Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Jean-Pierre Melville | Le Cercle rouge (The Red Circle)

on cue
by Douglas Messerli

Jean-Pierre Melville (writer and director) Le Cercle rouge  (The Red Circle) / 1970, USA 1993

It is a somewhat shocking that Melville's great detective-gangster film did not get its USA premiere until 23 years after its French opening. So many similar but lesser films—including the entertaining The Hot Rock (1972)—might have learned a great deal from Melville's masterful direction. Like many a heist movie, much of Le Cercle rouge is devoted to the clever tactics of its robber-heroes, Corey (Alain Delon), Jansen (Yves Montand), and Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté).  But Melville takes his work much further by exploring, at least for the first half of the film, their abilities to outwit the police and others who might wish to stop them, while also taking us into the minds of their pursuers, particularly Le Commissaire Mattei (Andre Bourvil).

     Much of the entire film is shot in silence, so much so that Le Cercle rouge might almost have been a silent film with just a few story board titles. Indeed the film begins with a kind of story board to explain its own title:

                     Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, drew a circle with a piece
                     of red chalk and said: "When men, even unknowingly, are to
                     meet one day, whatever my befall each, whatever the diverging
                     paths, on the said day, they will in inevitably come together in
                     a red circle."

Buddha said nothing of the kind, but Melville's fiction is perfect to establish from the very beginning that fate is at the heart of his tale. No matter how hard the men at the center of his story try, no matter how clever they are, how blessed or damned may be their lives, they will  one day meet their fate. Accordingly, we see the film from the very beginning less as an adventure the likes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (filmed a year earlier) than as a stunningly beautiful playing out of these men's destinies.

     Each of them is somehow charmed, intelligent—even Mattei admits that about Vogel—but doomed, which, in turn, despite their embracement of evil, makes them sadly appealing. We watch them play out their fates with the same kind of impassion with which they treat their victims. Vogel shoots down the petty criminals about to kill his new "friend" Corey with the kind a cool cruelty that one might devote to killing a cockroach or silverfish found in the bathtub. In truth, I become far more emotional about that bathroom activity than he is with humans.

     We are, however, free to admire this sinister trio simply because we know, just as Corey knows as he chalks up the red circle at the end of the billiard cue, he will one day lose. Indeed, he does, admittedly, lose the game a few moments later when Rico's men discover him at the billiard hall.

     That is not to say that Melville's "heroes" are necessarily admirable. Each lives a life of almost utter misery. Corey has just been released from five years in prison, Vogel has just escaped from a train taking him to prison breathlessly outrunning squadrons of police, and Jansen, a former policemen, is suffering from the DT's. But then, none of the policemen seem to live particularly harmonious lives either. The Chief of Police (Paul Amiot) is a bitter paranoid, convinced that "All men are guilty. They're born innocent, but it doesn't last."

     Mattei, Melville suggests through his immaculate dress and behavior, his lonely pleasure of three fat cats, and the several rings he wears—which he cautiously removes before his final meeting with the Chief of Police—that he is gay. Not that he has any time for sexual encounters. In fact, none of these men have time for sex—heterosexual or homosexual! There is perhaps never been a film that so removes us from the female sex. Only one woman plays any part in the action, Ana Douking, described as the "the old girlfriend of Corey," who lies in bed and hovers about Rico's bedroom door when Corey appears to demand money. She has no lines, and Corey leaves photographs of her on the prison desk from which he retrieves his other possessions. The only other women who appear in the film are a bartender and the chorus girls, who ridiculously sing three numbers in Santi's resturant/bar. The red circle, at least in Melville's vision, is a male only club, a world for Clydes without Bonnies.

     Henri Decae's photography, moreover, portrays the world they inhabit in dreary, muted colors. It is cold, it rains, it snows. Paris never looked so unpleasant—except in the beautifully lit-up jewelry store, shining with diamonds, emeralds, and rubies. You can well understand, given the emptiness of these men's lives—in their lack of sex, money, food, drink (Jansen has gone sober), without even Mattei's beloved pets—why they are drawn to those shining jewels. And they will do nearly anything to capture those lit up tokens of wealth which might give them the possibilities of a life they now live without.

     It's interesting, in passing, that this film—so different from Eyes without a Face—was also chosen by Pedro Almodóvar for inclusion in the 2011 AFI Fest. Unlike the other film, Almodóvar mentioned, this did not particularly influence his current The Skin I Live In. Yet there is commonality; just as the woman in the Franju film, the three robbers must cover their bestial identities, hiding their faces with masks.

     Like dancers, tight-rope walkers, perfectly-timed performers, the three mount stairways, climb through ceilings, cross buildings, miraculously cut open windows, skillfully circumvent protective beams, and shoot out other warning devices, scooping up a suitcase of the baubles with such success that they cannot even find someone to serve as a fence.

     Forced to turn to the mob, these men have clearly been led back into the red, the bloody world which they have helped to create. In his own way, Mattei is their perfect match. As skillfully as they have been able to complete their heist, so does Mattei manipulate his informers, picking up the young son of the mob-involved Santi on a trumped up marijuana charge. The only flaw in his plan is that the son, just as the Chief has argued for every man, is truly guilty; he has been selling pot and attempts suicide when the police turn away from questioning him. But the ruse still succeeds; Santi must play along if he is to free his son, turning into the informer he insists he will never become.

     One of the most remarkable scenes in the film, and one that suggests that Corey and Vogel have grown closer in their days together, is the moment when Corey takes the elevator down from his flat, the bag of jewels in his hand, to deliver them to the head of the mob. Melville's camera follows Corey down, panning up to Vogel waiting in the apartment. Again, it moves down with Corey, and up to Vogel, the latter positioned atop of Corey. Clearly the image is sexual, but we recognize it primarily as a linking of the two; Vogel is troubled about Corey's next step. Something is wrong, and he knows it. He picks up the rose—another kind of red circle—which has identified Corey to the mob connection in Santi's restaurant.

     His attempt to save Corey by rushing into the mobster's villa, demanding that Corey take the bag and run, results in his own death as well as Jansen's (awaiting in the car) and, ultimately, Corey's. All three are killed on the run, and Vogel can painfully report to the Chief, the lives of at least these three guilty men have come to an end.

Los Angeles, November 7, 2011

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