Seeing red

Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, drew a circle with a piece of red chalk and said: “When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day, whatever may befall each, whatever the diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle.”

Le Circle Rouge For you Siddhartha Gautama fans don’t bother sourcing that quote; he didn’t say it. It was actually made up by Jean-Pierre Melville, a French filmmaker, and it opens his 1970 French crime classic Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle). Why Melville chose to attribute a quote to Buddha that he in fact made up is a mystery, but it’s what’s behind the quote that matters.

Le Cercle Rouge tells the story of a small group of men on both sides of the law whose fates, like it or not, will intertwine. There’s Corey, the cool-as-a-cucumber thief who is fresh out of prison and finds out that his boss has stolen his girl and his money. There’s Vogel, a daring criminal who makes an audacious escape from a moving train and finds himself falling effortlessly back into the world of crime. There’s Jansen, the alcoholic ex-cop who can barely escape his own delusions long enough to get back in the game. Finally, there’s Mattei, the dedicated Inspector who will hunt them all.

By the car These are lonely men. They need each other; friend or foe. Corey has found himself out in society all alone. He has no girl and no money but he is armed with a tip (from a prison guard no less) about a jewelry store’s security system. Vogel is on the lam and alone in the wild. He clings to Corey not just because of his casual coolness but because Vogel is a follower, not a leader. Jansen needs the companionship of other people to save himself from the demons he’s unleashed with his alcoholism. Mattei needs the pursuit not just because of his sense of failure in having Vogel escape under his watch, but because the pursuit is all he has. Mattei is not a family man; his only companions are his many cats. The pursuit gives him power and purpose.

The modern crime film undoubtedly owes a debt to Le Cercle Rouge. Michael Mann’s cold and methodical crime films are a great example. The crime is not the highlight of the film. It’s about the men behind the crime and the planning and preparation that go into the deed. It’s about how sometimes, men like this don’t have a choice, they must be who they are. I love the scene in Heat where DeNiro and Pacino, the hunter and the hunted, just talk over coffee. Just talk. It’s not a conversation between a cop and a criminal; it’s a conversation between two professionals. The most potent exchange is:

Vincent Hanna: I don’t know how to do anything else.
Neil McCauley: Neither do I.
Vincent Hanna: I don’t much want to either.
Neil McCauley: Neither do I.

Expression I’m sure Quentin Tarantino lists Le Cercle Rouge as source of inspiration. As a connoisseur of cinema, 70’s cinema especially, it seems highly unlikely that Tarantino has not seen one of the best movies of that decade, let alone the best crime film ever made (in my humble opinion). He obviously, however, did not take note of the film’s economical style. Corey is a character who takes inventory of his words and emotions. Even his facial expressions seem to be expertly disciplined. He talks when he must, not because the plot dictates it; this is a film which everyone and everything is understated. Everything just flows, nothing feels contrived, nothing feels out of place. The centerpiece of the film, an elaborate jewelry store heist, is a virtuoso sequence in which not a word is uttered for nearly a half an hour. It’s sequences like that (or Vogel’s heart-stopping escape from captivity from the aforementioned moving train) and characters like Corey who ooze cool that make Le Cercle Rouge a classic. There are very few films that I can say I fell in love with upon first viewing and Le Cercle Rouge is one of them. For anyone who considers themselves a fan of the crime genre (Heat, Reservoir Dogs, The Town, Scarface, etc.), this is required viewing.

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