My love affair with Jean-Pierre Melville continues. Le Cercle Rouge is his penultimate film, originally released in 1970; although the original 140-minute version, with subtitles, wasn't shown in the U.S. until a re-release in 2003.
The plot, convoluted in description but not so on the screen, concerns two men, the just-released from prison Corey, played by Alain Delon at his coolest, and the escaped prisoner Vogel, played by Gian Maria Volonte, volatile and loyal. Both are men of honor; Vogel, and consequently Corey, are pursued by the detective Mattei, played by Bourvil, another man of honor. Corey and Vogel resolve to pull off a big jewelry heist (echoes of Bob le Flambeur and his one last job), and they involve Jansen, a failed cop with a serious drinking problem, played by Yves Montand.
Melville's films are mesmerizing to watch, in part, because the characters who inhabit his world are so deliberate and focused. In Le Cercle Rouge, no man speaks any more words than he has to; there is no small talk because these men have no small concerns. Staying alive, with task accomplishment a close second, occupies each one of them.
The color cinematography is gorgeous. Deep colors predominate: the saturated green of a field in the mist, across which Vogel escapes; and the hallucinatory blue and green striped wallpaper of the bedroom in which Jansen has literal hallucinations (this is an incredible scene, with real bright green lizards and other beasties). The caper, pulled off in the early-morning light of the Place Vendome, is suspenseful and astonishingly silent (the men have nothing to say to each other; they know what to do).
All men are guilty, announces the police inspector general to Mattei: tous les hommes sont coupables. But, although his bleak view of the world shadows the film, it doesn't keep each man from upholding his honor (a long-held French ideal, ruptured by all that happened in World War II) as best he can. And each of the men, from Mattei, who loves his three cats and feeds them gently each night, to Corey, who has no fear of robbing a crime boss who stole Corey's girlfriend while he was in prison, has a humanity that endears him to us (all except for the inspector general, who seems no longer human).
As in Le Samourai, Melville uses a made-up quote from the Buddha to begin his film, something about men meeting in a red circle (it even sound fake). What is not fake is the conviction each character in this film has that he must live wholly in the moment, that he must uphold the honor of his chosen profession, be it policeman or thief, and that the world in which he does this will neither help nor hurt him--it will remain indifferent. Le Cercle Rouge is another completely absorbing and rewarding Melville film.