Ah, France and America, there does seem to be more than just
an ocean between us. Nonetheless, as the two countries boasting
the richest traditions in film, we have learned from each
other over the years, and Jean-Pierre Melville represents
perhaps the finest of this trans-Atlantic rapport.
France’s own master of film noir, a term invented by French
critics to describe American crime films of the ’50s, was
Jew who was forced to take a nom de plume during WWII.
He choose Melville out of love for America’s own Herman.
Beyond him, Melville was clearly influenced by some American
contemporaries like Hawks and Ford, but of course
like all great artists he was more than just his influences.
He synthesized this American form with a decidedly post-war
Gallic sensibility, to create some very solemn, haunting crime
films, and Le Cercle rouge is fine example of his genius.
It has a fairly simple setup, Corey (Delon) is released
from prison and plans a jewel heist for which he enlists Vogel
(Volonte), a recent prison escapee on the run, and
alcoholic ex-policeman Jansen (Montand) to help him.
The center piece of the film, the heist, takes place over
20 minutes of silence. An homage to Rififi, another
French heist film that was re-released a few years ago. Unlike
American directors who have handled similar material, Melville
is not interested in the colorful vernacular of criminals.
Indeed his thieves may seem positively alien to some Americans,
as they are as laconic and self contained as any characters
you’d find in Bresson’s work.
Naturally, like most heist stories, certain fatalism marks
the film, but what makes Melville’s films so remarkable is
his ability to sustain a mood, a kind of existential melancholy
by handling each set piece with such poise and grace. Unlike
most crime films, his have a tranquil charm. He’s greatly
aided in achieving this effect by the perfectly composed camera
work of master cinematographer Henri Decaë.
All that said though, Le Cercle rouge is neither Melville’s
masterpiece, nor an ideal introduction to his work. It lacks
the character development of his earlier Bob le flambeurand
it’s not as hypnotic as the recently reissued Le Samurai.
Plus, at two and half hours it may seem an endurance test
for the uninitiated.
Still the re-release of Le Cercle rouge (1970) offers
a rare chance to see the work of one of the world’s most important
filmmakers, a man who profoundly influenced the French new
wave, and whose imprint is currently visible in the works
of directors like Michael Mann and John Woo.
For truly devoted lovers of film, it’s not to be missed.