Review: The Red Circle/Le Cercle Rouge

Alain Delon is a recently released prisoner (wanted by a mobster whom he alleviated of some funds) who hears of a diamond heist gig from a prison guard, who offers to help arrange it. On the same day, dangerous felon Gian Maria Volonte escapes determined cop Andre Bourvil’s custody on a train, and eventually hops into the boot of Delon’s car. After Volonte helps him out of a tight squeeze involving some mob goons, Delon decides to tell Volonte of the heist, perhaps sensing a kindred spirit. Volonte for his turn, offers up the name of an ex-police sharpshooter turned hallucinating alcoholic (Yves Montand- suave and pathetic all at the same time), and once they find a suitable ‘fence’ the heist is on. Meanwhile, dogged Bourvil does his thing, confronting contacts and informants in the hopes of nabbing Volonte and co.

Many consider this 1970 semi-noir heist flick (until recently seen mostly in a truncated form) from French writer-director Jean-Pierre Melville (“Les Enfants Terribles”, “Bob Le Flambeur”) to be a minor classic of existentialism and symbolism. I liked it too, though I’m not so sure its anymore commendable than many others in the genre, American or otherwise. It’s just a pretty entertaining film, no more, no less, but it’s nice to see a French film that is seemingly a little more mainstream (and accessible, much as I hate that term) than what I’m normally used to from that country. I always prefer foreign-language films that take on recognisable genres and their conventions, whilst tweaking things with their local sensibilities and flavours. And at heart this really is a story steeped in the traditions of noir and heist movies from Hollywood, but with some decidedly non-Hollywood attributes.

Whilst some might find the film slow, I think it works quite well as a measured, methodical caper film with an entertaining plot, memorable characters and performances. I really appreciated how interesting and engaging the trio of crims were. Think of it as a mixture of “The Asphalt Jungle” and the much later “Heat” (the latter of which shares this film’s examination of cops and robbers).

It’s worth a look just to see how a French filmmaker takes a somewhat American subgenre (at least in terms of the sheer number of American cops and robbers films out there) and puts a slightly different, more leisurely paced bent on it. However, if you’re thinking this sounds boring and arty, it’s anything but dull or pretentious. It might be a bit long, but just what would you remove from the film? There’s no dull spots here. The celebrated heist scene (silent) is nail-biting and in my view one of the best of its type (better than “Rififi” if you ask me) and mostly it’s just a damn good yarn. Volonte and especially Montand (in the showiest roles) are particularly excellent as somewhat likeable (or at least charismatic) criminals. For his part, Delon manages to be stoic and cold without making the character dull and uninteresting, a very tricky task he handles rather well. I’ve never been a fan of his (I’ve previously only seen him in “Scorpio” and the awful “The Concorde- Airport ‘79”, neither much fun), but one cannot fault his efforts here. Montand’s alcoholic meltdowns are pretty damn amazing (not to mention bizarre), whilst Volonte and Delon are two different kinds of cool (Delon the stoic one, Volonte the simmering and sinister-looking one).

The denouement is rather disappointing, though, I must say, cheapening the whole thing slightly. But overall I had a good time with this, as will most caper movie fans. I was surprised, I was expecting something more pretentious, artistic and off-putting (i.e. Something more stereotypically ‘French’). This one’s a goodie, in a subgenre with few too many films to wholeheartedly recommend.

Rating: B


  1. I'm glad you liked that one. But hey, not too harsh on French films : they're not all artsy and pretentious.
    If you liked "Le cercle rouge", you must have loved "La traversée de Paris", with Bourvil again (just love him!), Jean Gabin, who is much better at playing tough guys than Delon if you ask me - but do you? - and good old Louis de Funès (in his good days, before Le Gendarme).
    And what about H-G Clouzot? He's gotta be the master of French noir.

  2. Hey,

    I haven't seen "La traversée de Paris" (nor many, many other French films for that matter. I'm such a philistine), so I guess that's my homework.


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