Le Cercle Rouge

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Feb 11 12:17:45 MST 2003

Just at the time film noir was going into decline in the USA during the 
1950s, it got a new lease on life in France. To a certain extent, 
Hollywood's loss was France's gain as blacklisted directors such as 
Jules Dassin simply picked up where they left off with films like 
"Rififi." In addition to political exiles like Dassin, France had been 
developing home-grown talent for a number of years.

Jean-Pierre Melville was among the most noteworthy. Shown in its uncut 
version at the Film Forum in New York City for the first time since its 
1970 debut, "Le Cercle Rouge" is about as stylized as kabuki. With a 
lengthy, highly choreographed and dialog-less jewelry heist at the heart 
of the film, it shows the obvious influence of "Rififi." It has also 
been compared to John Huston's 1950 "The Asphalt Jungle"--also about a 
failed jewelry heist.

Melville found this sort of plot irresistible. In 1950, shortly after he 
began work on "Bob, Le Flambeur", his first film about a jewelry heist, 
"The Asphalt Jungle" hit the theaters. This convinced him to reframe his 
own movie as a comedy of manners in order to avoid comparisons with 

As is the case with most film noirs, the world of "Le Cercle Rouge" is 
utterly amoral. In the opening scene, Corey (Alain Delon), who is about 
to be released from prison, is recruited for a robbery by a prison guard 
whose relative has worked as a guard for the jewelry shop being targeted 
and knows how to get past elaborate security mechanisms. After Corey 
agrees to do the job, he must recruit a sharpshooter who can disable 
with a well-placed bullet the central lock that controls infrared 
cameras protecting the jewels. That person is Jansen (Yves Montand), a 
former cop.

Jansen has been recommended by Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté), an escaped 
prisoner who crosses paths fatefully with Corey en route to Paris. After 
Corey conceals him in the trunk of his car and avoids roadblocks, the 
two make themselves comfortable in Corey's old Paris apartment. There is 
a vaguely homoerotic quality to the way that these two bond with each other.

Meanwhile, Vogel is being pursued by Inspector Mattei (André Bourvil) as 
the three criminals map out the burglary. In a scene that drives home 
the film's amorality, Mattei is told by his superior that is that all 
men must be presumed guilty. Including cops, asks Mattei? The reply: yes.

"Le Cercle Rouge" takes place in wintertime. Across barren, desolate and 
windswept wheat fields, late-night empty Parisian streets and garish 
nightclubs, the cops and their prey cross paths repeatedly. With a 
cerebral jazz-tinged score by Éric Demarsan to accompany the echt noir 
images, an icy mood is established from the very first scene which takes 
place in the sleeping compartment of a train. Mattei and Vogel, 
handcuffed together, along with the other characters are joined in the 
"red circle" of fate supposedly described by the Buddha in the beginning 
of the film, but actually--according to the Village Voice's J. 
Hoberman--made up by Melville himself who was apparently given to faux 
Buddhist sayings.

Melville was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach in 1917 into a Jewish family 
living in Alsace, France. An admirer of American culture, he adopted the 
name Melville from his favorite author, Herman Melville. Despite having 
fought in the Resistance, Melville got into a beef with CP'ers in the 
film industry, prompting him to set up his own production company in 
1946. He died in 1973.

His affinity for US culture should certainly pique our curiosity in 
light of recent controversy over French "anti-Americanism", which of 
course is really more about anti-world conflagration than it is about 
anything else. That being said, it does make one wonder why people like 
Melville, the fiercely Maoist Godard and others would develop such a 
long-time lover affair with Hollywood. Robin Buss's "French Film Noir" 
provides a plausible explanation:

"There is a comparable ambivalence in language to which translation 
gives a kind of ironic distance. These fictionalized characters who 
adopt Hollywood styles and Americanized language, far from demonstrating 
their subjection to a foreign culture, assert their freedom from the 
constraints of French society, from the norms of their native language, 
from class and background. They extend the possibilities of what it 
means to be 'French'. This was the role of American culture, 
particularly cinema culture, throughout Europe in the post-war years: as 
much in Britain, for example, where the working-class youth of the 1950s 
adopted American clothes, rock'n'roll, slang and mannerisms, as symbols 
of rejection of a class system that would condemn them to routine jobs 
and an inferior social status, confirmed by education, accent and 
language. To the establishment in these countries, American culture came 
as a colonizer, resisted in France particularly on the terrain of 
language and the struggle against 'le franglais'; but to those outside 
the establishment, the effect was liberating."

("Le Cercle Rouge" is showing until February 18th. For schedule and 
other information about the film, go to: 


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