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Le Cercle Rouge

The epigram that opens Jean-Pierre Melville's 1970 policier Le Cercle Rouge explains the title (translation: "The Red Circle") as a Buddhist principle on predestination, stating simply that all men who are fated to meet eventually will, no matter their divergent paths. Later in the film, a cynical old police sergeant declares that "all men are guilty" and that they always change for the worst, as time exposes the corruption that lurks within their souls. With these two statements, Melville (Bob Le Flambeur, Le Samouraï) effectively erases the distinction between cops and crooks. In Le Cercle Rouge, the most important question is "how": How do men conduct themselves? How professionally do they do their work? How will they be judged under the honor code? The film's heroes and antiheroes all start on a level playing field, regardless of their past or future crimes, and the ones who don't stay true to their word are later condemned as rats. In this rigorously defined moral universe, several of Melville's archetypal loners converge for a jewelry heist, functioning as strangers bound only by the principle of honor among thieves. Leading a cast of iconic French stars, poker-faced Alain Delon plays a master thief who emerges from prison unreformed, having used his final days in isolation to plan out his next big score. By blind coincidence, Delon crosses paths with Gian Maria Volonté, a high-profile escaped convict who slipped through the sweeping roadblocks and manhunt organized by methodical inspector André Bourvil. With Bourvil nipping at their heels, Delon and Volonté plot an audacious jewel heist, recruiting expert marksman Yves Montand, an ex-cop nearly lost to the bottle. Over a leisurely but transfixing 140 minutes, Melville allows himself plenty of space to watch these craftsmen at work; he includes how-to sessions in casing a jewelry store for security cameras and alarms, making flat-pointed bullets, and luring slippery criminals into a well-timed trap. In that vein, the heist resembles the masterful centerpiece of Jules Dassin's Rififi, with its languorous silences and slow, careful attention to every minute detail, which builds suspense while quietly admiring a good plan executed to perfection. For Melville, the true test of morality lies in how men comport themselves under pressure: Do they behave honorably, or do they compromise to save their own hides? The supplemental documentaries on the two-disc DVD reveal Melville as an uncanny reflection of his four principal characters: A loner and a perfectionist, he carries himself like a reclusive Western hero, prowling the set in sunglasses and a signature Stetson hat. When asked in an interview excerpt whether Le Cercle Rouge was one of the 22 scripts destroyed when his studio burned down in 1967, Melville says no, but adds, "With my memory, I could have taken any one of those scripts and rewritten it down to the last comma." Based on the care that goes into his work, that's not an idle boast.


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