Thursday, June 24, 2021

Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge

The opening quotation is fake, but the soundtrack is totally legit. You might have thought the late 1950s and the early 1960s were the peak of swinging crime jazz and it probably was in Hollywood, but Eric Demarsan really uncorked a classic for Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1970 penultimate film. Georges Arvanitas on piano, Guy Pedersen on bass, Daniel Humair on drums, and the groovy vibes of Bernard Lubat set the noir mood and sound terrific together. Oh, and the film is really good too. Uncut (as it always should have been) and freshly restored in pristine 4K, Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge opens tomorrow at Film Forum, exclusively brick-and-mortar-style.

We know Corey is hardboiled, because he is played by Alain Delon. Ironically, he is about to be paroled early for good behavior. However, one of the crooked prison guards tries to recruit him for jewel heist up in Paris. So much for rehabilitation. Meanwhile, Vogel escapes from the straight-arrow Inspector Mattei, who was extraditing him from Marseilles to Paris. When the two crooks cross paths, Corey helps Vogel elude the dragnet and recruits him for his big heist caper.

They will need another accomplice with sharpshooting skills. Vogel knows just the man: Jansen, a severely alcoholic ex-cop. Of course, Mattei is still on their trail and feeling the heat from the cynical chief of police. There is also the business of finding a fence who can handle that kind of heat.

Cercle Rouge
is classic Melville, starting with the unmistakable presence of Alain Delon (who became an international icon in Melville’s Le Samorai). It is slower, more deliberately paced, and longer (140 minutes) than typical caper movies, but Delon makes it work. Fortunately, we have the Demarsan soundtrack to have something to listen to when the cast quietly broods (which is often).

Delon does his thing and we can’t take his eyes off him. Arguably, both Corey and Vogel are somewhat stock issue tough guys, but Delon’s magnetism elevates the former while Gian Maria Volonte suffers in comparison, as the latter. Yves Montand brings surprising pathos to the film, playing against his suave image as Jansen. Surprisingly, Andre Bourvil adds that extra something as the formerly humanistic Mattei, who reluctantly starts agreeing with his boss’s cynical, pessimistic view of human nature.

They just don’t make films like this anymore. There are twists and turns, frequent betrayals, and even more swagger (reflective of its American film noir influences). Yet, the entire time we have a sense everyone is hurtling inexorably towards a violent fate, which is so very French. The swinging soundtrack is the icing on the cake. Very highly recommended,
Le Cercle Rouge opens the old-fashioned way tomorrow (6/25) in New York, at Film Forum.