‘Le Cercle Rouge’ or — A Perfect Circle?
It starts with a lie. A quotation by Buddha talks of a red circle where men will inevitably meet. Melville made the quote up but that’s okay because truth doesn’t matter here, only movement, style and that sense of the inevitable.
Corey (Alain Delon) is released from prison. Before he leaves a guard tips Corey off about a high-end jewellery store in Paris that’s perfect for a heist. Meanwhile another prisoner, Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté), escapes the train he’s being transported on by the police. A manhunt ensues although a “chance” encounter between Corey and Vogel brings these two men together, providing Vogel an exit from the enclosing circle and Corey an accomplice and an opportunity to pull off the job. The only pieces now missing are an expert marksman and a fence who can shift the jewels.
With the police after Vogel and the underworld after Corey the two worlds of law and crime mix on both sides in order to both pull off and stop the robbery. It is not about right and wrong; it’s about how you move.
So ‘Le Cercle Rouge’ (1970) is a heist film, a manhunt and a gangster flick. ‘Le Cercle Rouge’ is also a Zen garden, an all pervading sense of unhurried deliberation and exactitude running throughout. This is cool observation and when action is taken it is clear and decisive and Melville knows that this is where the thrills are hidden.
The thrill is also in Melville’s incredible style and cinematic audacity where sharp, clear lines and cold blues and grays result in a look as cool as the glint in Delon’s eyes through a haze of cigarette smoke. The trench coats speak of 40’s noir but they are immaculate to the point of the unreal whilst geometric angles and technology scream modernity. The look of the world Melville creates is like no other and it is hypnotic, beguiling and beautiful.
It’s not just the ravishing look but listen (very carefully) to the film’s sophisticated use of sound, minimalist almost to the point of being subliminal. Notice when Yves Montand’s marksman scouts the store and how aggressively silent the sequence is, yet the silence is bolstered by a deep, low tone that quivers on the verge of the inaudible, that quivering creating an almost unnoticeable, and unbearable, tension that we can’t precisely locate. Likewise, notice the gentle lullabying of the lights as they are turned off at night, soothing us to sleep in preparation for the oncoming dream ahead. It’s an incredibly subtle, and extremely impressive, use of sound with Melville even managing to create a “sonic swipe” at one point which turns a camera at a train window into the floating eye of a god and it’s the sound that executes the trick.
The result is one of the finest heist movies ever made, a stunning exercise in tension and a level of technical accomplishment that’s simply baffling and exhilarating to behold. It’s the heightening of the senses when the breath is held or when emotion is put on ice to gaze directly into the center of the circle. And like a circle, ‘Le Cercle Rouge’ might just be perfect.
At a crucial and pivotal moment Montand’s marksman removes his rifle from its tripod. He does this for two reasons: firstly, he knows he’ll have greater control than using an inert stand; secondly, to prove to himself he’s a good as he is. This can be applied to Melville’s directing where we know we are in the hands of a master and that, despite all the exacting and mechanical precision, we can still sense the almost imperceptible movements of a human touch steadying it all beneath. This is a truly masterful piece of cinema.