Le Cercle Rouge (1970)

*. Can you be too cool? I think so. In movie terms you end up with a movie that’s stylish but hard to love.
*. In Le Cercle Rouge style is all. As I said in my notes on Le Samouraï: “This means it gets a pass for telling a very simple, unconvincing, and unoriginal story, with little dialogue, about a character who remains a complete cipher.”
*. Is it an advance on Le Samouraï that there are three underworld protagonists and they are all ciphers? We’re never told what Corey (Alain Delon) and Vogel (Jean-Marie Volonté) were in trouble with the law for in the first place. Or, beyond drink, how Jansen (Yves Montand) ended up the way he did. These are characters with no past, no future, and, with Jansen being a slight exception, no personality. They show absolutely no emotion.

*. That last point may be connected to their choice of criminal career, which (I am assuming) has to do with heist jobs. (When Vogel claims not to be a professional he means not a professional marksman. He’s clearly a professional criminal of some sort.) They are technicians, again of a sort. But the same blankness attends even their murder of the two hoods sent by Rico to kill Corey. The hoods are just obstacles to be brushed aside, in what is the scariest passage in the movie.
*. Given their complete emptiness it’s hard to care very much about any of them. Is Mattei (Bourvil) supposed to be someone we identify with? The conscience of the film? Because he seems lost (morally, as well as in terms of the action) to me. This (I am again assuming) was probably intentional, but it defeats suspense, or even much interest, beyond vaguely wondering what the point of it all was.
*. As with Le Samouraï the epigraph is made up and its meaning, as well as the meaning of the title, is left not only unexplained but defiant of explanation. The Criterion DVD of Le Cercle Rouge includes an essay by Chris Fujiwara “What Is the Red Circle?” and I have to say I didn’t find any of his answers even superficially convincing.

*. My best guess is that the epigraph is meant to suggest the workings of an immutable fate. No matter where these guys run to, they’re going to end up in the same place. Which is dead at the hands of the police. But that’s not very profound, as fate, like guilt, is something shared by “all men” (whch is not a verdict of original sin). So really, what’s the point of anything?
*. Hitchcock famously derided the critical habit of questioning the “probabilities” in a film. I understand his point, but I’m wired the other way. I do not like movies that don’t make sense, unless not making sense is very clearly what they’re aiming for (and even then I don’t like them much).
*. I bring this up because in the early going of Le Cercle Rouge I found myself wincing at a lot of stuff that I just couldn’t accept as possible, much less probable.
*. To begin with, we have Vogel kicking the window out of the train. Not likely. This is followed by the manhunt where a small army of uniformed police officers are sent close-packed across a field. That there would be so many police, all grouped so tightly together, was improbable. But it looks good.

*. Improbability turns ridiculous when Vogel comes across the simple expedient of throwing off the tracking dogs by crossing a small stream. That’s it. He just crosses the stream. He doesn’t go up or down stream but just crosses it, puts his clothes back on, and continues on his way.
*. Of course, what would happen is that the police would just take the dogs to the other side of the stream until they picked up the scent. Which in this case they would be able to do immediately (they are only a few minutes behind Vogel at this point). I can’t believe Melville didn’t know this, or that he didn’t know the audience would know this.
*. Also, by the way, why does Vogel take off all his clothes to cross the stream? Why not just roll his pants up?
*. Then we have Vogel’s escape from the police cordon by hiding in the trunk of Corey’s car. Corey doesn’t let him out until he drives out into the middle of a muddy field. His car would have gotten stuck immediately. Even the men are sinking into the muck below their ankles. And why would Corey drive out into the middle of nowhere anyway? Why not go to a garage or some place secluded? How can he be sure “the coast is clear” out in the open like that. As with the police search, I suspect this scene was just set up like this because it looks good.

*. Things like this might not bug everyone, but they really bothered me. If I find the events occurring here to be incredible then I tend to give less weight to the professionalism of the thieves. The whole thing becomes more of an exercise in style.
*. Which, as I began by saying, it very well may be. To be honest, I thought the gangsters here in their overcoats and fedoras were so caricaturish they almost made me laugh. Is this really supposed to be 1970? And Alain Delon’s moustache looked almost as bad as the one I used to have. But then throw in the gun being carried in the instrument case and the masks left over from the Fantômas gang and you’ve got . . . what? Irony? Is Corey cool, or just a hipster before his time?

*. Well, it’s interesting, mainly for its look. And I actually thought it moved with a lighter pace than Le Samouraï, which was welcome at 140 minutes (some of the versions it was released in were cut by nearly a third). The editing in some scenes is surprising in that fresh French style of the New Wave, and the score by Éric Demarsan struck me as inventive and original, when given the chance.
*. Melville thought he was making a displaced Western. And a gangster film. And a heist flick. And a police procedural. Maybe what he was representing was genre itself, which might also help explain the night club that’s so obviously a set. We’ve come full circle, with film itself swallowing its own tail.

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