Directed by:Jean-Pierre Melville Written by:Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970 » Region/Time: France, 140 minutes

Starring: Alain Delon as Corey » André Bourvil as Le Commissaire Mattei » Gian Maria Volontè as Vogel » Yves Montand as Jansen » André Ekyan as Rico » François Périer as Santi » Paul Amiot as Le chef de la police.

“No one is innocent. All men are guilty. They’re born innocent, but it doesn’t last.”

Le Cercle Rouge begins with an apocryphal quote from the Buddha, in fact written by Melville himself, stating that those with shared fates are destined to meet inside the red circle. Melville was a key practitioner of the “cinema policière” in which a hint of existentialism is brought to the French gangster film. Often in his films we find ourselves on the side of the criminal who seems to have his hand forced by fate. Le Cercle Rouge is no different.

The film opens with one suspect, Vogel, being taken into custody by train, handcuffed to Commissaire Mattei and another, Corey, about to be released from prison after a five year term. We do not know what either are convicted of or suspected of committing. In short order, because he is just that ridiculously cool, Vogel escapes from the train and a manhunt begins. In intercut sequences, we see Corey confronted by a crooked prison guard, who gives him a tip on a “job” waiting for him in the outside world – robbing a jeweller in Place Vendôme.

Once released, Corey visits his old crime boss, Rico, and demands money. Because he is just that ridiculously cool, Corey takes the money and a gun, leaving behind a tattered photograph, seeming to know that the same woman is lying beyond the door in Rico’s bed. An angry Rico sends his heavies after Corey, catching up with him in a billiards hall. Corey quickly dispatches with them and sets off in a used car. While eating at a diner, Vogel sneaks into the trunk of Corey’s car. We are initially unsure if Corey saw him or not, but when he is later stopped by a roadblock and asked to open his trunk, he pretends not to have the key. Corey drives out to a nearby field and lets Vogel out of the trunk. After a brief confrontation that is almost as amusingly homoerotic as Red River or Bad Boys 2, they settle down into partners in crime.

When they finally make it to Paris, they search out ex-police marksman, Jansen, who they will need to complete their jewellery heist. When they call, he is suffering from the worst DTs ever caught on film, with the possible exception of The Lost Weekend. Naturally, since he is played by French superstar Yves Montand (Wages of Fear), he cleans up well. Because he is just that ridiculously cool, he instantly quits alcohol.

The heist itself has been endlessly emulated, but never bettered: a wordless, thirty minute sequence in which they thoroughly and ingeniously clean out the jeweller and escape. Because he is just that ridiculously cool, Jansen sets up his rifle for the tricky shot on a tripod, then takes it off and shoots it “freehand”, subsequently taking a whiff of alcohol from his flask, before stoppering it back up.

All the while, Commissaire Mattei has been tracking down Vogel, putting the pressure on Santi, the owner of the local gangster hang-out, to tell him anything he knows. Because he is just that ridiculously cool, Mattei engineers a clever set-up for the three gangsters. Watching a video of the heist, Mattei’s only comment is “Not much for talking, are they?” Nope. That’s ‘cause they’re ridiculously cool. In fact, there is so little talking in this entire movie, it is nearly a silent film. It still holds one’s interest, however, because what this movie is, is very cool. Everyone is ridiculously cool. It even looks cool – all blues, greys and muted green. And few actors were ever as cool as Alain Delon. If you get the chance, catch him in Purple Noon, The Leopard, Rocco and his Brothers, L’Eclisse or Le Samouraï. It’s too bad he’s not much of a star any more.

Throughout the movie, we are teased with ominous red circles: a stop light, a peep hole, the circle of chalk on a pool cue or even the Place Vendôme itself. The ending is, of course, exactly what you’d expect from any film in which hardened criminals attempt to make one last score: bad news.

If you enjoy this film, I also completely endorse Jules Dassin’s Rififi or Melville’s Army of Shadows, Le Samouraï and especially 1955’s Bob Le Flambeur, which was this close to sneaking onto this list as Number 100, and was the inspiration for the original Oceans 11 film.

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