Escaping the underworld and the shadowy, lingering crimes that come with it, is no easy task. No greater challenge has ever been presented to Corey (Alain Delon), who struggles to keep his head above water after bolting free from prison and vowing never to return. A noble feat, of course, but an uphill struggle for a thief presented with the haul of a lifetime. To get to it, and eventual freedom, he must flee from the ever-encroaching jaws of Police Commissioner Matei (Bourvil). It is a traditional case of cat and mouse filmmaking, and director Jean-Pierre Melville makes an exceptional song and dance of showcasing just that.
Sudden meetings and dirty work pave the way to this inevitable haul of a lifetime. A red herring for much of the running time, Le Cercle Rouge merely winks at the notion of something larger than freedom. Corey presents a single thought process, his focus honed to personal amnesty. His sights shift, gradually realising he has much to offer syndicates and organisations of unlawful actions, and it is here that Le Cercle Rouge, and Delon’s performance, come to life. His intensity on the screen is captured well here. He and Melville work together tirelessly to bring a cold, calculating criminal to the screen, but he is not without his tints of worry and doubt. His stoic expression may prove a cool exterior, but the manic planning marks the crumbling, manic interior.
Such scope is captured with exceptional variety from Melville. Not without its fair share of engrossing set designs and soundtrack choices, Le Cercle Rouge benefits dutifully from an intense and enjoyable pairing of various technical merits. Cold, articulate and devious, Melville’s direction conducts themes of cold isolation, and the odd warmth friendship found in unlikely and grim scenarios. While it may not be at the forefront of the feature, some moments highlight it with tremendous importance. Unlikely alliances are offered, wrapped neatly throughout the narrative, with genuine surprises cropping up in the most unlikely of places.
Le Cercle Rouge offers yet another exceptional Melville experience, filled with all the crimes and consequences one could imagine. Thick and heavy with its prose and meaning, there is a desire throughout to paint this anti-hero as a man truly trying his best, but convinced all too easily by the allure of breaking the law all the same. A vastly different scope to that of Army of Shadows, Melville presents his scope and range in the field of crime, rather than war. He is equally competent in both, and neither of the two, for me, edges out the other. Interchangeable, they are not, but they do share frequent similarities. Le Cercle Rouge, for instance, has villainous husks at its centre, the audience is not meant to engage or appreciate them, but we’re taken along on their journey out of prison and into the clutches and allure of one last heist.