Bob le Flambeur, Le Doulos, Le Deuxième Souffle, Le Samouraï…Jean-Pierre Melville proved to already be a master of the gangster/crime film when he released another classic of the genre, Le Cercle Rouge. With this film, he seems to put all of his cards on the table to create a work that is arresting and powerful with its cold and quiet images.
At the core, Le Cercle Rouge is a heist movie; however, through its sophistication it proves to be a story about fate and honor among men. Alain Delon plays Corey, a prisoner about to be released when a corrupt guard fills him in on a huge score at a jewelry shop. He is enchanted and, thus, immediately gets on the job after his release. He then runs into Vogel, played by Gian Maria Volonté, a man who has escaped from police custody. They team up for the jewelry store heist and add a final member to the team, an ex-cop and expert marksman with an alcohol problem. The man, Jansen, played by Yves Montand, also has hallucinations of snakes, lizards, and spiders. While the men set out on the heist, André Bourvil as police detective Mattei is set on recapturing the escaped Vogel.
What separates Le Cercle Rouge from other heist films is its visual style and direction. Jean-Pierre Melville knows that film centers on visual storytelling, that the cinematic language rests in the image, and as a result, he knows how to revel in silences. His 25-minute heist scene brings to mind Jules Dassin’s Rififi, and though one may suggest Melville is referencing Dassin, it was Melville who was suppose to direct Rififi, only to later give the exiled American Dassin the director’s seat.
Jean-Pierre Melville is more than just the father to the French New Wave. His influence stretches further and can still be seen in modern cinema. Take a look at Michael Mann’s Heat, for example. As for the apparent remake of Le Cercle Rouge (with Orlando Bloom in place of Alain Delon), I hope it measures up, because the natural magic of the original can not be replicated, and in Melville’s film, magic abounds.