A weird Buddha quotation (invented by Melville) about men meeting mysteriously within a red circle gets Le Cercle Rouge off to a properly existential start. It’s a typical Melville gangster drama: aloof, suspicious, highly intelligent criminals drift around the underworld milieu of Marseilles and Paris like loose atoms, occasionally coming together for a heist or two, after which they return to their wary, solitary existences. The colors are subdued, and the dialogue is mostly shop talk between and among bad guys and cops. There are no heroes; in fact, the superintendent of police is quoted several times affirming that "all men" are guilty.
The centerpiece of the movie (which John Woo frequently cite as one of his chief inspirations, and which he would like to remake) is one of the most intriguing heist scenes since Jules Dassin’s Rififi. Virtually in real-time, and without dialogue, we watch an elite cadre of jewel thieves (Corey, played by Alain Delon, is the organizer) stage an elegant assault on a heavily-guarded jewelry showroom on the Place Vendôme. All set to a suave, unobtrusive jazz score.
Delon is his fox-like, taciturn self, even though his mustache looks somehow unconvincing, and his hair looks dyed. Bourvil — a French music-hall star with an absurdly broken nose — is cast against type as a detective. Yves Montand plays a corrupt, alcoholic cop who lives in a rundown house with hideous aqua-and-sea-green wallpaper. There’s a hallucination scene in which Montand, foaming at the mouth after another night hitting the bottle, watches helplessly as (real) snakes and (marionette) spiders ("the inhabitants of the cupboard", he calls them) crawl out of a closet to attack him.
Yes, really — Yves Montand, foaming at the mouth, being attacked by marionette spiders, all set to late 1960’s psychedelic freak-out music. I had to back up and watch it twice before I believed my eyes.
One of the extras is an interview with French Melville scholar Ginette Vincendeau, who’s written a book about Melville called "An American in Paris." Vincendeau teaches in England and speaks perfect English. Among the things I learned from this interview were that Melville’s original name was Grunbach; that he was fascinated by American popular culture, including jazz and film noir; that he loved Faulkner, Poe, and Herman Melville (whose last name he adopted as his nom de film); and that he fought in the Resistance.
Vincendeau suggests that futility of human effort and a sort of damaged, isolated masculinity are at the heart of Melville’s vision, and cites examples. She also gingerly half-defends Melville against charges of misogyny. (The only female characer in Le Cercle Rouge is Corey’s ex-girlfriend, who prances bare-breastedly about for a few seconds, but is never shown in the same room with Corey). Melville’s first movie, Le Silence de la Mer, was adapted from a Resistance novel. Melville never secured the rights to film it, and released it in the late 1940s without official permission from the French authorities. On the strength of Silence‘s spare visual style, Jean Cocteau hired Melville to direct the film adaptation of his Les Enfants Terribles.
There’s also an interview with the assistant director Bernard Stora. Melville hated daylight, and often kept the windows of his home (located above his private studio) covered with dark cloth during the day. He had no children, but was married and had three cats (the police inspector in Le Cercle Rouge is twice shown feeding his cats, "Fiorello, Griffolet, and Offrein"). Because Melville hated daylight, shooting films agonized him. On the set, he would wear either a fedora or a narrow-brimmed Stetson, along with American Ray-Ban sunglasses. He bought a giant American car, and took Stora (then quite young) for moonlit drives along the Peripherique ring road then being built around Paris, while playing American jazz on the car’s cassette player — a genuine novelty in the late 1960s. He never told actors how to act, he just managed to create a "Melville atmosphere" that somehow brought about the kind of restrained (some would say wooden) acting that’s the hallmark of his movies.
All in all, a splendid DVD release. I’m even thinking of watching the whole movie with the commentary track turned on, just to hear two hours of Ginette Vincendeau’s voice. Oh, and she’ll probably say interesting stuff, too.