Whether you prefer French or American fries, Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Cercle Rouge, which was originally released in 1970, may well satisfy your taste for gangster movies. The thing is, this almost moment-by-moment account of a jewelry heist's preparation, execution and aftermath seems less fried than boiled ' hard-boiled, so that any trace of sentimentality leaves a sickly sweet taste in the viewer's mouth. Through such films as Bob le Flambeur, Le Doulos and Le Samorai, Melville (who died in 1973) became known for combining the rat-a-tat-tat of American gangster movies with a certain Gallic restraint. Next to the tight-lipped cops and cons in Le Cercle Rouge, for example, Humphrey Bogart seems like a real Chatty Cathy.
The movie opens with a quote, attributed to Buddha, about men being drawn into "the red circle," a kind of existential arena where right and wrong both get plowed under by fate. And although this sounds like something Buddha might have said, Melville later claimed to have made the quote up; the con is on. Then, in a series of scenes that could be called Bressonian, so dryly do they impart their information, we're introduced to the "stars" of our show. Corey (Alain Delon, as vacantly handsome as ever) is being released from prison and, on the way out the door, gets recruited for his next "job" by one of the guards. Meanwhile, Vogel (Gian Maria VolontÃ, not quite as vacant and not near as handsome) slips out of his handcuffs while under the custody of Captain Mattei (AndrÃ Bourvil), a police inspector who, although he may have trouble holding on to him, always gets his man.
Call it destiny or call it dumb luck, but Vogel somehow winds up in the trunk of Corey's car, and it's not long before they've teamed up to burgle a jewelry store in the Place VendÃme. But they'll need someone who can shoot a rifle across a room with pinpoint accuracy ' the only flourish in an otherwise by-the-numbers bag job. Enter Yves Montand as a former police marksman who's just emerged from a bad case of delirium tremens, complete with hallucinations of various reptiles skittering and slithering around his bed. (The pre-CGI DTs are surprisingly effective.) Notice the way the cops and robbers keep blurring the thin blue line. Notice, too, the code that the robbers seem to live by. Loyalty and betrayal are the twin themes of this rigorously abstract policier, which unfolds before our eyes like a mathematical theorem. The theory: that all men, on whichever side of the law, are guilty.
Maybe that's why they all act like they've been convicted of some crime against humanity. Except for the police inspector, who's assigned a pair of cats named OfrÃne and Griffolet, none of the characters has much in the way of characterization. And the actors have taken what little is there and boiled it down to nothing. Le Cercle Rouge may be too hard-boiled for some people's taste; it's almost Kabuki-like in the way it turns everything into ritual. But for those of you who've seen a million gangster movies and are tired of all the crap that has adhered to them over the years, Melville may be the perfect antidote ' film noir at its distilled essence. Speaking of which, the Godfather lighting is a real treat, the inky blacks flowing like blood.