||Jean-Pierre Melville was often described as not as lauded as he should have been during his lifetime, and was well-known for getting his due some years after he had passed away, prematurely, at age fifty-three. But his films, if not always embraced by snooty critics who saw his shameless courting of the American movies he loved so much and dismissed his output as that of a follower, not a leader, went on to generate a mighty cult presence in the canon of European crime movies, with filmmakers as diverse as Martin Scorsese, the inevitable Quentin Tarantino, Aki Kaurismaki, John Woo, and many more claiming works by the Frenchman as among their favourites, a tribute to his sense of style that was so austere and serious-minded that it demanded you take it as sincerely as possible for the best effect.
Melville did not pop up from a vacuum, he was born from the crucible of the Second World War, where though he had to flee France he was a big supporter of the Resistance and was well aware of the horrors that terrible situation brought up in his homeland, but also his obsession with Hollywood thrillers, especially those starring the great tough guy actors like Humphrey Bogart or James Cagney. The film noir movement, identified by the French after all, held enormous appeal to Melville, and he sought to replicate that mood of impending doom and looming violence and betrayal in the pieces he concocted under his own steam. Something of a perfectionist, he was not willing to compromise in his pursuit of that perfection, which could give rise to certain tensions, yet for his fans this stubbornness was everything he needed to hone his craft.
You might have believed by his last two films he had finally whittled down his talent to its purest form, and certainly with Le Cercle Rouge (or The Red Circle, if you prefer) this is what his aficionados were convinced of. His previous two films had been Le Samourai, a crime drama starring Alain Delon at his most exquisitely cool that many cite as Melville's masterpiece, and Army in the Shadows, his ultimate statement on the French Resistance that was as bleak and uncompromising as anything in his thrillers; again, this was greatly respected, though curiously forgotten about for decades before a major rediscovery in the twenty-first century. Much as Melville's overall body of work had been neglected in the wider pop culture, you could observe, though that was perhaps doing him a disservice as the cult was always there after his passing.
In many ways, Le Cercle Rouge was the distillation of the director's obsessions, crystallised around a heist sequence that was inspired by one of his own favourites, John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle from 1950, though being a French filmmaker Melville's heists would find themselves compared to Jules Dassin's hugely influential Rififi from 1955. Now it was 1970, he felt enough time had passed to do his own robbery sequence justice, and though there were similarities with Dassin - conducted in complete silence, for instance - there was enough dedication of purpose to the section, and more importantly its setting in the rest of the story, to mark it out as more than a mere slavish copy. Emerging from a decade of heist movies that had become ever more jokey and stylised, it was bracing to see one presented with such ice blood in its veins.
That story was concerned with Alain Delon, returning to work with Melville, who played a career criminal determined to go straight now he is being released from jail after a five year sentence. Or at least he is for about five nanoseconds before one of the guards informs him of a perfect crime to be pulled off at the Place Vendome: all he needs to do is assemble a crew and descend upon a jeweller's, one of the most expensive in the country, and clean it out. Besides, revenge is on his mind. Easier said than done, though in an eccentric development we are also following Gian Maria Volonte, who has escaped from police inspector Bourvil (the great French comedian, here in a serious role and one of his last), and is seeking refuge. As luck would have it, he climbs into the back of Delon's car, and they reach an understanding with some swiftness, that criminal code what they live or die by.
But they need someone else, a third cohort, and Yves Montand was that man, a broken-down ex-cop who we first meet suffering horribly from the DTs (it's odd to see Melville essentially playing with horror movie imagery here) but just might be redeemed if he can assist in the robbery. The whole look of the film spoke to a dread that nothing was going to work out no matter how meticulously the plan was drawn up, the cinematography in colour but barely a couple of grades up from black and white, and the only small touch of humour in Bourvil's sharing his apartment with nobody but his cats. Women were largely excluded, Delon has been betrayed by his early on, and about all they're good for is entertainment in a nightclub, emphasising the grim, let's get it over with nature of the job these three have staged. It was a potent mix of thrills you'd expect and dourness you wouldn't.
Some say for his final film, 1972's Un Flic (slang for A Cop) was a disappointment, and may have pointed to a decline in quality from the man had he lived past the following year, but it was by no means a dead loss, its main drawback was that it looked terribly underfunded. Those rear projection shots of streets when characters were driving were part and parcel of a Melville movie, but here they were more egregious than usual, and the moody near-monochrome photography looked cheap, as if on a television movie budget rather than something befitting a production that had secured the services of two of France's biggest stars. Maybe all the money went on paying Alain Delon, back once again for another go around, and Catherine Deneuve, who really should have known a Melville effort wasn't going to offer a great role for a woman.
Look at those painted backdrops in a few scenes and you'd wonder if there wasn't a large degree of cost-cutting going on, but perhaps the most blatant was in the central heist sequence, always a highlight of a Melville movie but here played out with painfully obvious model trains and a model helicopter, combined with equally obvious sets: it resembled something out of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's Thunderbirds in places. And yet, its ambition was more entertaining than this might have indicated, as not many other films could boast an action scene where Richard Crenna (not playing the cop) was lowered from a helicopter onto a train carriage, hid in the bathroom to change his clothes, then proceeded to help himself to a gangster's heroin batch with use of, among other things, a big red and silver magnet.
It was so over the top ridiculous, so out of character for Melville who was evidently trying to top what he had achieved before in the heist genre, that for all the flak it gets it remained among one of his most amusing directorial efforts, that ten or fifteen minutes it takes to play out in real time genuinely diverting. As for the rest, Delon, who was playing the cop, got to mope around as he works out Crenna and his gang were responsible for the bank robbery we witnessed at the beginning on one of the least clement days the project could have found (it was set at Christmastime, but had a look of the Viking Hel about it). Deneuve was the moll who dresses as a nurse to execute the hospitalised gang member who may squeal, and the same nightclub set from Le Cercle Rouge was recycled here. It wasn't up to Melville's usual slick standards, but it was fine for what it was.
Sadly, that was the end of the line for the great filmmaker, as a few months later he was dining in a restaurant and suffered a fatal heart attack, dying in the arms of one of his best friends. Where could he have gone from here? Would he have simply repeated himself with variations, or applied his abilities to fresh genres? We'll never know, but he would have been gratified that his body of work was now so appreciated across the world in a way he could never have imagined. The benefits of being curated on Blu-ray means his output can be seen as it was intended, and Studio Canal's Melville Collection is an ideal way to introduce yourself to him, or reacquaint yourself with his filmography. Le Cercle Rouge was previously butchered in an English dubbed version, but now you can see it intact as it was supposed to be. This, Un Flic and four others (Bob le Flambeur, Léon Morin, Priest, Le Doulos and Army in the Shadows) are included, along with hours of supplementary material.