A dazzling epic of love, guns, gangsters and cigarettes, Jean-Pierre Melville's "Le Cercle Rouge" (The Red Circle) is about three men on the run and one man on the hunt. Originally released in 1970, it was one of only 13 features directed by the French filmmaker, who died from a stroke three years later. The films he left behind were limited in number and often magnificent, and include hard-boiled thrillers steeped in the conventions of film noir. Like the best of these films, "Le Cercle Rouge" is as much about the existential torments of solitude and the necessary dangers of friendship as it is about hot action and cold money.
Did I mention that it's also super-cool?
Born in Paris in 1917, Melville, ne Jean-Pierre Grumbach, started making movies soon after he was given a camera at age 6. He was crazy for movies and grew up watching westerns, Buster Keaton and the rest of the silent-movie clowns, which may help explain why his films tend to have so little dialogue. (He changed his last name in honor of his favorite American author.) During World War II, he fought in the military and then in the Resistance, years that he would later describe to interviewer Rui Nogueira as "awful, horrible ... and marvelous!" In 1943, during a leave in London, he watched 27 films in one week, or so he claimed. Four years later he directed his first feature, "Le Silence de La Mer," based on a novel of the Resistance.
The war years shaped Melville's sense of honor among men. "Le Cercle Rouge" is a gangster film in which detectives and robbers make up the warring sides. Yet like the gentlemen officers in Jean Renoir's "La Grande Illusion," they are men whose sense of self is so prodigious, so confident, that it fills them with largess toward other men, even their enemies. Some may be crooks, some may be cops and all may be guilty (at least philosophically) , but there is among the men in Melville's world an irrepressible need to connect. Even if it means, as it does in many of the thrillers, sacrificing yourself on the crucible of friendship.
In "Le Cercle Rouge," two strangers -- one an escaped prisoner, Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte), the other a recently released prisoner, Corey (Alain Delon) -- are brought together by chance. On the run, Vogel has slipped into Corey's car and discovered a comrade in criminal arms. Corey, seizing serendipity by the tail, tells Vogel that he has heard about a Parisian jewelry store that's an easy mark. The two men agree to join forces and subsequently solicit the help of a third, a former cop and expert marksman, Jansen (Yves Montand). As the three carefully stake out the jewelers, they are tracked by a fourth man, a Paris detective named Mattei (Andre Bourvil), the very cop from whom Vogel escaped and who is now charged with recapturing the prisoner to salvage his reputation.
In its broad outlines the film sounds as generic as a Hollywood potboiler. And in broad outlines, it is. What's different -- what's Melvillian -- is everything else. The impeccably belted trench coats and rakishly tilted fedoras (the Melvillian uniform) are every bit as integral and meaningful as the meticulously framed mise-en-scene and the geometric precision of Henri Decae's cinematography. In a film in which every shot counts, form and content are never apart, so that even a cigarette isn't just a cigarette. When Corey and Vogel first meet, Vogel has a gun but Corey has the Gauloises. They both light up and stare into the other's narrowing eyes. Initially, they look like gunslingers waiting for sundown but mid-smoke they stop watching each other and start watching their backs like partisans.
Gangsters and cops don't get tougher than they do in Melville but if that's all there was to the films they could be dismissed as mannerist exercises, regurgitated pulp fictions. (The austerity of his style recalls French director Robert Bresson, but Melville's work, in its concern with honor and loyalty among men, hews closer to that of Howard Hawks.) Still, despite the Hollywood influence there remains something sui generis about Melville's work, an originality that seems connected to his years in the French Resistance. It may sound far-fetched, but I wonder if his obsessive return to the same themes didn't have something to do with a desire to restore France's own lost honor. As a soldier who made it through the war, he may have felt he had no other choice.