Crime & Punishment: Le Cercle Rouge (1970)

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FilmStruck is currently streaming 11 films featuring Alain Delon as part of their “Icons: Alain Delon” theme and for the next 4 weeks I’ll be spotlighting a few of my favorite titles in this collection. To learn more about the French actor please see a previous post I wrote in 2010 to celebrate Delon’s 75th birthday titled, “The Ice-Cold Angel turns 75.” You might also enjoy perusing my modest collection of Delon memorabilia on display in Alain Delon: A Personal Passion.

To wrap up my month-long appreciation of Alain Delon I want to focus some attention on the films he made with director Jean-Pierre Melville (aka Jean-Pierre Grumbach). Melville, more than any filmmaker, was responsible for molding Delon’s onscreen persona as the “ice-cold angel” of French cinema. During a five-year period beginning in 1967 and ending in 1972, they made a series of exceptional neo-noirs together; Le Samouraï (1967), Le Cercle Rouge (1970) and Un Flic (1972). All three titles are currently available on FilmStruck and they come with my highest recommendation, but today I’d like to focus my attention on Le Cercle Rouge (aka The Red Circle, 1970). Like Farewell, Friend (1968) which I spotlighted last week, Le Cercle Rouge is another caper in the tradition of Touchez pas au grisbi (1954) and Rififi (1955) but it is a more rewarding, somber and stylistic film thanks to Melville’s brilliant direction. It also contains one of the most accomplished performances in Delon’s impressive oeuvre.

Delon’s first film for Melville was the moody, methodical, effortlessly chic and utterly engrossing Le Samouraï where he plays Jef Costello, a cold-blooded killer pursued by the law as well as his personal demons. Delon is remarkable as Costello but some critics of the film found his striking good looks distracting and they had a point. Delon is incredibly attractive. He was blessed with a dark Gallic beauty, piercing blue eyes and a baritone voice reminiscent of Charles Boyer while his ambiguous sexuality, disarming charm and natural charisma made him incredibly attractive to both men and women. Consequently, it was difficult for some to imagine him effortlessly maneuvering through the shadowy underworld inhabited by killers, conmen, divas and prostitutes. How could a hired assassin as attractive as Delon go unnoticed or unremembered? Wouldn’t his looks be a liability to his criminal career?

“If I give Delon a mustache, that’s it, he’s the man, not just a nice-looking young man but the man. Handsome, maybe, but it doesn’t matter because it no longer gets in the way.”
– Jean-Pierre Melville, from Melville on Melville by Rui Nogueira.

As if directly responding to his critics Delon, with Melville’s encouragement, agreed to drastically change his appearance for their next film. In Le Cercle Rouge the French heartthrob sports a large mustache that masks a portion of his face. Delon’s hair was also dyed black to obscure his sun-kissed locks, which were the result of lounging around pools and too many beach holidays. His newly acquired dark mop and matching mustache made him look more pale and mature. He was still drop dead gorgeous but between the making of Le Samouraï and Le Cercle Rouge life had aged the 35-year-old actor. The dark circles under his eyes were becoming more evident and the fine lines in his face more pronounced. A series of turbulent love affairs had resulted in a difficult divorce from his wife Nathalie, who had co-starred with him in Le Samouraï. Amid these romantic difficulties, Delon was also part of a high-profile investigation following the murder of his bodyguard (Steven Markovich) that involved real-life gangsters and prominent political figures. The case was never solved and the notorious nature of the crime suggested that Delon’s tough guy persona was not just a screen invention. Under constant scrutiny from the press and facing a public backlash, Delon seemed to retreat inward and this is reflected in his acting.

LE CERCLE ROUGE, (aka THE RED CIRCLE), Alain Delon, 1970

In Le Cercle Rouge, Delon employs a lifetime of acquired skills and personal baggage to create the singularly named Corey. Corey, like many of Delon’s mid-career characters, is a laconic loner with a chip on his shoulder who has no time for dames, dopes or nosy detectives. Released from jail early for good behavior, Corey heads towards Paris in a 1966 Plymouth Fury III following a tip from a prison guard about a high scale jewel shop that could provide easy pickings for a skilled group of thieves. Corey is pursued by a bunch of thugs desperate to reclaim some money he stole and along the way he encounters an escaped convict named Vogel (Gian Maria Volontè) who he persuades to join him. When they arrive in Paris, Corey and Vogel are joined by a recovering alcoholic and ex-cop named Jansen (Yves Montand) who also happens to be an expert marksman. Together, this unlikely threesome begin preparation for an elaborate robbery but their plans don’t include a persistent police inspector (André Bourvil) who is hot on their trail and eager to put them all behind bars.

“I had an excellent relationship with Delon during shooting. We have an extraordinary personal understanding, which enables us to work in a very special way.”
– Jean-Pierre Melville, from Melville on Melville by Rui Nogueira.

The powerhouse of acting talent (Delon, Volontè, Montand and Bourvil), along with Melville’s expert direction, proved to be a match made in movie heaven. Le Cercle Rouge may have divided critics at the time of its release but it was a huge hit across Europe and in Asia, eventually becoming the director’s biggest box office success. Nearly 50-years after its release, the film has proven to be an exemplary example of the French policier (police film) reaching the same cinematic heights as the much touted Touchez pas au grisbi (1954) and Rififi (1955) while matching Melville’s own early triumphs such as Bob le flambeur (1956) and Le Doulos (1963). He has inspired countless imitators, including John Woo, Jim Jarmusch, Wong Kar-Wai, Quinten Tarantino and Ringo Lam but few can mimic Melville’s refined mise-en-scène, creative framing devices and measured plotting or produce the rich, multilayered performances that he was able to mine from his cast.     

Kimberly Lindbergs

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1 Response Crime & Punishment: Le Cercle Rouge (1970)
Posted By kingrat : August 10, 2017 8:20 pm

Kimberly, I think you’re absolutely correct to emphasize Delon’s appeal to both sexes. Not only was he said to be bisexual in real life, he seems specifically to radiate a bisexual appeal. Good-looking actors naturally can appeal to either sex, but this seems intentional on Delon’s part.

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