“Le Cercle Rouge,” a 1970 French film directed by Jean Pierre Melville, makes a compelling argument for the theme that crime forges its own alliances. The film fits into the genre of a heist film with a good dose of police procedural thrown in. It stars Alain Delon as a fugitive named Corey who escapes from a veteran police commissioner, Mattei (Bourvil), by jumping off a train. Mattei’s incompetence makes trouble for him with his superiors, but he’s fairly sure he can catch Corey with the cooperation of informants. Mattei’s style of being deliberate but not tough is emphasized by his homelife, where he lives alone with three cats. He hardly seems to provide reasonable conflict to Corey and his gang, until a jewelry heist helps to expose the thieves. Only a few fences can handle their merchandise, and Mattei knows them all.
As soon as Corey escapes from the train, a prison releases another convict, Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte), who immediately commits another crime. Vogel steals several thousand francs from a powerful criminal chieftain, mostly for revenge. It seems the crime boss stole his girlfriend and now lives with her. Vogel buys a car and goes on the run from the henchmen of the crime boss. In the opening scene of this movie, written by Melville himself, rolling text relates a quote supposedly said or written by Siddhartha Gautama, (The Buddha): “Men on divergent paths will eventually come together in the red circle.” The Buddha never said this, but it fits the movie’s underlying theme well. The police inspector general, (Paul Arniot), adds another supposed truism: Something bad or immoral can surface in every person.
Corey and Vogel plan the heist, and they initiate a heroin-addicted ex-cop and expert marksman, Jansen (Yves Montand), into their scheme. Other than scenes of Jansen casing the jewelry shop and taking rifle target practice, the movie provides no clues as to how the heist will go down. We don’t get a model of the jewelry store and an explanation of how each of the three men will enter the shop to pull off the heist. Melville films the burglary in almost total silence, taking a cue from Jules Dassin’s 1955 film “Rififi.”
Criminals go to so much trouble in these heist films to steal the loot, but they never seem to get away with it. Usually, it’s because the heist involved too many criminals with various levels of competence and professionalism. This heist, with only three thieves involved, seems quite promising. Corey, Vogel and Jansen trust each other and all are the strong, non-communicative types. At 2 hours and 20 minutes, Melville takes plenty of time to test out his themes and provide a memorable film.