Stealing Beauty

Le Cercle Rouge, an almost perfect crime movie

click to enlarge SOUND OF SILENCES: Melville uses silence the way - lesser directors use music, building tension around - the sound of such things as a cigarette being lit. - RIALTO PICTURES
SOUND OF SILENCES: Melville uses silence the way lesser directors use music, building tension around the sound of such things as a cigarette being lit.

There have been crime movies more exciting than Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle). There have been crime movies with more clever twists, more interesting characters, more suspenseful suspense and more glamorous glamour.And yet, despite all this, few crime movies have come as close to perfection.

Le Cercle Rouge is the 12th film of the 13 made by Jean-Pierre Melville, and it feels like a textbook study of everything that's right in all the others. Melville's penultimate film is, in fact, a career-capping homage to the entire crime genre that the director loved so dearly and that he knew so well. It's a languorous, un-showy and uncompromising work that will drive some to distraction, but also a movie of dark, still beauty that will have others weeping tears of pure, noir joy.

Meticulous is a word you hear a lot in regards to Melville, and it applies to Le Cercle Rouge maybe more than to any of his other films. There's a precision and an attention to detail here that are positively uncanny, as well as sleek panache and smarts to spare. Melville's crime movies were always the very definition of cool, and the elegant, understated coolness of Le Cercle Rouge approaches Zen-like dimensions.

The film was extremely popular when it was released in France in 1970, but it bombed here in the States — a commercial failure that might have had something to do with the lame dubbing or the 40 minutes hacked away for the American version. It only took about 30 years for America to come to its senses, but the print of Le Cercle Rouge now making the rounds in this country is the director's original 140-minute cut, completely restored and in the French language in which it was shot. That's the version of Melville's masterpiece that will be shown this week at Tampa's Madstone Theaters — and simply put, it's gorgeous.

It's clear from the outset that the film is a tragedy, but Le Cercle Rouge is as undeniably romantic as it is fatalistic. This is the world Melville captured so beautifully in classics such as Le Doulous, Bob le Flambeur and Le Samourai, a world where poetry radiates from every dark alley and smoky nightclub. It's a world of enigmatic glances, dark suits and skinny ties, fedoras and belted trench coats. It's a world of highly ritualized codes of sacrifice and honor, codes that are every bit as binding as those observed by the ancient samurai of Japan.

Most of all, it's a world of men.

Much has been made of the homoeroticism that's supposedly implicit in this film, but, frankly, I think that's pushing Melville's agenda a bit far. On the other hand, outside of the female dancers smiling and strutting their stuff in the film's marvelous nightclub sequences, there's only one woman to be found in the entirety of Le Cercle Rouge. And even that one single woman is seen almost exclusively as a face in a photograph, gazed at in longing, regret and bitter disappointment by one of the film's male characters. She's there but not there, just one more crushed ideal to be mulled over by the stoic but world-weary men in Melville's world.

And rarely will you find a male more stoic and world-weary than Le Cercle Rouge's Corey (Alain Delon), a professional thief released after five years in prison only to discover his girlfriend shacked up with the guy who betrayed him. With the inevitability of classic Greek tragedy, Corey crosses paths with an escaped criminal named Vogel (For a Few Dollars More's Gian Maria Volonte), and a disillusioned ex-cop (Yves Montand), and the three are soon planning a major heist while being pursued by every policeman in Paris. The heist, of course, will resolve itself either in the biggest score of them all or in complete oblivion. Guess which.

Melville and master cinematographer Henri Decae (The 400 Blows, Purple Noon) pile on the atmosphere, but in a coolly naturalistic way. The early sections of the film are filled with nondescript roadside diners and bleak, snowy landscapes of a France that, like the chilly images of northern Greece in Theo Angeloupolis' films, flies in the face of the country's picture postcard image of itself. It's a bit of a shock when the action shifts to the imposing, unmistakable spaces of Paris, where the palette of choice becomes a distinctive mix of somber steel-blues and deep, elegant grays.

The film is a nearly perfectly calibrated exercise in style and genre, marked by an almost obsessive attention to the smallest detail, right down to the exquisite use of natural sound. Melville uses silence like lesser directors use music, building tension around the sound of a pool cue connecting with a ball, a cigarette being lit, a train speeding along the tracks. Even wardrobe speaks volumes here, with the identical dress codes observed by both cops and criminals pointing out the symbiotic relationship between the two. In Melville's singular world, one defines the other, and each needs the other to exist.

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