AFI Fest 2011: Le cercle rouge (1970)

Usually I skip repertory screenings at festivals to focus on the newer stuff that I might not be able to see elsewhere, but when I saw that Artistic Director Pedro Almodóvar had programmed Jean-Pierre Melville’s crime drama Le cercle rouge, I couldn’t resist. I’ve been meaning to see this film for quite a while, ever since I saw and loved Le samourai, but despite a nice Criterion release and it even being on Instant Watch for a while, I didn’t get around to it. Seems like when that happens, I end up with the perfect opportunity to see it on a big screen in a great place like the Egyptian Theatre. Melville is quite simply France’s master of crime dramas (no disrespect to Chabrol or Clouzot, who tended a bit more toward the mystery/thriller aspect anyway), and this film combines elements of crime drama, police procedural, and heist film together perfectly into an intricate slow burn building to its inevitable climax.

Initially, there are two major strands of story. Detective Mattei (André Bourvil) is escorting a suspect, Vogel (Gian-Maria Volonté), on a train when Vogel manages to escape. Meanwhile, Corey (Alain Delon) is being released from prison, but not before being tipped off by a corrupt prison guard about a really great potential job. Corey shakes down a mob friend of his for some money, which sets the rest of the mob on his tail. Vogel happens upon Corey’s car as he’s trying to evade the police dragnet and gets in the trunk, which Corey notices but protects him. The two decide to work the tipped-off job together, bringing in former police sharpshooter Jansen (Yves Montand) as well. So the mob is after Corey, Mattei and the police are after Vogel, the internal affairs department is after Mattei for letting Vogel escape, Jansen is recovering from the DTs, they’re all harrassing a nightclub owner who has mob connections as well as ties to Vogel, and in the midst of all this, Corey, Vogel, and Jansen are planning a major jewel heist. Yes, it’s really complicated, but never once was anything confusing.

Alain Delon gave Jean-Paul Belmondo a run for his money as “coolest 1960s actor,” and this film only solidifies that. Corey doesn’t react very often, his face an implacable slate of ennui and careful calculation. Comparatively, Vogel is a live wire, volatile and unpredictable, hurtling through the woods with abandon as he escapes the police, rolling in and out of Corey’s trunk with a combination of paranoia and resignation. Montand’s Jansen is superb, a broken man plagued by alcoholism and the visions that come with the DTs (it seems Melville had seen Wilder’s The Lost Weekend) and fearful that his once-steady hand is irrevocably shaken. He carries the heart of the film, as Vogel carries the energy and Corey the brains and attitude. Bourvil brings a dogged but world-weary determination to the role of Mattei, dead-set on recapturing Vogel by any means necesary, and yet with a great depth of feeling – he chafes against his boss’s assertion that everyone is evil, despite the mounting evidence suggesting precisely that.

Indeed, lines between cops and crooks are continually blurred here. Mattei is a cop, but is also distrusted by other cops. The job Corey is pulling was tipped by a prison guard. Jansen used to be a cop, and knew Mattei in school. The mobsters are only trying to recover money Corey stole. Everyone’s compromised, everyone’s working multiple angles, but plot elements rarely come off as bait-and-switch twists, rather as just each man doing what he has to in order to survive in this world of trench coats and battered fedoras. If you haven’t kept up with the characters along the way, you’d easily be forgiven for being unable to tell the cops and crooks apart, so similar are their wardrobes. Yet even this is carefully planned: most of the time, two men together will be wearing opposite colors – one cream or white trench coat, one blue or black one. Balance is maintained, everyone is matched by his opposite, even in the production design.

There are a few great heist films in the history of movies (Rififi, Topkapi, Ocean’s Eleven, Big Deal on Madonna Street), but I didn’t realize that Le cercle rouge was a heist movie at all until that part of the plot came to the forefront. It’s about 3/4 the way through the movie before the big job teased in the first few minutes actually gets going. Perhaps it’s because the film is so good at everything it does that it’s not touted as a heist film, because the heist here is extremely well-done and definitely deserves a place among the others I just listed. Clearly it owes a lot to Rififi, the heist taking place in almost dead silence, but with a little more mystery – though we know where they’re breaking into, we see very little of the planning. Trying to figure out how all the pieces will fall into place is part of the enjoyment, and enjoyable it is, just like the rest of the film. This movie is 140 minutes long, but it truly flies by, feeling much shorter than several of the 100 minute movies I’ve seen at this festival.

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Melville
Producers: Robert Dorfmann
Starring: Alain Delon, André Bourvil, Gian Maria Volontè, Yves Montand, Paul Crauchet, Paul Amiot, Pierre Collet, André Ekyan, Jean-Pierre Posier, François Périer
Country/Language: France, French
Year: 1970
Running Time: 140 min.

Jandy Hardesty
balancing moviewatching, gaming, reading, and parenting ain't easy, but it's fun!