Le Cercle Rouge: ‘French, Popular, and Prestigious’

After leaving prison, master thief Corey crosses paths with a notorious escapee and an alcoholic former policeman. The trio proceed to plot an elaborate heist.
Le Cercle Rouge (1970)

Le Cercle rouge opens with the image of a laughing jade Buddha and another Melvillian ‘quote’. Here, the text, supposedly by Rama Krishna, warns of impending death: ‘When men are meant to meet again, even if they don’t know it, anything may happen to each of them and they may follow diverging paths. On the appointed day, inevitably they will meet again in the red circle.’ As with Le Samourai the orientalist reference is a little hazy (mixing Buddhist and Hindu references), but the contrast between the laughing figure which starts rotating and the morbid text is chilling, foreseeing the catastrophic ending and the dichotomy between the spectacular surface and the underlying ‘tragic’ message of the film.

Le Cercle rouge is the story of four men from disparate backgrounds who eventually meet in the ‘red circle’. The film starts in Marseille, where Inspector Mattei (Bourvil) is escorting prisoner Vogel (Gian-Maria Volonté) to Paris on the night train. At dawn, Vogel succeeds in slipping his handcuffs and jumping through the window. Also in Marseille, Corey (Alain Delon) is released from jail after having been alerted to a possible heist by a bent prison guard. He visits Rico (André Ekyan), a one-time friend who now lives with his former mistress (Ana Douking). Corey removes money and a gun from Rico’s safe and later, at a pool room, sees off two hoodlums sent by Rico to retrieve the cash. He buys an ostentatious American car and sets off for Paris, on the way (unknowingly) picking up the fleeing Vogel who hides in the boot. The two men join forces to kill two gangsters sent after Corey by Rico and become friends. In Paris, Mattei does the rounds of his informers, including night-club owner Santi (François Périer), an acquaintance of Vogel’s. Corey and Vogel decide to do the jewellery job indicated by the prison guard, with the help of the fourth main character, ace marksman Jansen (Yves Montand), an alcoholic ex-policeman. Mattei arrests Santi. Corey, Vogel and Jansen successfully carry out the daring heist. Their fence, however, primed by Rico who is still seeking revenge, refuses the loot. Mattei turns up the pressure on Santi by arresting his son for drug deal­ing. Corey meets a new ‘fence’, none other than the persistent Mattei in disguise. The latter lures him and Jansen to his isolated country house. Despite Vogel coming to the rescue, all three men are shot dead by the police. The film ends on Mattei removing some jewels from his own hand, while the cynical boss of Internal Affairs intones his eternal refrain, ‘all guilty’.

Le Cercle rouge came out on 21 October 1971 and was a huge hit – Melville’s biggest – with over four million tickets sold in France. Its critical reception was as split, though not as heated, as that of Le Samouraï. Some reviewers deplored the continued fashion for the policier, Melville’s ‘imitation’ of American cinema, and the fact that he was repeating himself: Le Cercle rouge was not as original as Le Samouraï, it was ‘another Melville’;1 Melville was ‘running on the spot’.2 In much harsher tones, Cahiers du cinéma and Positif continued their anti-Melville crusade. Jacques Aumont in Cahiers thought that this ‘harmful’ film, ‘over two sinister hours, only regurgitated the earlier Melvilles’,3 and Albert Bolduc in Positif declared that its characters were ‘monotonous puppets’.4 Most reviewers, however, applauded Le Cercle rouge as the culmination of Melvillian themes (solitude, male friendship, betrayal, death); for Jean Wagner, ‘Under so-called commercial films, [Melville makes] the most personal works one can see in France.’5 There was a veritable chorus of praise for the ‘remarkable’, the sumptuous yet classical mise en scène, the perfection of Le Cercle rouge as a ‘lesson in cinema’. Melville fan Henry Chapier eulogised that ‘The art of Melville is that of cinema itself, which is the art of the look and not that of the word.’6

In the post-May 1968 climate, some reactions are more revealing about the period’s critical agenda, especially in political terms, than about the film itself. Already L’Armée des ombres, released in September 1969, had had a highly politicised reception. So, while Noël Simsolo indicted Melville as right-wing (Gaullist) and deplored the way Le Cercle rouge ‘agrees with the aesthetic and political ideology of the government under which it was made’,7 and Aumont in Cahiers thought the film sup­ported the Government’s repressive policies,8 some left-wing publications saw the emphasis on surveillance (in the heist sequence) as a critique of the police state.9 At the same time, the presence of Yves Montand and Gian-Maria Volonté prompted compari­sons (of various shades) with the currently popular political thriller. Le Cercle rouge was also (usually favourably) contrasted to the rise of sexually explicit cinema. In this respect the extreme male focus and marginalisation of women was ascribed not to misogyny but to a refreshing refusal of ‘vulgarity’. Unsurprisingly, the Catholic La Croix approved: Le Cercle rouge ‘is a comfort against many things, and first of all the aphrodisiac civilisation’.10 More pervasively, the sense of ‘tragedy’, the pessimism of the film were deemed to be rightfully men’s preserve: Le Journal du dimanche, for instance, thought the film ‘not misogynistic but alien to the feminine universe’.11

LExpress ran a cover story by Pierre Billard which offered a perceptive analysis in film industry terms. With its budget of FF 9.75 million,12 Le Cercle rouge was the epitome of the new blockbuster, designed to counter the ‘crisis’ of French cinema. This type of production corresponded to changing cinemagoing habits: at a time of declining audiences and waning of regular, ‘Saturday night’ cinemagoing, spectators could only be lured into the cinema by a small number of genre films displaying cinema’s attractions on a mass­ive scale, in terms of colour, landscapes and stars. Billard was right. In late-1960s/early 1970s French cinema, this meant ‘family’ comedies – a week after Le Cercle rouge, for instance, Louis de Funès’s hit Le Gendarme en ballade and the Annie Girardot-Brigitte Bardot comedy Les Novices were released – or policiers. Unlike the critically despised comedies, however, Melville’s films also had serious credentials, especially after Le Samouraï and L’Armée des ombres, so Le Cercle rouge combined massive popular appeal with cultural legitimacy. It is therefore not surprising that it was chosen to open a new series of television broadcasts of French films on the A2 channel in 1975, under the title ‘French, popular, and prestigious’. Thus, while much critical discourse on Melville has focused on his ‘American-ness’, from an industry point of view he was making the kind of French film that was helping combat Hollywood.

The triumph of Le Cercle rouge, of course, owed a great deal to its quartet of stars. Delon was on familiar generic territory after Le Samouraï, but also Le Clan des Siciliens (Henri Verneuil, 1969) and Borsalino (Jacques Deray, 1970). He and Melville slightly altered his look, among other things to signal difference from these recent films: here Delon sports an unfamiliar moustache and darkened hair.13 Since Le Samouraï, Delon had also been in the news. In 1968, the suspicious (and still unresolved) assassination of his Yugoslav friend-secretary Stefan Markovic publicised the presence of members of the French and Yugoslav underworlds among his entourage. The ‘Markovic affair’, a heady mixture of gangland and sexual scandal, added an extra-cinematic layer to his image that would endure. Montand was also familiar to policier viewers, as either gangster or cop, especially after Costa-Gavras’ Compartiment tueurs (1965) rekindled his film career. At the time of Le Cercle rouge, both he and the Italian Gian-Maria Volonté had acquired a specific image in political thrillers such as Z (1969, Montand) and Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto (1970, Volonté). But it was the unex­pected presence of comic Bourvil as the sombre Inspector Mattei that stole the show. Bourvil, much-loved since the 1950s for his ‘simpleton’ persona, and the star of two massive comedy hits of the 1960s, Le Corniaud (1965) and La Grande vadrouille (1966), both co-starring de Funès, here accomplished every comic’s dream of playing a tragic character. As Mattei is reprimanded for letting Vogel escape, his boss ponders how strange it is that a Corsican14 should be blond with blue eyes, thereby pointing out not just the opacity of the character but the star’s famous Normandy origins. Bourvil’s performance as the solitary policeman who goes home to a cold flat popu­lated only by three cats (recalling Jef Costello and his bird) was all the more poignant because he was then very ill. Le Cercle rouge was to be his penultimate film and he died a few days before its release. Le Cercle rouge, of all Melville’s films, is perhaps the one that corresponds most to his ‘mille-feuilles’ theory of layering ‘serious’ themes with entertaining spectacle. Le Cercle rouge mobilises the pleasures of the ‘cinema of attractions’ on a grand scale while offering a totally bleak vision. While Melville protests,

I wanted to write a robbery script long before I saw The Asphalt Jungle, before I’d even heard of it, and well before things like Du Rififi chez les hommes. It’s also a sort of digest of all the thriller-type films I have made previously15

Le Cercle rouge is both a consummate distillation of the heist genre and a totally original take on it.

Le Cercle rouge as heist movie: ‘remaking’ Asphalt Jungle and Rififi

The reviewers who criticised Le Cercle rouge for its ‘banal plot’ were obviously missing a point. As Melville said, ‘I forced myself to make a film with situations that were absolutely and totally conventional, from beginning to end. And everybody liked the film.’16 Le Cercle rouge follows the familiar heist (or caper) film pattern: a group of disparate men come together, successfully perform a daring burglary, but fail in the aftermath because of a technical hitch or betrayal. Le Cercle rouge makes those conventions delib­erately visible. It is replete with overdetermined moments (Corey and Vogel’s meeting, the ending), coincidences (the guilt of Santi’s son), ‘unbelievable’ events (how does Vogel get out of Corey’s boot? Why don’t they disable the very visible videotape mech­anism?) and excess: for instance, the betrayal by the fence, under pressure from Corey’s relentless pursuer, Rico, is doubled up by Santi’s – implied – betrayal under equivalent pressure from Mattei. Le Cercle rouge is also highly referential. As Pierre Lesou put it, ‘The Asphalt Jungle is, again, evoked in Le Cercle rouge, with its jewellery scene, and the photo-electric cells which force the burglars to perform acrobatics.’17 He could equally have mentioned Rififi: the heist set on place Vendôme, Montand casing the joint dressed like Dassin, the long burglary performed in total silence. Melville, as usual, also cast the net of influences wider. His film’s stillness and attention to detail, the import­ance of sound, its ‘cinema of process’ but also some plot details evoke Le Trou. His script

is an original in the sense that it was written by me and by me alone, but it won’t take you long to realize it’s a transposed Western, with the action taking place in Paris instead of the West, in our time rather than after the Civil War, and with cars replacing the horse.18

He could also have mentioned war and spy films, for instance John Huston’s The Kremlin Letter (1969), which he particularly admired, and which, in its scale, colour scheme and bleak view of masculinity, is another relevant source.

The heist movie as self-conscious cinema of attractions

Le Cercle rouge starts in spectacular fashion: in a short pre-credit sequence, a car full of men looking like gangsters (though all but one are policemen) tears up to a station where two of them board a train. The massive night-train slowly moving out of the station, with the credits superimposed, tells us this blockbuster is getting under way, its plush inter­iors that we are in for a pleasurable visual experience. The next scene, depicting Mattei and Vogel settling down in their Pullman car, is a model of Melvillian mise en scéne. It is conducted in silence, motion suggested by the slight shaking of the train. Tension arises from the calmly observed gestures, even before Vogel starts bending a pin to pick the lock of the handcuff that now attaches him to his bunk. The contradictory bond between the two men sharing such a small space adds to the tension, until the climactic moment when Vogel crashes through the window and escapes. As Jean-Louis Bory put it, in Le Cercle rouge, ‘violence is rare and almost immediately extreme’.19

As Corey gets out of jail, parallel editing, similar framing and sound ‘bridges’ establish Vogel’s affinities with him, while Delon’s unflappability asserts his domination over Rico and his steely control in the billiard scene recalls Le Samouraï. Silently slipping its owner a note to keep the hall open, Corey begins playing on his own among the rows of deserted billiard tables, an expanse of green baize and low lights. Then Melville cuts to an overhead shot which shows Corey’s skilful play, the white and red balls and cue standing out against the brilliant green surface. We are taken by surprise as another cue enters the frame, before the camera returns to a level position and we see the two heavies sent by Rico, whom Corey, however, quickly puts in their place. The geometric simplicity of the game belies the skill required, a good image of Le Cercle rouge and Melville’s cinema as a whole.

In Le Cercle rouge Melville had both a large budget and total control but he put these to the service of a particularly sober and classical mise en scène: less ‘baroquely’ minimalist than Le Samouraï and with fewer flourishes than, say, Le Doulos; for example, although the film’s rhythm is relatively slow, with a number of long takes (around twenty seconds, and a plan-séquence of forty-nine seconds when Mattei visits one of his informers), there are no extreme long takes. However, Melville’s under­stated virtuosity is still in evidence, in some high-angle shots (the billiard scene, in the jeweller’s staircase), in his use of off-screen space – the surprise intrusion over the billiard scene, duplicated by Mattei’s hand proffering a lighter when he meets Corey at Santi’s. Melville’s virtuosity is particularly sustained, together with narrative economy, in the three scenes set at Santi’s night-club, as they concentrate gangsters and police presence in particularly subtle ways. Each contains female dancers on a central stage who are almost always visible in the foreground or background, or even faintly reflected in the plate-glass door. In the first scene, a complex twenty-second take tracks Santi coming out of his office, greeting customers and meeting Mattei at the bar. In the second scene, as Jansen and Corey are sitting down, the camera follows their conversation in a medium shot and then tracks over their heads to show Santi being arrested by Mattei’s men. In this thirty-two-second take two spatial planes and two strands of action are combined in an apparently effortless, yet technically dazzling fashion.

As Kim Newman points out, the heist/caper film is akin to the musical and the war film in containing big set pieces which stop the flow of the narrative.20 Yet interestingly, The Asphalt jungle, widely acknowledged as a model of this sub-genre, spends relatively little time on its heist (ten minutes). The length (twenty-five minutes) and lack of dialogue of the sequence in Le Cercle rouge pay more direct homage to Rififi. Both length and silence are, however, self-consciously pointed out. As he watches the tape the next day, Mattei ironically remarks ‘they’re not talkative’. Like Dassin in Rififi, but also Becker in Le Trou, Melville ‘forces us to listen to silence’, as Jean-Louis Bory puts it.21 Even compared to Rififi Melville elongates the scene, not in overall duration, but in the type of activities filmed. Where Rififi concentrates more on physical action (drilling through the ceiling, moving the safe), Le Cercle rouge shows Corey and Vogel walking through a labyrinth of corridors and courtyards, accompanied by an evocative aural montage (steps, silent courtyards, distant parties, printworks) for six minutes before they arrive outside the guard’s window and ‘proper’ action begins – a good example of ‘cinema of process’. Compared to Rififi, Melville also enhances the set, using colour and lighting – the theatricality of the interiors at the jeweller’s is stressed by turning fights on and off – and by spreading out the jewels in glass cases, throughout the whole splendid room, where in Rififi, as in Asphalt, they were in a safe. A beautiful shot shows Corey and Vogel on the roof-tops, with the Eiffel Tower and the top of Napoleon’s column silhouetted against dark blue sky, and a pan reveals the empty place Vendôme, like an extended set, while the rising, though subdued, beat of the music creates muted suspense.

The heist in Asphalt and Rififi takes place in less impressive surroundings, using a bricolage of familiar objects (a carpet, a hammer, an umbrella, dynamite as ‘soup’). In Le Cercle rouge, by contrast, the space is both grander and more anonymous, as are the gang­sters themselves under their masks. In the corresponding sequences in Asphalt and Rififi the men’s faces are visible, and their individuality exploited, while they work towards the common effort. Their reactions, triumphs and fears are reflected on their faces and are crucial to the meaning of the scene. But Jansen, Corey and Vogel perform the whole bur­glary wearing elegant black silk masks and white gloves. Corey and Vogel wear identical jackets, trousers, shoes, cloth caps and masks, and on first viewing are almost imposs­ible to tell apart, except when a close-up shows Delon’s blue eyes.

As in Rififi and Asphalt, the men work against the clock, literally here the guard’s loudly ticking clock, heard whenever we cut to his bound and gagged figure. His raising of the alarm just as the band escapes adds to the tension but does not bring the police, whereas in Asphalt and Rififi their presence was visible (in fact, in Le Cercle rouge, as in Le Samourai, the police are either absent or excessively present). Where time in Asphalt was measured by Dix looking out and commenting on what he saw, and in Rififi Jo measured events against his little book, in Le Cercle rouge things are recorded on a videotape which Corey and Vogel could easily have destroyed; its presence therefore is deliberate. Throughout the film, instruments of representation are alluded to, including the reference to Nicéphore Niepce, the French inventor of photography, and, as Olivier Bohler points out,22 Jansen’s name evokes Janssen, the inventor of a pre-cinematic photographic record­ing tool.23 The newspaper headline the day after, screaming ‘Sensational affair’, draws our attention to the way the film has just pulled off a sensational coup. As the cherry on the cake, Melville carefully shows us that the brass lock hit by Jansen’s shot to disable the alarm bears the letters JPM’. Thus, while preserving traditional suspense and respecting the rules of the genre, Melville uses the burglary in a highly self-reflexive way, the metic­ulously planned and brilliantly executed heist standing for the precision of his film-making.

Masculinity and professional gestures

As he and Corey set about planning the burglary, Vogel claims to be a ‘dilettante’. He is depicted as a ‘wild card’, signalled by his unruly hair (compared to the smoothness of Delon and Montand’s) – Melville also reportedly asked the Italian Volonté to tone down his ‘gesticulations’.24 Yet of course he will turn out to be utterly professional. The heist in Le Cercle rouge as in its illustrious predecessors – Asphalt and Rififi but also Le Deuxième souffle – beyond its spectacular function is also the stage for the display of masculinity in motion. Its emphasis on action, movement and skills, control and discipline places it within a traditional sphere, where, to quote Pat Kirkham and Janet Thumim, ‘competence and prowess are important markers […] of masculinity’.25 The professionalism of the heist confers nobility on men, to which women have no access.

The heist’s vision of professionalism is a perverse one. We admire the men for their skills and the satisfaction of a ‘job well done’, so much that we forget they deploy them in the service of crime. This is partly because, as Kirkham and Thumim say, ‘prowess is such a significant marker that it does not always matter how it is manifested’,26 and partly because the heist mobilises, within the criminal world, the most noble kind of work, that of the craftsman. See, for instance, Jansen’s concocting of the metal alloy, depicted in a series of shots linked by wipes to indicate concentration and passing of time. Professional skills are a core element of male bonding because they stand for trust. For instance, Corey and Vogel, from inside the jewellers, have no way of knowing that Jansen is out­side when they open the door at the agreed time to let him in. They look at their watches, at each other, open the door, Jansen is there.

Jansen vividly illustrates how professional skills are used as a cure for ailing masculinity. We are brutally introduced to him in the throes of delirium tremens, rendered expressionistically with rats, lizards, scorpions, snakes and huge spiders crawling over his bed (Melville’s indication in the script is of a ‘Faulknerian alcoholism delirium’27). Some reviewers criticised the scene as out of character. Yet it makes perfect sense. Although we are given little information about his past, it emerges that Jansen, an ex-policeman and ace marksman, is in this parlous state because he is out of work. A surreal framed picture of a gun on the wall of his dingy room taunts the unshaven, sweaty and unco­ordinated figure who pants and shouts as the telephone rings. Corey and Vogel’s request for him to join them for the heist provides a miraculous cure, whose steps we follow. Jansen first meets Corey at Santi’s and indicates his vulnerability by refusing a drink. Later, as he ‘cases the joint’, smartly dressed, his hand shakes slightly as he opens the door to the jeweller’s. Jansen continues his rehabilitation with target practice and casts special bullets with rigorous scientific precision. He carries his rifle in a violin case which economically connotes art and skill. As he arrives at the scene he opens his case in which rifle and tripod are neatly encased in blue velvet and he proceeds calmly to lay them down on the table, like medical instruments. At the climax of the burglary he performs the virtuoso shot which disables the alarm system, taking the rifle off the tripod and shooting ‘by hand’ (like Pascal in Le Deuxième souffle). He then takes out a silver flask and just sniffs it.28 His now complete, cool and co-ordinated masculine figure is con­firmed by his ability to look at himself in the mirror again. As reflected in his increasing elegance, it also finally accords with Yves Montand’s urbane star persona.

However, as in Le Samouraï, the masculine ideal attained in Le Cercle rouge is one of introspection and loneliness. Jansen’s triumphant return to form will not lead to a ‘normal’ social life, but to a different kind of solitude, similar to that of Mattei who, as a policeman with a shady past, is a reverse version of himself. What these two soli­tudes share, as well as with the Corey-Vogel couple, is the absence of women.

Goodbye to women

Le Cercle rouge features the smallest feminine presence in the whole Melvillian oeuvre. Melville justified it as a reaction against the rising tide of eroticism (‘I did it quite unconsciously, with no purpose in mind, simply in reaction against everything I have had to see over the last three years at the Commission de Censure’29) and because of his ‘old Tes­tament side’.30 The erasure of women is both an extreme distillation of the genre and a logical conclusion of Melville’s own work. As we might expect, in Le Cercle rouge it is also highly self-conscious (so much for an ‘unconscious’ reaction).

In Le Cercle rouge, women appear as spectacle in a literal sense in the cabaret scenes, in three separate rather tacky, trance-like female song-and-dance routines. As in Melville’s previous thrillers, style and elegance are projected on the men, while women look motherly or caricaturally sexy. Melville’s own practice reflected this priority. Dis­cussing the ‘capital’ importance of male clothes, he said: ‘Most of the time my assistants deal with dressing actresses. This interests me less [than dressing male actors].’31 The three scenes at Santi’s dramatise this feature. In the first show the dancers are dressed as prostitutes (short slit skirts, fish-net tights, swinging bags), in the second as flappers dancing the Charleston (to the tune of ‘Chicago’), and in the third as ‘savages’ to a heavy drum beat. The stage is situated in the middle of the club and in each case the camera shows the gangsters in front of or beyond the stage. Melville thus points out the generic status of all his characters: men in gangster uniform meet while women act out feminine myths (the prostitute, the flapper, the savage). In those scenes, equally spectacular representations of masculinity and femininity are juxtaposed without interacting. These self-conscious ‘gangsters’ are, however, also narrative agents, whereas the women never leave the stage. The one who does, the Playboy Bunny who gives Corey a red rose on the third and last occasion, by violating this spatial division, spells trouble. These scenes show Melville, as Laura Mulvey has argued about Godard,32 both analytical of and complicit in sexist representations of women. Analytical because of the self-consciousness, complicit because the scenes lock women in these sexist representations. As in Le Samouraï, the stage displays and confines women.

The ‘uselessness’ of women in he Cercle rouge, to take up the expression used in relation to Le Samouraï, is graphically demonstrated in another key scene which, on the surface appears as a temps mort, with little narrative importance and yet which gives cru­cial information. Corey on leaving jail is handed three photographs of a woman which he ostensibly tries to leave behind. He then places one of them, clearly of his former mistress (now Rico’s), in the latter’s safe after he has helped himself to the money and the gun. The self-conscious play with the exchange value of female sexuality could hardly be clearer. The woman’s pose on the photograph exactly duplicates the (nameless) woman herself, as she is glimpsed in bed and then behind the door.33 This is expanded on in a later scene when Corey enters his flat for the first time since he has come out of jail, and carefully goes round the space with a torch. The use of the torch is not strictly necess­ary, but the fact that the flat is dusty and covered with cobwebs as well as the curtains blowing in front of the open windows (suggesting the woman’s abandon) are better picked out by the ‘expressionist’ lighting this affords. Corey uses the torch to illuminate a series of erotic prints on the wall, ingeniously signalling his dormant sexuality. The cam­era then pans to a bedside table where the same framed photograph stands. Corey picks it up and throws it in the bin as Vogel stands silently next to him. Not only are women redundant, but heterosexual sexuality is renounced too (in the script, Melville stresses that although Corey looks at a pretty waitress in a café, on his release from jail, he vis­its a billiard hall rather than a brothel as in Le Clan des Siciliens). Corey finally discarding the last image of his mistress in the waste-paper basket, with Vogel moving in, can be read as suggesting homosexuality, particularly as we see them getting dressed together the next morning, Vogel wearing Corey’s pyjamas (with a monogrammed ‘C’), but this remains a suggestion; Vogel is shown to sleep on the sofa. Vogel wearing Corey’s pyja­mas may also be a distant homage to Riton wearing Max’s pyjamas in Touchez pas au grisbi. Later, however, as Corey goes to meet the fence, Vogel picks up the red rose given to him by the waitress, while looking at Corey getting into his car. Nevertheless, as in L’Ainé des Ferchaux, the representation of the two men is more accurately described as homophilic. Sexuality in Le Cercle rouge is entirely sublimated – in the persona of stars, professional skills, narcissistic dress and an abundance of phallic imagery: the usual cars and guns, but also long instruments, billiard cues and the column of the place Vendôme.

As in Melville’s earlier films, the modus vivendi is that of the solitary male or the male couple itself suggested as sterile by mise en scène: Corey and Vogel’s moment of intense bonding is set in vast, frozen fields bathed in the dominant cold blue-grey colour scheme. The wide-open horizon proposes a mythical, Western-like dimension, but landscape and colour scheme speak of essential solitude, represented further by Jansen and Mattei. The picture of a wife and child on the latter’s desk hints at a past family, but like Corey’s woman, it is in the past, framed, and brutally knocked down (by Santi). In the Melvillian system, the family, not just women, brings vulnerability – as demonstrated by Santi and his son, echoing Mathilde and her daughter in L’Armee des ombres.

The red circle: ‘all guilty’

The extreme bleakness of Melville’s vision in Le Cercle rouge rests on two paradoxes: men must leave women and family behind, but only to achieve loneliness and death, in the same way as the heist celebrates superior virile skills but dramatises ultimately its futility.

Jansen gives up his share of the money, making his participation pure acte gratuit – as (Melville points out) when Jo in Le Trou says to Manu, ‘I will dig the hole with you but I will not leave.’34 As in Rififi, it is made clear that the jewels will be unusable – they are ‘too big’ for the gang, such disproportion giving part of its poetic force to the act in the first place. But more fundamentally, Melville’s protagonists, like Jef, have no use for worldly goods. They mostly live in small, sometimes sordid surroundings. Jansen’s room is covered with wallpaper which evokes the bars of a jail, and it is only furnished with incongruous large trunks. As Melville points out in the script, Corey’s flat has been beau­tiful. Even devoid of some of its dust, it is only briefly shown in daylight here. Despite the carefully chosen modern furniture, objects and paintings, it appears functional; each scene shows Corey leaving it. Mattei’s flat is equally carefully furnished but again it is cold and functional, a place for cats rather than humans.

In Asphalt the robbery is accomplished by each member of the group for a stated purpose: the money will help a struggling family, permit an escape to exotic places, enable the purchase of a dream home. When they fail, the viewer feels compassion and pathos, culminating in the final lyrical drive by the dying Dix with Doll (Jean Hagen) at his side. In Rififi Dassin both follows and departs from the American ‘model’: the men excitedly discuss what they will do with the money, but Tony, the head of the gang, only shrugs and says, ‘Oh, me…’. So Dassin introduces a more sombre note, hinting at Tony’s exis­tential despair and the futility of the heist. His final car ride shows a similar duality. The badly wounded Tony driving his little godson home is a clear echo of Asphalt, a source of both suspense and pathos for the spectator. At the same time the child, firing a toy gun and wearing a cowboy costume, signals a self-conscious distance from the ‘original’.

The end of Le Cercle rouge is pure generic commentary – all the emotions of Asphalt and Rififi have been spent. The gangsters do not die because crime must not pay but because their demise follows the rules of the genre, foretold by the opening quote. Pathos is replaced with cerebral inevitability, and the rather heavily reiterated leitmotiv of ‘all guilty’. From the opening images of Mattei and Vogel handcuffed together, the boundaries between criminals and police are blurred. As the director says later ironically to Mattei, ‘travelling together in a wagon-lit creates links’. Policemen are disguised as gangsters (Mattei), gangsters are former policemen (Jansen). Policemen use blackmail as ‘routine’, but by doing so uncover the guilt of supposedly ‘innocent’ people (Santi’s son). Mattei startingly steals some of the jewels from the heist, and in an act of poten­tial career suicide (like Blot at the end of Le Deuxième souffle) hands them over to a colleague in full view of the director. The presumption of guilt is all the more powerful in that we know virtually nothing about the past of the characters. As in Le Samouraï, these beautiful but cold settings echo the anonymity of the characters. Corey’s posses­sions enumerated by the prison staff pretty much sum up his ‘baggage’ as a character: ‘a wallet, FF 30,000, three photographs, a driving licence, an expired passport, a watch, a set of keys and that’s it’. We do not know what Corey and Vogel had done to be in jail, why Jansen left the police or what is in the Mattei dossier. Even the décor of the direc­tor’s office suggests his own guilt, with its sombre antique decoration and, as suggested by Melville in the script, ‘carefully balanced’ chiaroscuro.35 Indeed his guilt is locked into the same red circle: Jansen tells Corey that he learnt about the special alloy from … the same director of Internal Affairs.

It is not surprising then, as we saw earlier, that commentators trying to link the film to the post-1968 context ended up with confused and contradictory views. Despite a few references to contemporary events – Claude Tenne (mentioned by Mattei) was a member of the OAS sent to jail but who escaped,36 the passing of Les Halles is bemoaned, the lines of policemen evoke the massed CRS of May 1968 – the universe of Le Cercle rouge alternates ‘hyper-realist’ decors such as the place Vendôme, a railway crossing house or a roadside cafeteria, with oneiric moments, such as the hunt for Vogel in the forest,37 and places. The house in Louveciennes, the setting of the final ‘red circle’, is presented as a fairy-tale castle in its architecture and the misty lighting that surrounds it. Generically it is a transposition of the location outside Paris in which trouble always occurs in the policier (as in Touchez pas au grishi, Bob le flambeur and Rififi, for instance). But it is also the confirmation of Melville’s removal of his film from the present. As he was at pains to reiterate, ‘I know the underworld I describe is not the real underworld […] My films are dreamed films.’38 Crime and punishment in Le Cercle rouge are not moral or ideological, but mystical (the orientalist ‘red circle’) and aesthetic.

For Melville, one suspects, the red circle is ultimately purely aesthetic. His script annotation for Corey’s red chalk on the billiard cue is that it is ‘the first object in a warm colour since the beginning of the film’.39 In fact, it has been preceded by the red circle on the post-credit text, the red light that the police car goes through on the way to the station, and indeed the film is punctuated with red: lights, chalk, roses, bloodstains which stand out again the dark/cold dominant colours. One is reminded of Godard’s famous pronouncement: ‘this is not blood, this is red.’40 As Corey and Vogel escape from the death-trap house and, together with Jansen, are killed, the camera hardly lingers on their bodies or faces, but swiftly moves on to Mattei and the director. If the end of Le Samouraï was distanced theatrically, with a musical flourish and freeze-frame, the end of Le Cercle rouge is distanced cinematically, emphasising aesthetic experience over compassion or pathos. As Cinémonde applauded, ‘What makes Melville a true creator is that every­thing is false.’41

Source: Ginette Vincendeau, Jean-Pierre Melville: An American In Paris. British Film Institute, 2003


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