Le Cercle Rouge (1970)
Le Cercle Rouge (1970)

Genre: Film Noir and Crime Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 20 min.

Release Date: October 20th, 1970 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville Actors: Alain Delon, Andre Bourvil, Gian-Maria Volonte, Yves Montand, Paul Crauchet, Paul Amiot, Andre Ekyan, Ana Douking, Jean-Pierre Posier, Francois Perier




e Cercle Rouge” (taken from a Siddhartha quote concerning fate), carries a potent theme of inevitable corruption – not just for the overreaching cops and the murderous mafia, but also for the uninvolved, somewhat more innocent friends and family who are unavoidably linked to the truly immoral. Motifs of honor among thieves and antiheroes versus irredeemable antagonists also frequent the picture, with quite a bit of repetition utilized to emphasize these concepts. Being on the right side of the law doesn’t grant immunity from persecution, nor does it create any weighty redemption in this fatalistic, pessimistic take on criminal endeavors.

“Classic. Easy. No risk.” That’s the kind of job offered to Corey (Alain Delon), a master thief fresh out of prison after nearly five years in lockup – though he’s not terribly anxious to be re-incarcerated if the scheme fails. But the details from the prison guard are certainly enticing, featuring notes on a new security system that can be beaten with precision and skill. After his formal release, Corey forcibly acquires some cash and a gun from Rico (André Ekyan), a gangster whose name stayed out of the spotlight during Corey’s trial (and who also stole his girl [Ana Douking]), before hitting the road, leaving Marseille to head to Paris. Rico’s goons are hot on his trail, however, resulting in a few deadly encounters and some bodies for the authorities to find.

Meanwhile, Police Inspector François Mattei (André Bourvil) of Criminal Investigations, Paris, escorts a suspect, Vogel (Gian-Maria Volonte), via train. When the handcuffed man makes an unnecessarily daring escape (crashing through the window to flee into the woods, strangely avoiding incapacitating his guard, which would have prevented a chase and a quick assembling of searchers), Mattei initiates the “Rex Plan” with the standard dragnet routine. At a café, Vogel sneaks into the trunk of Corey’s car, further managing to slip past police roadblocks. Though under investigation by Internal Affairs for letting the culprit elude him, Mattei is nevertheless still assigned to track down Vogel – using any means necessary, such as extorting Vogel’s old acquaintance Santi (François Perier).

Although it all seems by chance, coincidence doesn’t play as big a part as audiences might think (as suggested by the opening Buddha quote). The film goes to great lengths to stall answers and slowly divulge information, letting actions, expressions, and brief chitchat build both character development and the story itself (possessing, surely, contrived scenarios). Amusing camera angles, striking cinematography and muted colors, subtle music, and little dialogue also allow the visuals to convey the plot in this strongly minimalistic approach (the understatements occasionally border on tedium). But in time, a heist is coordinated, with the need for a marksman – shady former cop and current drunkard Jansen (Yves Montand) – and a fence for the merchandise, to be stolen from exclusive jewelry shop Mauboussin.

Oddly, the preparations for the burglary seem to oppose the initial premise of a hunter zeroing in on his prey. It’s almost as if two separate movies are unfolding independently, only to intersect at the conclusion – along with Rico and his henchmen (a subplot that disappears rather disappointingly). In this way, many parallels to “Rififi” can be drawn – outside of the similarities in the heist itself, with its lengthy sequences of eerie silence. The sound of a ticking clock and mechanized sensors are new additions, increasing the tension just a touch, but the techniques used in the actual robbery aren’t able to retain the impressiveness or uniqueness seen in Jules Dassin’s 1956 classic. The element of mobsters creating more predicaments than the detectives scrutinizing the missing gems is one of the borrowed notions, though Inspector Mattei has a considerably larger part than the law had in “Rififi.”

In the end, without chronicled backstories, clear revelations, or cleverly converging confrontations (even in the longest cut of the film), “Le Cercle Rouge” lacks lasting power and the benefit of exhilarating, singular cinematic moments. Instead, it opts for bleak realism in the outcome and unhurried pacing for the execution. Director Jean-Pierre Melville essentially leaves it up to viewers to analyze the lead characters and individually interpret their relationships, histories, and real motives – keeping the roles darkly flawed, human, and mortal.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10