Le Cercle Rouge


posted to www.marxmail.org on February 11, 2003


Just at the time film noir was going into decline in the USA during the 1950s, it got a new lease on life in France. To a certain extent, Hollywood's loss was France's gain as blacklisted directors such as Jules Dassin simply picked up where they left off with films like "Rififi." In addition to political exiles like Dassin, France had been developing home-grown talent for a number of years.


Jean-Pierre Melville was among the most noteworthy. Shown in its uncut version at the Film Forum in New York City for the first time since its 1970 debut, "Le Cercle Rouge" is about as stylized as kabuki. With a lengthy, highly choreographed and dialog-less jewelry heist at the heart of the film, it shows the obvious influence of "Rififi." It has also been compared to John Huston's 1950 "The Asphalt Jungle"--also about a failed jewelry heist.


Melville found this sort of plot irresistible. In 1950, shortly after he began work on "Bob, Le Flambeur", his first film about a jewelry heist, "The Asphalt Jungle" hit the theaters. This convinced him to reframe his own movie as a comedy of manners in order to avoid comparisons with Huston's.


As is the case with most film noirs, the world of "Le Cercle Rouge" is utterly amoral. In the opening scene, Corey (Alain Delon), who is about to be released from prison, is recruited for a robbery by a prison guard whose relative has worked as a guard for the jewelry shop being targeted and knows how to get past elaborate security mechanisms. After Corey agrees to do the job, he must recruit a sharpshooter who can disable with a well-placed bullet the central lock that controls infrared cameras protecting the jewels. That person is Jansen (Yves Montand), a former cop.


Jansen has been recommended by Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté), an escaped prisoner who crosses paths fatefully with Corey en route to Paris. After Corey conceals him in the trunk of his car and avoids roadblocks, the two make themselves comfortable in Corey's old Paris apartment. There is a vaguely homoerotic quality to the way that these two bond with each other.


Meanwhile, Vogel is being pursued by Inspector Mattei (André Bourvil) as the three criminals map out the burglary. In a scene that drives home the film's amorality, Mattei is told by his superior that is that all men must be presumed guilty. Including cops, asks Mattei? The reply: yes.


"Le Cercle Rouge" takes place in wintertime. Through barren, desolate and windswept wheat fields, late-night empty Parisian streets and garish nightclubs, the cops and their prey cross paths repeatedly. With a cerebral jazz-tinged score by Éric Demarsan to accompany the echt noir images, an icy mood is established from the very first scene which takes place in the sleeping compartment of a train. Mattei and Vogel, handcuffed together, along with the other characters are joined in the "red circle" of fate supposedly described by the Buddha in the beginning of the film, but actually--according to the Village Voice's J. Hoberman--made up by Melville himself who was apparently given to faux Buddhist sayings.


Melville was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach in 1917 into a Jewish family living in Alsace, France. An admirer of American culture, he adopted the name Melville from his favorite author, Herman Melville. Despite having fought in the Resistance, Melville got into a beef with CP'ers in the film industry, prompting him to set up his own production company in 1946. He died in 1973.


His affinity for US culture should certainly pique our curiosity in light of recent controversy over French "anti-Americanism", which of course is really more about anti-world conflagration than it is about anything else. That being said, it does make one wonder why people like Melville, the fiercely Maoist Godard and others would develop such a long-time love affair with Hollywood. Robin Buss's "French Film Noir" provides a plausible explanation:


"There is a comparable ambivalence in language to which translation gives a kind of ironic distance. These fictionalized characters who adopt Hollywood styles and Americanized language, far from demonstrating their subjection to a foreign culture, assert their freedom from the constraints of French society, from the norms of their native language, from class and background. They extend the possibilities of what it means to be 'French'. This was the role of American culture, particularly cinema culture, throughout Europe in the post-war years: as much in Britain, for example, where the working-class youth of the 1950s adopted American clothes, rock'n'roll, slang and mannerisms, as symbols of rejection of a class system that would condemn them to routine jobs and an inferior social status, confirmed by education, accent and language. To the establishment in these countries, American culture came as a colonizer, resisted in France particularly on the terrain of language and the struggle against 'le franglais'; but to those outside the establishment, the effect was liberating."


("Le Cercle Rouge" is showing until February 18th. For schedule and other information about the film, go to: http://www.filmforum.com/cercle.html)