Jonathan White’s review published on Letterboxd :
Finally, FINALLY, I’ve fallen in love with a Melville. I was beginning to think there was no hope for me.
A few friends here had commented that Le Cercle Rouge had some scenes that were possibly a tribute to Jules Dassin’s 1955 crime / noir classic Rififi, which Melville was originally supposed to direct, and a film that I love. I still had a bit of trepidation, though, as one of the Melville’s that I had seen was Bob Le Flambeur, another heist film. While I didn’t dislike Bob, I saw it soon after Rafifi and by comparison I thought it messy and dragged out. I loved Bob as a character, but I thought the plot was lacking.
Right off the bat I was intrigued. Throughout the first act Melville teases you along, slyly dropping bait and then switching to an alternate storyline before letting you finish the nibble of the crumb he has just dropped. You know from the ‘red circle’ preamble that there are stories and characters that must eventually converge, but he handles the individual stories so well, and the transitions so seamlessly, that I felt I was reading a favourite page-turner. What Melville is doing here, I discover now, is unhurriedly realizing his characters bit by bit, piece by piece. Sometimes only a photograph and a face behind a door is needed, and sometimes it takes a longer journey. By the time the first act comes to a close, we know these people, intimately.
The transition to the second act is subtle, but distinct. A by-the-book crime / noir would spend this time on the plan. Like with Rafifi, the obstacle to the heist is the technology guarding the goods and a way to make an entrance. Melville throws convention out the window here and completely ignores this trope to concentrate on further character development and tangled intrigue.
The third act bursts out with the actual caper. As we haven’t been prepared by careful arrangements, it makes it all the more thrilling, as we have no clue how things are going to work. Everything is in the shadows. One thing that stood out for me was chance, and Melville exploits this to the height. A guard pauses for a moment, maybe he should go back in that room for another look, if so, the jig would be up. Every step of the way chance plays a part. While I do see the 25 minute long operation as a bit of a nod to Dassin, it doesn’t stick out. Much of the first and second act is wordless, so this central event flows naturally. After the getaway, we get a single line of explanation of why it all worked. Brilliant.
Melville certainly had the cream of the crop of actors, and one and all gave brilliant performances. I didn’t realize going in that Delon was going to be here. Like in Le Samourai, he is the epitome of cool and collected. Gian Maria Volonte is the perfect complement to Delon’s reasoned Corey. His alluded, and sometimes demonstrated, menace as Vogal, and his role as the centre of attention, keeps you guessing about how this is going to turn out. Yves Montand provides incredible depth as the tortured ex cop, Jansen, looking for a way to escape his demons. Combined with Vogal’s hair trigger, the uncertainty of Jansen’s stability provides some of the best tension during the heist. Andre Bourvil, as the Commissaire Matti, provides the moral compass. You know he’s a good guy ‘cause he loves kittycats. A flip statement by me, but I feel an important t reveal about his character. It clears you of the fear that he might be complicit. There are enough fears already.
I had noticed Melville’s style before, but his cinematography never jumped out at me. Here it did. I think I just wasn’t looking. Henri Decae delivers intimacy with a touch of the epic. There is a particular scene where Mattei and Vogel are on a train, and a helicopter crane shot pulls away. This reminded me of the inventiveness of Orson Wells. As for the intimacy; note to modern filmmakers, this is how handheld should be done.
My only tiny quam is that I didn’t find the ending as perfect as what came before it, however, it seemed to fall in line with the other Melville’s I’ve seen, and this may just be his style.
I’m thinking that maybe a synapse in my brain has switched. I now understand Melville. With some modicum of bravery I now want to rewatch both Le Samourai and Bob Le Flambeur to see if my hypothesis is correct. Even if it isn’t, and I don’t find love for those two, Le Cercle Rouge will be a love of mine forever.