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Old School Review: “Le Cercle Rouge” (1970)

Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, “Le Cercle Rouge” is a return to the criminal underworld he momentarily left behind to film “Army of Shadows”. This may be my favorite Melville film (of the assortment of his films that I have seen), it’s got the most tightly packed story with a superb cast of characters, all of which are dynamic, engaging, and memorable. The film opens similarly to “Le Samouraï” with another invented epigraph by Melville, “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.” While the whole cast is excellent overall, there are three characters that brought a bit of cinematic magic to the whole affair. First there’s Corey (Alain Delon, of “Le Samouraï” fame) an expert thief who begins the film by being released from prison early for good behavior. Just before his release, a prison guard tips him off about a major jewelry store that’s rumored to be ripe for the picking. The other two are Vogel (Gian Maria Volontè) a notorious criminal who got caught in Marseille and was being personally transported by train with Le Commissaire Mattei (André Bourvil), a tough as nails comissioner who stops at nothing to get the job done. Naturally, after Vogel unexpectedly crashes out of the train’s window and starts an impromptu manhunt through the French countryside, Commissaire Mattei uses every asset in his power to track down the criminal.

While Vogel was running through the woods from the cops, Corey made his way to Rico’s (André Ekyan) apartment, a former colleague of his. Rico’s been making power moves since Corey’s jailhouse detour, one of which involved dating Corey’s former girlfriend. So, Corey makes a power move of his own by robbing Rico of his guns and money right there in his home. After this, Corey buys a car with Rico’s money, and heads out to a diner for lunch. While eating there, Vogel crawls out of the woods nearby and sneaks into Corey’s trunk. Corey drives out to the middle of an empty field, gets out of the car, and sits nearby on some farming equipment before telling Vogel that he knows he’s in the trunk and to come out as he has nothing to fear (Corey had stashed his two guns in the trunk anyways, so he knew Vogel would have them). What follows is a crucial scene, two like-minded criminals with an attitude of stoic nonchalance that suggests that beyond their sparse dialogue, the potential of a lucrative partnership, goes without saying. What begins as a confrontational beat turns towards cooperation with relative ease once each man sizes up the other. Shortly after this newfound agreement, Vogel hides back in the trunk to avoid any prying eyes of the law, and they’re off to Paris. Further down the road, two of Rico’s henchmen force Corey off the road and walk him off the side of the road. Just before they kill Corey for stealing from and humiliating their boss, Vogel climbs out of the trunk, takes their guns, and shoots each man with the other’s gun while holding the pistols with a hankerchief. No fingerprints here, only a newly cemented friendship in crime.

The rest of the film is devoted to the preparation, and execution, of that jewelry heist mentioned earlier. Corey and Vogel make it back to Paris to prepare for the logistics of the heist, but Commissaire Mattei is tracking any and all movements that could be attributed to Vogel. The Comissioner turns up at the scene of Rico’s murdered men and turns over every rock, clue, and hint of Vogel’s involvement. Meanwhile, Corey and Vogel agree that they will need at least two more people to adequately complete the job. First they need an expert marksman, one that knows everything there is to know about guns and ballistics for a very precise shot. Corey has a contact he used to know, though he doesn’t know if the old man is still up for the task, but phones him anyways. That just so happens to be Jansen (Yves Montand), a down-on-his-luck ex-cop with a heavy drinking problem. He answers the call despite a horrifying hangover, but agrees to help. The last piece of the puzzle is a fence to sell the jewelry to afterwards. They go to a farm outside of Paris and convince the fence (Paul Crauchet) that their product will be worth the risk, he agrees. While the three criminals are out haggling with their newfound fence, Commissaire Mattei is back in Paris hounding Santi (François Périer), the owner of a well established nightclub, known for its connections to the Parisian underworld. After everything is in order, they attempt the heist in a scene that’s both wordless and yet excruxiatingly full of a taught anxiety knowing that they could be discovered or caught at any moment. It’s a highly memorable heist sequence that both calls back to cinema’s criminal capers of the past, and yet foreshadows how some heist films are oriented in the decades that followed.

In the end, the fence denies their haul citing that it’s far more risky than he had anticipated with Vogel’s escape raising the awareness of local law enforcement. Though in reality, he had been given orders from Rico not to pursue the product, and to direct Corey towards Santi, suggesting that he may know of a fence willing to take the jewels. Of course, the fence that Santi knows is Commissaire Mattei in disguise. Corey sets up a time and place to make the tradeoff and, as with all of Melville’s Tough Guy crime films, it doesn’t go well for our anti-heroes. This was an excellent neo-noir from Jean-Pierre Melville, and it completes my short dive into his filmography. If I come across some of his other films from earlier in his career, or find a copy of “Un Flic”, I’ll probably give it a watch and let you know what I thought. Check out Jean-Pierre Melville’s work sometime, his films influenced leagues of filmmakers, genres of filmmaking, and are generally a good time.

Final Score: Four Fat Cats

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Old School Review: “Le Samouraï” (1967)

Written by Georges Pellegrin and Jean-Pierre Melville, and directed by Melville, “Le Samouraï” is another dip into the criminal world of Paris, though this time the auteur filmmaker has outdone himself and transcended the genre he helped to mold in decades prior. The first ten minutes (or so) of this film are devoid of dialogue, and masterfully precise down from the actions performed onscreen to the shots, editing, and tension building intensity as we watch our silent Samouraï rise from bed and head outside to steal a car right off the street. Just after the opening credits, which play over our Samouraï smoking in bed, a quote appears, “There is no solitude greater than that of the Samurai. Unless it be that of a tiger in the jungle… perhaps…” and although it is ascribed to the Bushidō Code, it was actually an invention of Melville’s. Beyond the accuracy of the quote’s origin, the atmosphere that it conjures is the perfect set-up for the film that is to follow.

After the Samouraï has stolen a car off the street, he heads to a garage just down a side street whose door slides down right after he enters. The Samouraï gets out and stands off to the side, smoking, while the only other man in the garage tends to those pesky license plates. The familiarity and relaxed gestures between the men suggests that this same scenario has played out many times before, still without any dialogue though. After the mechanic has swapped out new license plates, he hands the Samouraï some papers, and our wordless warrior extends his hand- not for a handshake though, as the mechanic reaches into another drawer and pulls out a pistol and places it in the Samouraï’s hand. He then dispenses a wad of money for the mechanic and drives off. This whole sequence is the perfect example of why this movie works so well- it stands out in the execution. If it were any other director running the show, that scene would never have the odd sense of tension that runs alongside the curiosity of the moment. Melville’s pared down and condensed all of the skills he acquired through his previous tough guy noir films and streamlined them into a film that asks you to pay attention to the actions onscreen, for they hold the most narrative weight here. The whole first act is about our Samouraï taking every proactive and methodical step in his code of conduct to assure a clean getaway. He’s busy setting up alibis all over town in preparation for his night. He goes to Jane Lagrange’s (Nathalie Delon) apartment, his lover who promises to vouch for him if the cops come questioning, which is also where we finally get a name for our Samouraï, Jef Costello (Alain Delon). Costello also stops at a game of cards to see if they’ll be awake all night, which they will, so he plans to arrive back later in the dead of night. At this point, we still don’t know what Costello’s goal is, though if the audience is familiar with the director’s work, we can only guess that it is a criminal act of some sort. We get our answer when Costello waltzes into a nightclub and into a back room where he’s face to face with a man behind a desk who asks “Who are you?” Costello responds, “It doesn’t matter.“- perplexed the man then asks, “What do you want?” and Costello responds emotionlessly, “To kill you.” Which he does in that instant while the club’s Pianist (Cathy Rosier) is playfully clanging away on the keys.

Unfortunately for Costello, he was spotted by roughly five witnesses on his escape from the nightclub. He’s brought in for the lineup with the French Police canvassing entire neighborhoods for the killer. What follows is an intense few scenes where the Police Comissioner (François Périer) interrogates the amassed subjects thoroughly. He’s brought in the exact five witnesses that saw Costello leaving the nightclub, though only two believe he’s the culprit. Costello sits through some intensive questioning while the comissioner’s men contact his alibi, Jane, and bring both her and her older, wealthy, partner Wiener (Michel Boisrond) in to the station. Luckily, Costello had planned for this and had made sure that he was seen by Wiener as he was exiting Jane’s apartment earlier in the night at the right time. After both Wiener correctly picks Costello out from a crowd of similarly dressed suspects, and the Pianist (who definitely saw him at the scene of the crime) denies that he’s the killer she saw, the Samouraï is allowed to go.

Even though the Police Comissioner doesn’t have any proof that Costello did anything wrong, he has a gut instinct that the eternally poker-faced Costello is lying. He sends a few men to tail him as he personally goes after Jane, who supported Costello’s alibi, and in a rather slimey scene the Comissioner has a team of men turn her apartment upside down and leaves her with a threatening demeanor. Meanwhile, half the police force tails Costello in an entertaining cat-and-mouse chase scene throughout the Subway Metro. After Costello successfully evades the police he meets with a middle-man from his, let’s call it an Assassin’s Guild, to get paid and to assure his superiors that his being brought in for questioning meant nothing. However, the powers-that-be had already decided that this series of events deemed Costello unfit for their purposes and had a hired gun shoot him from afar during the meeting. Amid the chaos, Costello retreats and sees to his wounds while he becomes the most wanted man in Paris. After he heals a bit, he goes to the nightclub and stares down the Pianist from the bar. While Costello’s facial expression rarely changes in any tangible way, we must assume that his dilemma is one of confusion, perplexed by the Pianist’s choice not to turn him in when questioned by the Comissioner. There’s a short scene where he rides with her to her home and oddly enough, she seems to be unafraid of him despite knowing he’s a killer. He explains his dilemma to her, a stranger, who is probably the only person he could open up to. Later, when he returns home he’s met by a hidden intruder, his contact in the earlier botched meeting. The guild has changed its’ mind after some consideration and the middle-man offers Costello two million francs and another job. When he doesn’t answer, the middle-man inquires, “Nothing to say?” to which Costello replies, “Not with a gun on me.” smirking, the middle-man prods, “Is that a principle?” Face unchanging, Costello remarks, “A habit.” Which prompts the mediator to put his gun away and one of the coolest beats in the film is concluded with an explosion of action as Costello immediately jabs the intruder square in the face and steals his gun. Having turned the tables, he prompts the mediator to give up the address of his boss, Olivier Rey (Jean-Pierre Posier).

So, I may have over indulged in this review in plot description, but it’s mainly because I just adored the film if I’m being honest with you. Though it is less about the things that happened, and more about how these things came to pass. I’ll leave the ending out of this one for you to discover and enjoy, but admittedly I got fairly close to the end in this review. What struck me about this film is how silent it was. This was an incredibly effective use of silence, it only served to strengthen the otherworldliness that permeates the film. From the desaturated color palatte to the dreamlike presentation of people and events, Melville crafted an incredibly unique neo-noir here that probably inspired countless characters and ideas throughout the decades. I could easily see the world of “John Wick” inspired by this film, or something like the stillness of Alain Delon’s performance of Jef Costello being a point of inspiration for Brad Pitt’s Roy McBride in “Ad Astra”. Who knows how much influence the film really had over the years, but what I do know is that this film exceeded my expectations, and is a new favorite of mine. Check it out if you can!

Final Score: 1 Bird