Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville the ‘policier’ film features men in trench coats and fedoras perform a ballet of crime – these men are cops and robbers who posses guns, greed and nerve in equal measure. They share a code of honor, which is not about what side of the law they are on, (effectively erases the distinction between cops and crooks) but about how a man must behave to win the respect of those few others who understand the code.
Of course no real crooks or cops are likely to be this attentive to the details of their style and behavior. it was in his crime thrillers that Melville made his biggest mark on French cinema, starting with ‘Bob le Flambeur’ and reaching a peak with the absolute masterpiece that is ‘Le Samouraï’.
Melville’s 1967 film about a professional hit man (‘Le Samourai’) where his characters, like the samourai, place greater importance on correct behavior than upon success.
‘LeCercle Rouge’ stars two of the top French stars of the time, Alain Delon and Yves Montand, both actors who seem directed to be cool and dispassionate, to guard their feelings, to keep their words to themselves, to realize that among men of experience almost everything can go without saying.
There is a precision of economy of what actually happens in the film, with one cool, understated scene after another supported by the urbane fatalism of its cast and the overall mood of inevitability that hangs over every scene.
It has been said that Melville, who fought for the French Resistance during the war was obsessed with notions of fate, doom and honor. Incidentally Melville changed his last name from Grumbach out of admiration for author Herman Melville!
Melville's austere, slow-paced "thrillers" (including ‘Bob, le flambeur’ and ‘Le Doulous" with Jean-Paul Belmondo) have been much admired, first by the nouvelle vogue film critics turned directors (Godard and Truffaut) and later by such directors as Martin Scorcese, Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino.
Melville's films show a world of tough males of cops, robbers, and hitmen. Women barely count as distractions, though in ‘Le samourai’ Nathalie Delon distracts and thereby leads to the destruction of Alain Delon's "samurai" hitman.
The treatment of women in the films is less than enlightened: there is a scene of female nudity, several scenes of female dancers in a nightclub, and a scene in which the night-club's flower seller gives Delon a rose, but its hard to recall a single line being uttered by a woman in the film.
In fact to further the line of thought on gender – none of the four main characters (a police inspector, an ex-policeman ace marksman, an escaped crime suspect, and a thief just released from prisoners) has any visible relationship with a woman, and it is a surprise to find that the nightclub owner has a son! For the men loyalty and professionalism are their visible values, though they do not expect loyalty from each other in a challenging environment.
Melville borrows form other directors too – the heist herein is an interesting challenge and rivals the ones in Jules Dassin's films such as ‘Rififi’ (silences and slow, careful attention to every minute detail). Melville was by the vision of male camaraderie in Howard Hawks, also including his flawed and fatalistic heroes love of alcohol as well as their famous redemptive qualities.
Melville gives himself and his actors the time and space to show their characters in the process of creating new selves and testing them. Delon with a very 1970s mustache and sideburns says very little, a quiet hero – a cool, almost blank surface, an androgynous beauty. Yves Montand is also super cool, credible as the sobering up drunk and former cop-turned-criminal.
The film is chilly in look and perspective and meticulously constructed – it shouldn’t work as it is devoid of romance, devoid of sex, nearly devoid of sentiment. 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.
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.