By DAVID BEILSTEIN
CALL THE AUTEUR, Grumbach.
Through a veil of eclectic American influence, built sturdy on the oeuvre of American mystical author, Herman Melville, French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville arrived on scene showcasing a polluted sinew of dark loyalty, creeping across rain soaked Parisian streets cloaked in trench coats. The writer/director’s creative heir, American author Herman Melville, miserable and addled by presentiments of destruction and hazard, would become the provenience of Jean-Pierre Melville’s changing his last name.
Origins matter some, destiny more so. Herman Melville captured the milieu of his time when he sat down at 32 years of age to write his great sea-faring adventure. Upon completion, Melville said of Moby Dick, not deemed a masterpiece until decades after his passing,
“I have written a wicked book and feel spotless as a lamb.”
Melville’s dark vision embraced the foreboding. It soared, rising on the high seas of providential dread, taken captive by the precipitous Captain Ahab’s obsession with the White Whale, a metaphorical illustration of God, incomprehensible and mysterious.
Jean-Pierre Melville wrested Herman Melville’s sunless, underworld vision of destiny and couched it in the crime genre movie. Raised on American pop culture and Hollywood movies, Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1970 masterpiece, Le Cercle Rouge, is a bleak Leon-esque fusion of style and duplicitous human frailty photographed in gunmetal blue and stark, wide images.
Everything is spare. And professional décor reins.
The shadow of old man Hemingway’s terse, declarative posture lurks in the background.
The film involves the simplest plot. A recently released master thief named Jeff Corey is tugged back for one last job and is providentially met by an escapee named Vogel. Together, they reach out to their alcoholic accomplice in crime, an ex-cop named Jenson. Their prize, a lofty Jewelry heist in Parisian grandeur. Police Inspector Captain Mattei, brings up the rear, relentlessly pursuing these master criminals.
All men collide, as if funneled down a turgid stream, in the Le Cercle Rouge.
A modest proposition. By contrast, the uniqueness of this film is in its nuance of human behavior, both technical and moral, and its rigid, arid depiction of the oncoming tide of providence rushing toward evitable loss.
Having watched this cinematic feast numerous times I’m struck now by its silence. It’s sparseness. The images bare and beautiful. Mood is captured by colour, but it is the nuance of gestures, glances, and crisp statements that mark the films character.
The second half of the movie moves. It moves on the edge of the brutal, with Corey and his cohorts out of time and out of breath. They appear, disquietly, one step ahead but always a rising tide of providence rides lapping at their heels until the final resolution.
Le Cercle Rouge is built solidly on the Melville’s own ideas about hubris and professional loyalty. It is in love with preparation. The film masterfully peek-a-boos intimately into making custom bullets, casing a joint, and engineering the riskiest of heists. All of this is seen through a restricted, but vibrant visual tapestry of light and changing weather.
Film commentary on Jean-Pierre Melville is legion. Much of it focuses on his being the godfather of the French New Wave. For me, Melville sailed different seas. I consider him uniquely American in his vision for it echoes the riff of the blues. Like Hemingway, the late director elegantly fused the tragic and the epic—vamping on the feeling of the blues and mortality into a cinematic flame.
This is beautiful film… subtitles and all.