Monday, August 18, 2008

Movies: Le Cercle Rouge

Jean-Pierre Melville has disappointed me every time thus far (Army of Shadows and Le Doulos), so I don't know why I expected the critically-acclaimed Le Cercle Rouge to be any better than his other critically-acclaimed films. Like Army of Shadows, it's all gray and brown and dreary blue, as if the studio forced him to shoot color against his will (Le Doulos, in black and white, looks a lot snappier). Also like Army of Shadows, it's a bit too long, and extremely quiet. But while keeping actors quiet works for some directors (if we're comparing talk-free French jewel heists, Dassin does it best in Rififi), Melville's edits lack the visual dynamism necessary to keep an audience engaged through the actors' silence. In his slow, drab sequences, there is little to cling to, which leads me to Gian Maria Volontè's performance as escaped convict Vogel, for he is the only one to draw us in.

When the film opens, Vogel is cuffed to the upper berth in a train, supervised by police inspector Mattei (André Bourvil) in the bottom bunk. Vogel makes a rather stunning break by picking the lock of his cuffs and then kicking out the train window, leaping through the broken glass while the train is in full motion. He runs madly through the woods, and we never suspect that he'll make it past Mattei's immediately instigated dragnet, but he throws the dogs off his scent by crossing a river, and when he gets out onto the road, he hides in the trunk of a car parked at a restaurant. It's only mere luck that the car he picked belongs to Corey (the icy, ultra-French Alain Delon), a convict himself, released from prison that morning, at which time he robbed an old enemy at gunpoint and then purchased said vehicle with some of the money. Corey sees Vogel getting into his trunk (where he happens to have left some guns), and he drives out into a deserted, muddy field to confront the man. He shows Vogel his release papers from prison, and they share a smoke. Luck gets them through the dragnet, and they drive onto Paris, to Corey's old apartment. Here, Corey lets Vogel in on a job he's planning: a jewel heist.

The shop they are planning to hit has just installed a new, electronic safe/alarm system (rather evolved next to the alarm system featured in Rififi, but one that the cast of Ocean's Eleven would sneeze at). To break in, they need an excellent marksman, and Vogel has a connection with a bad cop who's a great shot. Corey calls him on the phone to set up a meeting, and we see Jansen (Yves Montand) at home when the phone rings in the film's only, but very, psychedelic sequence; the man is in bed, sweating and shaking, staring at an opened secret door in the striped wallpaper, out of which lizards, snakes, and rats wriggle and thump across the floor, up onto his bed, and into his face. He seems to be suffering from Heroin withdrawal, and so, later, once he's shaven and showered, met with Corey, and agreed to do the job, when we see him back in his room, wearing a suit, measuring and weighing curious substances, and melting them in a crucible, we are surprised to see that he is molding his own bullet. This bullet will be of the precise combinations of metals that, from the combined heat of the gun and its impact with the alarm system's keyhole, it will melt into and release the lock, instantly leaving all of the jewel cases open for the thieves to plunder. The heist goes off without a hitch.

As in Rififi, it's the translation of the jewels into cash through the fence that creates the problem. The fence Corey originally chose backs out of the deal, and he's forced to go to nightclub proprietor Santi (François Périer) for a connection to another fence. Meanwhile, Mattei has been putting pressure on Santi to help him find Vogel, for the business man has strong connections to the mob and all the Parisian crime scene. Santi continues to refuse until Mattei brings his teenaged son in on marijuana charges; he then yields, and when Corey comes to him for a connection with a fence, he provides Mattei, in an improbably disguise consisting of sunglasses and a pinky ring. Corey takes the bait, though, and drives the jewels out to the country estate Mattei has named, telling Vogel to stay at home. Vogel's sixth sense refuses, though, so he follows Corey out to the estate; the moment he walks in and sees Mattei, he tells Corey to grab the jewels and run. He runs too. Mattei, and the hundred-odd officers lying in wait run after; both thieves are shot down. Jansen, on the scene as well, and back on the side of the law, is accidentally shot dead by Mattei, thus proving his strange, misanthropic commissioner's preemptive accusation (at the film's beginning, when Mattei is called in for losing Vogel, the commissioner insists that all men are guilty).

This seems a tidy conclusion; all men are guilty, all men are dead, crime doesn't pay, etc. But there are a number of strange loose ends that remain unresolved. What exactly was going on in Jansen's apartment with all of those creatures? He cleans up too quickly to have had a real problem. And what is going on with Mattei at his apartment? Twice we see him come home to his three cats, going through his routine of removing his hat and coat, opening the taps of the bathtub, and placing a dish of food from the refrigerator onto the middle of the kitchen floor for the animals. The second time he comes home, the third cat is slow to appear, and ominous music plays while the camera zooms in on the food dish. We are certain the camera will swing around to reveal a murdered feline, but nothing comes of it. And finally, what of the strange tenderness between Corey and Vogel? In the final scene in Corey's apartment, before he leaves to meet Mattei, they share a moment weirdly tender, even lover-like, and after Corey leaves, Vogel makes his decision to follow while fingering a red rose (brought home by Corey from his initial meeting with Mattei at Santi's). Perhaps I'm overreading, or perhaps Melville was just sloppy; why would he plant these seeds and then leave them unattended?

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