Le cercle rouge
Something I’m fascinated by, as it manages to enter my thoughts at least daily, is what constitutes masculinity right now. In the DVD extras for The Ice Harvest, an underrated attempt at neonoir from a couple of years back, screenwriters Robert Benton and Richard Russo, both of whom are quite accomplished in their own right, bandied about the question of what it really means to be a man in modern times. A male no longer must hunt and gather or physically provide shelter and protection for his family. Men don’t even necessarily come home in a suit and fedora to happy homemaker wives. So what is our purpose in the 21st century? If this type of behavior is essentially in our evolutionary DNA, what’s the substitute? There are no cattle to herd or fields to plow for the vast majority of us. Is it military service? I certainly hope not. The constant realization that rites of passage simply don’t exist as they once did torments me to no end. I’m not looking to enter the wilderness and return with a skinned animal on my back, but I find constant reminders in everyday life as to how a generation of young people are forever mired in adolescence and I suppose I’m looking for the cure.
So it is with the subject of masculinity – how to get it, keep it, not abuse it, etc. A line necessarily has to be drawn here between what I’ll label as John Wayne masculinity, meaning infallible, stubborn, conservative, and lacking intellectual curiosity, and Lee Marvin masculinity, stoic without completely forgoing considered emotion, lived-in, intelligent but not bookish, and coldly distant when necessary. The former simply doesn’t interest me and I see any sort of backlash against reasoned and informed discussion to be entirely wrongheaded. I’m much more fascinated by ideas of cold, emotionally unavailable professionalism. Of having a task and accomplishing it without complaint, hesitation, or flaw. In terms of film, there’s really no equal to Jean-Pierre Melville when looking for these qualities. He is, to my eye, the most masculine director to ever establish a relevant body of work. With apologies to Ford, Hawks, and a pair of Manns, Melville’s obsession so dominantly touched his signature films as to make others’ ideas of masculinity seem either superfluous or anachronistic.
It’s there in Bob le Flambeur and Le samouraï, but there’s really nothing like Le cercle rouge. Character after character, action after action, everything in the film is filtered through a coolly male ideal. We can picture ourselves as any of the five main characters, though it’s probably Alain Delon’s Corey we’d most like to be. Delon was a handsome bastard and probably the ultimate Melville protagonist. Icy blue eyes, sculpted facial features, not a care in the world. He gets a moustache here and somehow retains his coolness without looking entirely ridiculous. I don’t think it’s really possible to understand Delon’s Melville characters. They neither beg for attention nor affection. They are singularly concerned with performing a task. Emotions, while being hinted at and thus present on some level, are shrugged off in favor of a job, an existence. It’s not just the professionalism to admire, but the focus and confidence that preparation will lead to the proper fate. Not success, necessarily. Not even continued life. The goal is performance.
Delon’s character in Le cercle rouge is essentially stripped of everything. His apartment has been absent for half a decade while Corey was in prison. Cobwebs litter the place. The woman he loved, at least on some undefined level, is now with an unindicted co-conspirator. I appreciate that Melville doesn’t spend very much time on this detail. It’s established, Corey is wounded and given even more reason to resent Santi, but nothing can be done. Melville presents fate as a cosmic joke that neither needs nor demands fairness. To exist in a Melville film is to release any sense of happiness or entitlement. The director took all the unappreciated pessimism of American gangster and film noir pictures and transformed them into stark, desperate situations where the viewer roots for everyone and no one. Moral ambiguity feels entirely satisfying.
Truthfully, I think Melville questioned these feelings of right and wrong and the ethics of criminality. If Gian-Maria Volonte’s character Vogel, a fugitive on the run in Corey’s trunk, shoots a couple of mobsters to prolong his own life, how should the viewer react? It’s death, yet it’s also somewhat just and unquestionably satisfying. Corey and Vogel must continue on. They must eliminate these obstacles, and why shed a tear for a couple of guys whose job it is to kill others. Melville’s protagonists, for all their murky morals, kill those who must be eliminated by necessity. Blame is for other circumstances. Melville surely enjoyed these explorations of crime and criminals since he populated most all of his films in this fashion, but the beauty of these pictures, especially Le cercle rouge, is how controlled the director’s hand is throughout, how even coincidences are completely intentional.
Corey and Vogel are warmly given a sympathetic eye, as is Yves Montand’s ex-cop and current thief Jansen. However, possibly the most admirable character of the main five is Mattei, the police commissioner played by comic André Bourvil. Mattei is given nuance and portrayed as someone the viewer can actually relate to. The twin scenes inside Mattei’s home illuminate his paralleled lonely existence with Corey. The latter has cobwebs whereas the former has cats. Neither seems to care too much for their masters. Mattei’s life is filled with redundant predictability and a certain sadness. A police chief states that all men are guilty. They’re born innocent, but they stray invariably in the direction of corrupt forces. Mattei, like the audience, questions this. Is this pessimism really possible? All men have guilt in their hearts? Mattei is reasonable, focused, and not cynical enough to place guilt over proof. Yet, he’s portrayed as somewhat naive of the idea that all men are deserving of their fate, without justice entering the discussion. He looks at his job as a means to administer order and doesn’t really question what happens afterwards.
Though it’s really impossible not to be persuaded by Corey’s cool, it’s Mattei who serves as the film’s true protagonist. Melville gives us a surrogate at every turn, though not always the same character. Jansen is the tragic figure. Santi’s the most despicable from the outside, though how many of us would proceed differently if in his shoes. Vogel and Corey both have their functions, but also both share the same fate. Only Mattei emerges as narratively in the right. This is conflict to the extreme. The unflappable quality of Corey, where a cigarette is simply part of the uniform, begs to be supported. In a most basic sense, he and Vogel and Jansen are doing a job. This is their professional choice. It’s the task that has to be completed. Likewise, Mattei is the counterpart and his position requires Vogel’s capture. Thinking, contemplation, questions of motive are all out the door. The setting of go has now been activated and there’s no room to consider why.
This strict adherence to accomplishment is what I find so intriguing about Melville and his ilk. Ultimately, it’s not about exploring whether these actions should be occurring. The only thing of importance is the act of doing, which should be accomplished with the utmost preparation and professionalism. How do we really assure that our actions won’t be useless? Melville’s answer, I’d imagine, would be along the lines of the process being superior to the results. Witness his extended, incredibly daring sequence of Corey, Vogel and Jansen robbing the jewelry store. This ends up being all for naught, but Melville takes such great care in showing every little detail of the heist that the outcome becomes unimportant. The suspense lies within the small inflections. White gloves. Black masks. A single, specially-made bullet hitting its exact target with no room for error. This is the process in excruciatingly suspenseful particulars and without regard to the supposed goal. What does Melville spend the most time on? The jewelry store robbery. His final climax is cold, abrupt, and necessary from a narrative point of view. His concern seems much more on the heist and, to a lesser extent, its varied implications.
The maddeningly quiet nature of the robbery places the viewer very near a surveillance camera watcher’s perspective. Watching, watching, watching this all unfold, completely helpless. It’s certainly an audacious stunt from Melville, even eclipsing Jules Dassin’s similar scene in Rififi. The placing is odd, and, as such, keeps the viewer completely on edge. Every little detail is unveiled, down to those sterile white gloves Melville so preferred, and the risk of taking the viewer out of the film is always there. Without any dialogue and minimal sound, the long period of aural inactivity becomes almost displacing. Anything less than total concentration, befitting the very participants in the heist, may cause the viewer to struggle amid inactivity.
The temptation to cite Le cercle rouge primarily for its wordless centerpiece is hopefully not that strong. It’s an important, effective scene, but not one I find persuasive or essential enough to slight the remainder of the film. Melville’s themes and his ideas about masculinity, right and wrong, and what it means to be a professional remain foremost in my mind. I may be a fatalist, but I appreciate Melville’s treatment, or lack thereof, of growth in his characters. They do what they have to because that’s who they are. There’s no altering or maturing in the mix. It’s incredibly comforting to view life as a one-way street where we all operate as unalterable figures, unable to truly adapt or change. Death, and whatever it entails, can be the only outcome for fate’s worst dealings. I’m not in control and neither are you.