Over the past week or so, I’ve been exploring the works of Jean-Pierre Melville, a French director associated with the Nouvelle Vague who is well known for his terse depictions of the criminal underworld. I have to admit that though I have enjoyed many of these pictures, few of them have spoken to me on a deeper level, besides the magnificent Army of Shadows. Le Cercle Rouge is an exception to this tendency. I find that it blends the best elements of Melville’s French sensibilities with the thrilling action one might expect from a more traditional, American film noir.
That Melville so masterfully pairs the patience of European art cinema with elements that would come to define action cinema, one of the most popular genres of film in the 1970’s, speaks to the director’s unique position in the world of cinema. He is a figure who helped to catalyze the movement known as the nouvelle vague by daring to make low-budget, experimental pictures in the period immediately following WWII while also managing to develop a penchant for thrillers and crime capers. This allowed him to remain commercially viable in a period where many of his contemporaries found flagging returns at the box office. Like Claude Chabrol, Melville drew upon the influence of Hollywood directors like John Huston and Alfred Hitchcock while staying true to the arthouse ideal of creating intelligent, challenging pictures which expand the capabilities of film as a medium.
Le Cercle Rouge unfolds slowly, offering only the barest bones of narrative detail to flesh out its characters. Each of the three principal protagonists carries himself with an air of detached coolness, one of Alain Delon’s signature affectations which is also evidenced in Melville’s Le Samoraï. The film more than makes up for its slow start with brief moments of frantic action which highlight the precipitous position of the characters as they attempt to pull off a once-in-a-lifetime jewel heist. The depiction of the heist itself is mesmerizing, presented in an hour-long sequence almost completely devoid of dialogue. Many critics highlight this section as a tribute to the film Rififi which is often noted for its sensational depiction of a heist. Regardless of what inspired Melville’s work on this picture, it has undoubtedly acting as a guide for directors seeking to work within the realm of action cinema who are unwilling to sacrifice artistry and attention to narrative in the name of cheap thrills. The recent movie John Wick makes many visual references to both Le Cercle Rouge and Le Samorai, and its safe to say that Keanu Reeves’ performance as the titular hitman is undoubtedly informed by Alain Delon’s work with Melville.
Le Cercle Rouge is a formative work of action cinema, prefiguring trends in filmmaking which would come to dominate filmmaking in the 1970’s. Though, at 140 minutes, it may feel a bit aimless in its opening act, this merely serves to set the stage for a series of coincidences and consequences which serve to propel the narrative toward its ultimate climax. A must see for anyone interested in the history of crime film, Le Cercle Rouge manages to offer sufficient thrills for more pedestrian viewers without losing sight of its artistic goals and preoccupations.