, Vogel is actually an exhausted guy on the lam and must stay one his guard as Mattei tries every trick on the book to know about his fugitive’s whereabouts. Jansen, for his part, must struggle with his own devil, a dependence on alcohol that is shockingly illustrated – he is first introduced as he got a bad case of the DTs.

Still, their robbery is a success – and the long scenes painstakingly and silently tracking all their moves and actions are both a riveting and radical emphasis Melville puts on action and behavior in filmmaking and a testament to the work ethics and endurance of the bad men, a rewarding collaborative effort highlighting their stunning skills, mettle, intelligence. But the engrossing event quickly gives way to a hastier, grimmer montage as the trio is caught on a downward spiral. The sheer value of their theft actually makes it hard to be sold back on a black market quickly and surely and the police would use that problem to set up a trap – and so would Rico try to settle his score, thus unknowingly helping the scheme of Mattei.

This coincidence is narratively helpful – but feeds into the wider, troubling pattern. The circle has in fact keep widening, and corruption and evildoing turn out to be more widespread while the connections between folks are numerous. A brief scene unexpectedly reveals that the prison officer is also a friend of Rico, which would help him to be back on the trail of Corey. Earlier, a few words between Jansen and Vogel give the astonishing news that the crooked cop has graduated from the police academy in the same class as Mattei (the final sequence would underline they do know each other well). In a more complex development, Mattei sets about ruthlessly manipulating a nightclub owner with links to the underworld in the hope that Santi’s help could be pivotal in Mattei’s ruthless rush to arrest Vogel.

This trick is ugly and casts another light on Mattei, a soft-spoken, tranquil middle-aged policeman highly praised by his boss and the only character in the film shot in his private life, coming and going between crime scenes and police stations on the one hand and his cozy Paris apartment on the other side, a place he tenderly shares with three lovely Siamese cats. A serious and cautious professional, Mattei does believe that men can be innocent and that police must work with intelligence and without violence – so he is rightly incensed when another cop bullies Santi’s son, who has dabbled into drugs, causing the high school student to attempt suicide; putting more pressure on Santi never meant destroying a life; but the camera clearly indicates that the other cop is not really remorseful. Earlier, in an even more decisive scene, Mattei must give explanations on Vogel’s escape to the police inspector general. The powerful, independent civil servant is unimpressed by Mattei’s ways and career; seasoned, suspicious and stern he rather expounds on his own theory about crime, that is it is part of the human nature, of every man, in fact. Everybody is guilty, evil is everywhere. Mattei is dismayed by such a harsh judgment.

But the whole story and the conclusion do support the fact that corruption, evil, violence cannot be avoided or properly punished. The trap goes awry and the three criminals end up being shot dead. At the end of that bloody finale, shot by night in a remote mansion’s park, a strikingly dark, murky, depressing series of shots wrapping up the narrative in a decidedly somber atmosphere, fitting with the deep pessimism of the this story, Mattei, who fired the bullets killing Corey, cannot feel satisfied: he has taken big risks and played dirty games to bring to justice folks he has been forced to let die, he has found out how bad Jansen has become, and is confronted again by the police inspector general, eager to remind him what he has always been thinking. The irony, here, is that a previous confession of Jansen to Corey has revealed that the cop who taught Jansen a lot about bullets, guns, ballistics, shooting is just the one who is holding the inspector general’s office. This is a small world, indeed: the circle of corruption is always wider than it seems and that truly shocking connections link people together, whatever their philosophies or actions are – or just moral principles, after all: the film has just put side by side two sets of men who are undoubtedly greatly skilled and professional, with strong work ethics and talents, which blurred the social distinction the audience could be pleased to make. To be part of the circle or outside is not that simple and may be just down to a belief in the appeal and strength of evildoing – which leaves Mattei in an awkward, poignant position.

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