film

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

film

Old School Review: “Army of Shadows” (1969)

Written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, “Army of Shadows” is adapted from a book with the same title by Joseph Kessel which details some of Kessel’s involvement in the French Resistance during World War Two. Though some characters in both the book and this film adaption are fictionalized versions of real life resistance fighters, the film is meant to be be less of a realized adaption of real life events and more of an expression of the mindset of those living a life of resistance under Nazi controlled France. Which, I feel, is crucial information for any analysis of this film. Interestingly, the film wasn’t well received in France during it’s release as the public view of Charles de Gaulle had shifted dramatically since the second World War. It was also denied an American distribution due to the rather grisly content of the film (for the time anyway), and wasn’t released in the United States in any form for thirty-seven years until 2006.

“Army of Shadows” deals in the suspense of terror in every day encounters. The film follows a small group of resistance members as they attempt to send and receive pertinent information, supplies, and logistics between themselves and a few trusted individuals in the allied forces. However, while the stakes for the characters is always high, the film does not encourage larger than life displays of defiance, but rather playing out small moments in which decisions are made or abandoned that carry the weight of survival or death. A perfect example of this is when Lino Ventura as Philippe Gerbier (a major contributor to the cause during the resistance) escapes a Gestapo prison in France in the first half of the film, Gerbier convinces another captive to rush a German guard, and they both make a break for it, parting ways once hitting the street. Gerbier darts into a barbershop late at night and asks to have his moustache shaved off- the barber mutely acknowledges Gerbier’s suspect request and after he’s done, he denies Gerbier’s money and instead offers him a remarketedly different overcoat instead. It’s a tense, terse, and quiet scene, one that effectively captures the mood of the film as a whole. The minimalism that was so effective in “Le Samouraï” is expanded upon in this film, and used to emphasize the airy, spacious, nightmare that occupies the locations and sets used in the film, but its also, ironically, the claustrophobic inverse for the headspace of the characters that we’re following.

Speaking of the cast, it’s an excellent mixture of returning Melville favorites like Lino Ventura as the lead, Philippe Gerbier, or Paul Meurisse as Luc Jardie, secretly the true leader of the French resistance. Which is a fun turn of events as the actors were enemies last time around in “Le Deuxième Souffle” with Meurisse portraying ‘Inspector Blot’. The other notable standout is Simone Signoret as Mathilde, a wife and mother whose family knows nothing of her involvement in the resistance. Mathilde not only specializes in elaborate costumes, but helped to design intricate operations for the resistance. Memorably, she organized an effort to rescue fellow resistance member Felix Lepercq (Paul Crauchet) from a maximum security prison in Lyon. Mathilde, along with ‘Le Masque’ (Claude Mann) and ‘Le Bison’ (Christian Barbier), dressed as a German nurse and her two bodyguards accompanying her to attempt to transport Lepercq to a different facility due to his extremely poor condition. Though when a German doctor denies him passage and labels him ‘unfit for transport’, Mathilde must stay in character in that moment and accept the decision, comitting to ‘file a report about that’ and then leaving on the spot. To push the subject or to let her face betray her mission at this news would threaten not just her life, but those of ‘Le Masque’ and ‘Le Bison’ as well. What shocked me in the film was the level of commitment that the resistance members swore to- its definitely a situation where hard decisions had to be made, but the atmosphere and casual tone among resistance members who agreed to kill any informers from the inside out was… in truth, very in line with Melville’s cold and analytical nature in previous films. I suppose it was the more intimate nature of the way they had to kill their informer that got me, they had secured an abandoned house to do the deed in- but neighbors had noisily moved in the night before, so no guns. They decide to use a knife, but no one has a knife. What to do? Strangulation it is! The camera does not cut away from the informer, in fact, the frame focuses on the young man as we watch the life leave his eyes. It cements the fact that this is not an easy life, it’s a hard, depressing, and violent one.

While this isn’t my favorite Melville film so far, it’s a unique one that should be seen if you’re a student of film or history, or both. Melville’s ‘tough guy’ noirs will always capture my imagination more than this film did- but the imagery and atmosphere is one I will remember for a long time. If you’ve run out of conventional World War Two films, I highly suggest checking this one out, because while it focuses on people and events that took place during the war, it’s not really a war film. Expand your horizons, and give this one a watch!

Final Score: 1 Submarine

*Below is Roger Ebert’s review of the film and a deeper dive into Melville’s work as a whole, I encourage you to check it out!

https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-army-of-shadows-1969