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Le cercle rouge (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970)

An ex-convict is lured into planning a big robbery of a jewelry store.

From a plot standpoint of view, there are many things in the film that don't add up too clearly. Some of the motivations of the characters eluded me and there are quite a few incidents that seemed a bit deus ex machina towards the end of the movie. But that doesn't matter at all, the films strange pacing and strong atmosphere sucked me in completely.

Melville seems to explore the thin lines between those who break the law and the others who uphold it. There are many hints during the film that this boundary is even more blurred than one would think at the beginning. All the principals in the tale don't seem to have much choice as they stumble towards their inevitable fate. I thought it quite amusing that the police men trust each other much less than the criminals - they seem to bond immediately, no questions asked (literally).

The first scene is quite captivating and it seems to play out the film's theme in full. At first there is a rather long citation, freely made up as I understand, that everybody comes around and no matter what your path has been, you will always end up in the red circle. On a first viewing this message doesn't make too much sense.

Immediately, the first shot shows a traffic light, switching to red in all directions. There is an obvious graphical connection to the title of the film.
The camera pans around and shows a car approaching at a very high speed. It runs over the light, nearly hitting another car. We are still unsure what kind of car it is, the first idea would be of bank robbers escaping the police. Somebody in the car makes a remark about the red light, but we don't know who.
We cut inside the car. Four sinister-looking men sit in the car, the two guys in front wear trenchcoats, the men in the back suits and hats. Why do they still wear them? They two men in the back also seem more important. There doesn't seem to be much talking going on, the air is tense.
The camera focuses in single shots on the two men in the back. They look exactly the same in the extremely low light, we can't distinguish them except for maybe their age.
In the next shot, the car races past the camera. The camera pans with the car and reveals the location: it's a railway station in Marseille. It's not the main station but a smaller more on the outside of the city. The car stops with a screech.
The two men from the back get out of the car. It seems that the younger man either attends or waits for the older, second man to get out. Not a word is spoken as they walk into the building. It looks like their hands are touching, but their relation remains unclear. The car leaves in a hurry and the camera follows it driving away.

The train slowly stops in the station and the two men are running towards it. It is now clear that they seem to be joined at their ankles, easily recognizable as a police officer with a convicted passenger. But it is absolutely unclear, which is which. I think, this is at the heart of the film: We are not supposed to know who's who.
The older man takes the lead, the young one behind him seems to watch him with a stern expression (but I only noticed that in the second viewing)
They enter a sleeping compartment and the older one nods to the younger one to take the upper bed. When he climbs up it's the first time we see the handcuffs clearly.
Then the older man takes out the keys and ties his side of the cuffs to the metal ladder. Finally, the relation and their respective roles are established. This whole scene takes about 2.5 minutes and there is practically no word uttered.


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