Le Cercle Rouge
For one thing, Le Cercle Rouge is not just its plot. In fact, while the elaborate robbery and the preparation for it are central to this film (and to a lesser extent in Bob le Flambeur, where the set-up is detailed but the crime never carried out), this is far more than simply a "heist film." As critic Amy Taubin has pointed out, Melville's true subject was "underground man," an individual (or groups of same) ruled by secrecy, subterfuge and masquerade. Taubin made those comments about L'armée des ombres/Army of Shadows (1969) noting that in the unfolding of the plot, what is revealed is "human consciousness grappling with mortality." In Le Cercle Rouge, what occupies Melville more are matters of honor, loyalty, fate and ultimately doom played out through his taciturn characters, essentially lonely and isolated underground men who find a bond and a purpose in the plot they come together, almost accidentally, to hatch. As Roger Ebert noted in his review, "The movie is not about their jobs but about their natures."
This is not to dismiss the "procedural" aspect of this story. How newly paroled Corey (Alain Delon) by chance meets up with hunted escaped felon Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte) then connects with alcoholic ex-cop and marksman Jansen (Yves Montand) to plan the robbery of a major high-end jewelry business is a fascinating sequence of events. The working out of the robbery down to the tiniest detail and its execution in a dialogue-free 25-minute sequence (about a fifth of the film's total running time) is gripping not only as story but as cinematic technique.
The film is brilliant in its composition and pacing - case in point: Vogel's astounding escape from a moving train (and to say anymore would spoil it). Melville makes great use of minimal music and virtuoso placement of natural sound. Cinematographer Henri Decae, who shot seven six of Melville's films, shoots in vibrant color within a limited palette and evokes the variations in light and tone from one time of day or one type of weather to the next.
Melville wrote the original screenplay himself, which he said did him no favors and made it the toughest movie to that date he had ever tackled. In Melville on Melville a book-length interview with Rui Nogueira, he said that while writing, he kept telling himself, "This is going to be difficult to shoot, but I don't care, I want to do it." He did manage to film everything he had written in 66 days instead of his usual 50.
In that same interview, the director talked about how he had wanted to make a heist film since right after filming Les Enfants Terribles (1950). According to Melville, he was supposed to have directed Rififi (1955), whose story of a technically perfect jewel robbery is easily considered the template for Le Cercle Rouge. Melville says he got the producer of the earlier film to buy the rights to Auguste Le Breton's novel and was announced as director until one day, after six months of no word about the proposed production, he learned Jules Dassin had been hired to direct. Dassin, he said, only agreed to the project when Melville gave him his blessing.
Another revelation from the interview was the fact that, with the exception of Delon, who had been so dead-on in Melville's Le Samouraï (1967), none of the other main cast members were his original choices. Captain Mattei (Bourvil) was a part originally intended for Lino Ventura, an actor with whom Melville did not get on well during the making of L'armée des ombres. Although Bourvil was known primarily as a comic, Melville was very pleased with his performance, which he said brought many surprises to the role, whereas he thought Ventura would have been simply "the police captain."
Jansen was to have been played by Paul Meurisse, another Army of Shadows cast member, and not Montand. And Melville thought of offering Jean-Paul Belmondo the role of Vogel, finally played by Volonte, hoping to bring those two great icons of French cinema, Delon and Belmondo, together on screen for the first time. (The two did co-star in Borsalino, 1970.)
As for Delon, he and Melville had an excellent working relationship, and the director found him to be, quite apart from the matinee idol many saw in him, an "enormously gifted" actor. He did ask, however, that Delon change his appearance somewhat with the addition of what people now jokingly call a "1970s porn-stache." Melville felt that Delon's looks in Le Samouraï may have made it a little difficult for audiences to accept him in that role. Delon's natural aging, combined with some hard and fast living and a series of personal scandals and difficulties, added greatly to his world-weary, lived-in look in this picture.
The film was the fifth most successful at the French box office in the year of its release. It was cut to 90 minutes for foreign release and only in 2003 did it get its original 140-minute release. Today it remains highly regarded among critics and cineastes. Michael Sragow, in an essay published for the 2003 Criterion Collection DVD release of Le Cercle Rouge noted its timelessness by comparing it to Moby-Dick, the novel by Herman Melville, whose last name Jean-Pierre Grumbach took when he cast off his birth name at the start of his film career. "In both these works, the creators' cunning combination of hardscrabble physical authority and characters who prompt identification with their honor and their weakness compels audiences to enter a world of genuine moral ambiguity."
So, about that remake... Will it bring enough to the table to depict a minutely detailed robbery with contemporary stylistic flair? What would anyone who appreciates this film make of producer Arthur Sarkissian comments in a 2012 interview? Sarkissian, bragging about the "stronger" script he had in hand, said of the original, "It's dated. It's just dated. ... the story kind of doesn't hold together. It falls apart and doesn't make sense in certain areas."
Perhaps the best hope for a new version lies in John Woo reattaching himself to the project. This is the director who noted in his 2003 Criterion essay the extent of Melville's influence on his own works, adding words that perfectly recognize the late French director's vision and approach: "I believe in my world. I believe in brotherhood and everything that goes with it. Like honor, loyalty, and friendship. The reason why Le Cercle Rouge is a classic gangster film is because it embodies this kind of romanticism. ... Jean-Pierre Melville, a gentleman who believed in the philosophy (very much like the Asian philosophy) of the code of honor, could edit a film and work a camera like no other."
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Producer: Robert Dorfmann
Screenplay: Jean-Pierre Melville
Cinematography: Henri Decae
Editing: Marie-Sophie Dubus
Production Design: Théobald Meurisse
Music: Eric De Marsan
Cast: Alain Delon (Corey), André Bourvil
, Gian Maria Volonte (Vogel), Yves Montand (Jansen), François Perier (Santi)
By Rob Nixon