||Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-73) is best known these days for his ice-cool crime dramas, specifically the Alain Delon vehicle Le Samourai where he showed off the handsome star to his best advantage as the stony-faced, utterly focused gangster, setting him off on a career of crime thrillers for the rest of his days in film. Delon was the ideal star for Melville, as you could read acres of meaning into his enigmatic features while finding him compelling enough to stick with his characters for a full length movie, wondering what he would get up to next. Call it a path he was set on as Tom Ripley in Rene Clement's Patricia Highsmith adaptation Plein Soleil.
Once Le Samourai had been well-received, regarded as one of the great cult movies of the nineteen-sixties, Melville moved onto a subject closest to his heart: the French Resistance in World War II, a period he described as the best time of his life, to some controversy, but also explaining why his General Charles De Gaulle-endorsing Army of Shadows probably arrived at the wrong time to really catch on with the French public. They were in the process of seeing the General as yesterday's man and booting him out of power, therefore did not particularly want to hear about his glory days battling the Nazis when it seemed time to move on from all that.
Army of Shadows was by no means a flop, but Melville craved a blockbuster under his belt, and it did not supply that, to his disappointment. Many a different director would have tried out something far more commercial, a comedy or something equally frothy, but he did not do froth and instead retreated into material more akin to Le Samourai, a dour, meticulous, almost two-and-a-half hours examination of what makes a criminal and a cop more or less the same, simply on different sides of the law. Delon willingly reteamed with him, grateful for their previous success and keen for another, while other stars were recruited to fill up the roles in support to him.
Gian Maria Volonte was to be Delon's sidekick in this new film from 1970, titled Le Cercle Rouge (or The Red Circle in English), named after an invented and somewhat nonsensical quote "from" Buddha which appears in a caption before the opening titles got underway. Volonte was a big celebrity in Italy and was fairly well known internationally thanks to his appearances in Spaghetti Westerns, including Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars and its follow-up For a Few Dollars More, and the more to Volonte's liking A Bullet for the General (thanks to its left-wing politics), though this new effort was released the same year as his triumph in Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion.
You want another big star? How about Yves Montand? While Delon played the recently released from prison mastermind behind Le Cercle Rouge's central, half hour heist, and Volonte the escaped criminal who hides in the back of his car in an unlikely bit of chance, Montand was the ex-cop whose alcoholism has damaged his career (we initially see him in a bizarre hallucination sequence) who signs up as the marksman the plan needs to pull it off. Montand was one of France's most popular actors, as famous for his womanising as he was for his thespian excursions and had anyone from Marilyn Monroe (Let's Make Love) to Jane Fonda (Jean-Luc Godard's Tout Va Bien) as leading ladies.
Not to mention a few politically engaged works (like Costa-Gavras' State of Siege) for serious credentials. Yet this trio's antagonist would be a comedian, Bourvil, who played it completely seriously as the detective on their trail, aside from a couple of scenes where he returned home to dote over his pet cats rather than a spouse, underlining the cop's lack of interest in anything but pursuing the law over such fripperies as women. Indeed, women are merely present as decoration, largely in the background (as in the nightclub), or a dalliance in the past to be regretted - Delon's ex has shacked up with his old boss since he's been behind bars, and he is not interested in her anymore.
But was this morose, exacting item, that could barely be legitimately called a thriller such was its deliberate pacing, entertaining? Or was it one of those productions so obviously important that it would do you good to watch it, yet was more for the cinephiles than the casual viewer? Certainly it was not the best Melville to watch as your first, you would be better to try one of his shorter works to see if they appealed and get the measure of him, but if you could adjust to this, probably the purest interpretation of his worldview and how to put that across in a criminal fiction, then you would likely have stumbled across a new favourite director, and be enthused about tracking down more. If nothing else, the heist itself would prove vital to appreciating him, with only one word spoken to break the silence, and everything conveyed with tense, impeccable precision. Bleak, ultimately, influential, certainly, Melville was in a class by himself.
[Studiocanal release this on 4K UHD and Blu-ray in a restored print with the following featurettes:
The Perfect Circle (a doc about the film)
Under the Name of Melville (a more general, feature length Melville doc)
Interview with Bernard Stora
Interview with José Giovanni
Ginette Vincendeau Presentation of Le Cercle Rouge.]