Venice Classics 2020: Jean-Pierre Melville’s The Red Circle is a heist thriller with poetry between the lines
The Red Circle is a unique heist thriller because of the poetic things that happen while we are waiting for the “Warner Bros” affairs to unfold.
Quentin Tarantino’s love for French New Wave cinema, especially the crime dramas, is well-documented. He said directors like Jean-Pierre Melville (whose Le Samourai was discussed in an earlier column) took inspiration from the Warner Bros gangster pictures with Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney, and instead of focusing on the plot, they focused on the “poetry between the lines”. I was reminded of this observation when the Venice Film Festival announced that Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle, 1970) would be part of their Classics line-up. (Due to COVID-related reasons, the Classics section will be screened at the festival Il Cinema Ritrovato, in Bologna, from 25 to 31 August.)
The film opens in a manner that is a universe away from the typical Warner Bros film. It’s a quote that explains the title. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, drew a circle with a piece of red chalk and said: “When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day, whatever may befall each, whatever their diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle.” There’s always a sense of the existential in crime/noir cinema, but the French take it a few steps further.
Take the scene where a soon-to-be-released prisoner named Corey (Alain Delon) is approached by a prison guard about a new “job” outside. The guard says Corey is the only man for the job, which he calls “classic, easy, no risk… if done right.” Well, that’s the real issue, isn’t it! If done right! Corey, at first, refuses. He doesn’t want to end up back here. But the guard persists. “With your pedigree and your time inside, who’d offer you decent work?”
We’re not even 10 minutes into the movie, and we’re already aware of something larger, something beyond Corey that’s going to result in him accepting this “job” offer. (A grim joke: he is being released early for “good behaviour”.) Society won’t make it easy for him to lead a straight life. Plus, there’s that thing the Buddha said. “When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day…” One of these other men turns out to be Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté), who prises open his handcuffs and escapes from a train while being escorted by a policeman.
And how do Corey and Vogel meet? As the Buddha quote says: “unknowingly”. Corey is released from prison in Marseille. He buys a car and drives towards Paris. Vogel has been running (and running) in the woods, chased by policemen and dogs. He evades them, and stumbles onto a road at the edge of the forested area, and across the road is a diner, and Corey has stopped there for a meal. Vogel crosses the road and tries to open the trunks of several cars, so he can hide inside and get away. The only trunk that’s open is of the car that belongs to… Corey. It’s almost like the universe is bringing them together.
This is most unusual because the crux of the film is a heist, and when we think of a “heist movie”, we think of carefully made plans, careful preparations, carefully recruited allies, carefully considered logistics. In other words, we think of deliberate actions being set in motion by people, in order to pull off a “job”. But here, things come together… by chance.
Even a conversation among the police — one of whom is Inspector Mattei (André Bourvil ), the cop Vogel escaped from — conveys a sense of things happening, well, “unknowingly”. Mattei’s senior officer says, “Only chance can help now.”
In this scene, it’s not just the element of destiny (or chance, or whatever you want to call it) that leaks from the bad guys’ half of the story to that of the good guys. It’s the very nature of good and bad itself. The head of Internal Affairs who is questioning Mattei and his senior believes that no one is innocent. “All men are guilty. They’re born innocent, but it doesn’t last.” It’s his doctrine: Crime lurks within us. We have to flush it out.
With all this, it’s almost an hour before we get an inkling about the heist, which involves the “job” that Corey was told about in prison. Put differently, we’ve spent almost an hour of a 2-hour-15-minute crime film where no actual planned crime happens. (The killings that occur are of people unrelated to the “job”, and they happen… by chance.) This is what Tarantino was talking about: the poetry between the lines, the things that happen while we are waiting for the “Warner Bros” things to happen.
And now we meet Jansen (Yves Montand), who becomes the third member of the team, when Vogel and Corey decide they need a marksman. And what’s his background? He’s a former cop, a washed-up alcoholic. “One of the best shots on the force. But the corruption of his work environment finally got to him.” Jansen was once a classmate of Mattei, who is now after Vogel, who has now teamed up with Jansen. Note how everything derives from the title, how everything is circular. It’s not just the traditional “bad guys” who are bad. The people considered the “good guys” are, too. Recall what the Internal Affairs head said: “All men are guilty.”
Once we get to the heist, the film is a cracker. It involves the usual heist-y details we love — like, a bullet made of lead, antimony and tin, a “light, soft, low-density alloy” that will mould the tumblers as it flattens against the lock in the jewellery store. But even during this extraordinary, wordless stretch — the kind of sequence for which the big screen and the audience were invented — there’s a bit of personal redemption. Later, there’s a touching bit of loyalty. This isn’t to say that the Hollywood gangster/heist films had no poetry in them. It’s just that the French versified it better.
Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).
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