Before the opening credits of Jean-Pierre Melville's second-to-last film Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle, 1970) there appears, on the left of the screen, a small revolving image of a laughing Buddha and, on the right, the following words: 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 the diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle."
This "Buddhist" epigraph, in point of fact totally invented by Melville himself, is there at the start of the film to mark it with a sense of the inevitable, of Langian destiny even, where the different strands of the plot will lead the four main interconnected characters, all male - the released criminal Corey (Alain Delon), the escapee Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté), the former cop-turned-criminal Jansen (Yves Montand), the pursuing police captain Mattei (André Bourvil) - to meet their fate together in the one place; and whatever genuine Buddhist associations there may be for this story of the Buddha wielding a piece of red chalk, we will inevitably associate "red" in the title of a crime movie with "blood" - the question is, of which characters?
Melville (he was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach in 1917 and named himself Melville in homage to the author of Moby-Dick) first made his name in the 1940s with two distinctive literary adaptations, Le Silence de la Mer (1947-49) and Les Enfants Terribles (1950), from famous novels by Vercors (1942) and Jean Cocteau (1929) respectively; and this strain is still found in his later work, in the Resistance tales of Leon Morin, Prêtre (1961) and L'Armée des Ombres (1969). But it was in his crime thrillers that Melville made his biggest mark on French cinema, starting with Bob le Flambeur in 1956 and reaching a peak with the absolute masterpiece that is Le Samouraï (1967). (Besides Le Cercle Rouge, one further crime thriller was to follow, Un Flic , Melville's last film before his untimely death in 1973 from a heart attack at the age of 55.) These crime thrillers are made very much inspired by and under the influence of classic Hollywood cinema - in the October 1961 Cahiers du Cinema he published an eclectic list of his personal pantheon of 64 pre-War Hollywood directors, everyone from Lloyd Bacon to William Wyler; and he often invoked his admiration for classically-styled later films like John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and Robert Wise's Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). Plus, the style of dress he adopted - trenchcoat, Stetson, Ray-Bans - acted as a living evocation of America as he had experienced it through American cinema.
Still, for all that his crime thrillers are made under the aegis of American cinema, they are nonetheless resolutely French films, no more so than in the way that Melville over the years simplified, refined, pared down, stripped down, aestheticised the traditional crime thriller narrative. Finally it is in Le Samouraï that we see this approach operating in its most complete and perfected sense. Alain Delon's portrayal of hitman Jef Costello, the "samourai" of the title, has become iconic of the film itself: a cool, almost blank surface, an androgynous beauty, ritualised action, an absence of "backstory" or psychological explanations. The visual look of the film is equally cool and stylised, and in the way Melville strips away the naturalism and historical setting of his models (American film noir, in particular Frank Tuttle's This Gun for Hire , and the Japanese ronin/"homeless" samurai tradition) it aims at the archetypal, the iconic, the mythical.
The opening of Le Cercle Rouge establishes itself as clearly following this model. The camera pans left from a set of red traffic lights (the first of the film's many red circles) to a car racing through the streets at night. Who are the occupants of the car? Where are they going? Why the hurry? No explanation is offered. And if viewers aren't alert enough, they won't necessarily notice that the two who alight at the train station and hurry to the waiting train are actually handcuffed together; and even if they do notice, there is no clear indication of who is handcuffed to whom. Even when their identities become clearer - it is police captain Mattei who is escorting prisoner Vogel - in the subsequent, almost wordless scenes on the train, no further explanation is offered. We're not told of any past connection Mattei and Vogel may have, nor anything of Vogel's criminal past; and we're not even told why Vogel has been arrested (in fact, we only learn much later that he wasn't formally arrested, but was being taken to Paris for questioning).
Some time later, Mattei makes the comment that Vogel is "no terrorist" (according to the English subtitles; in the French dialogue he makes reference to Claude Tenne of the right-wing OAS terrorist organisation), which leads critic Michael Sragow, in the Criterion DVD's accompanying booklet, to surmise rather bizarrely, and wrongly, that Vogel, played by renowned Italian left-winger Gian Maria Volonté, must be a terrorist. In fact, we simply never learn about his past (the fact that he turns out to know Jansen can come as some surprise), nor really about that of Corey or Mattei.
Nothing could be further from the pattern of characterisation in Melville's earlier Bob le Flambeur. In that earlier film there is a wealth of psychological motivation and backstory - Bob's (Roger Duchesne) close relationship with his old friend Roger (André Garet) and young protégé Paulo (Daniel Cauchy), the paternal role he takes on with the teenage Anne (Isabel Corey), his antagonism towards the pimp Marc (Gérard Buhr), the past history of his relationship with the police inspector Ledru (Guy Decomble)
In fact, the only one of the four central characters about whom we do learn something is Jansen, but it is still expressed in rather oblique terms. Why did he leave the police force? The only clue we get - but it is more than we get for the other characters - is when Vogel tells Corey that "the corruption of his work environment finally got to him." And after the jewelry heist, Jansen himself refers to his past career when he says he studied ballistics with Marchand, the French police's present Director of Internal Affairs (Paul Amiot), whom we have already seen in an important scene with Mattei, when he returns to Paris after Vogel's successful escape from the train.
If the "Buddhist" epigraph at the start of the film is used by Melville to posit one overriding theme for the film (fate, inevitability), the Director of Internal Affairs is used to enunciate a second one, that of universal guilt. As he tells Mattei: "Didn't you know that a suspect must be considered guilty? No one is innocent. All men are guilty. They're born innocent but it doesn't last. We all change for the worse." Not the most profound of philosophies perhaps, but this is very much the tone of the film, reflected too in the cool tones of Henri Decaë's cinematography.
So, to return to the film's first main sequence, on the train: Mattei and Vogel settle down for the night, and Melville then specifically links this strand of the story with that of Corey, by juxtaposing shots of Vogel and Corey. Melville gives us a close-up on Vogel's face, lying on the top bunk; then a shot of Mattei looking up at him; followed by a track in on Corey, lying on his prison cell bed. These shots establish an equivalence between the two characters and imply that there will be some way that they will be brought together. The two stories then proceed in parallel: Vogel's escape from police custody; Corey's release from prison, his theft of money and gun from his ex-friend Rico (André Eykan), his journey to Paris in a newly-bought car.
The two characters (and their stories) then come together on the road together, when Vogel hides himself in the boot of Corey's car (an outrageous coincidence really) and Corey, upon discovering Vogel, matter-of-factly proceeds to help him. Very soon they choose to join forces in dispatching the gangsters Rico has sent after Corey.
The ease and professionalism with which Vogel joins up and works with Corey is the key attribute of the film's four main characters. They are men who dedicate themselves to the job at hand, with no outside life, complications or distractions. When Corey visits Rico, he reacts with no emotion to the realisation that his former mistress is now Rico's - in fact, rather symbolically, he replaces the money and gun he takes from Rico's safe with his own photographs of her. Even Mattei is shown as having no life outside his profession as a police officer: we twice see him return at night to his apartment, empty but for his three cats. To be sure, there are photographs of a woman (his wife?) in his office and on his desk at home, but her absence is never explained (deceased?). And the fourth character, the expert marksman and ex-cop Jansen, is also a consummate professional, once he is allowed very quickly to recover from his alcoholism (a rather clichéd depiction, to be honest).
The lengthy jewelry heist sequence (lasting some twenty-five minutes) is the crux of the film, providing an opportunity for the both the three criminals and for Melville the director to offer an expert demonstration of their craft. The mechanics of the heist - Corey and Vogel abseil down from a neighbouring building, enter through a rear window, overpower the guard, disable part of the security system enabling Jansen to enter and release the security locks on the display cases of jewels by shooting a specially designing soft bullet into the controlling keyhole - are all performed in total verbal silence. This silence intensifies the audience's own experience of the whole heist sequence, is justified logically by the trio's wish to avoid incriminating themselves on tape, and more significantly reinforces their total concentration, dedication, coordination, efficiency, and professionalism. This to disprove Vogel's earlier statement that "I'm not a professional."
From this point, the fate invoked in the pseudo-Buddhist epigraph at the start of the film is set into motion. Red reappears in the form of a single red rose that a girl in Santi's nightclub presents to Corey, a presentation whose formality is emphasised by the shot-reverse shot set up Melville devotes to the transaction. (Red is a motif which consistently reappears in isolated shots throughout the film: the red traffic lights at the start of the film; the red chalk with which Corey marks his billiard cue; blood on the banknotes after Vogel shoots Rico's men; and so forth.) This red rose is then seen again in the hands of Vogel in the last of a series of four shots full of warning and premonition: two identical shots of Corey in the lift, panning up his body to reveal his face hooded with dark shadows, intercut with two of Vogel left behind in the apartment. This sense of foreboding is reinforced in the following scene by a hand-held point-of-view shot as Corey walks up the drive in the dark, the black shapes of the trees at the side wavering in the dim light, towards the darkened house and a row of lights shining ominously from the ground floor windows only.
Corey thinks he's making contact with a fence; he knows nothing of the trap set for him by Mattei, a trap that will close the circle of fate on him and his two companions. Such is the feeling of inevitability to it all that, in contrast to the measured pace of the rest of the film (hence the 140-minute running time for such a stripped-down narrative), Melville seems to treat this denouement in a rushed, even perfunctory manner. In the aftermath, the Director of Internal Affairs emerges to sum up with a reference ("All men, Mr Mattei") to his philosophy of universal guilt. Nor is any sense of narrative closure, of a case brought to a satisfying conclusion, allowed to the audience or to Mattei himself: in the final shot, Mattei walks towards us, the dark of night on all sides, seemingly uncertain where to look or where to go
Criterion DVD is up to Criterion's usual first-class standards. The first
disc comprises an excellent transfer of the newly restored version of
the film (1.85:1, anamorphic). The second disc is devoted to a whole series
of special features: principally, excerpts from Jean-Pierre Melville (portrait
en poses), originally broadcast in 1971 in the French TV series Cinéastes
de notre temps; video interviews recorded in 2003 with Rui Nogueira
(author of the now out-of-print interview book Melville on Melville)
and assistant director Bernard Stora; and 30 minutes of on-set and interview
footage from four different sources (three from 1970, one from 1973) featuring
Melville, Alain Delon, Yves Montand and André Bourvil. In addition,
the accompanying booklet includes essays by Michael Sragow and Chris Fujiwara,
extracts from Melville on Melville, and statements by composer
Eric Demarson and also by Hong Kong action director John Woo.