Turning pulp genre into an art form

What separates one man from another? What motivates people toward the actions they take?

These were the driving questions behind Jean-Pierre Melville’s films.

It is a shame his work is not better known in the United States today. A forerunner of the French New Wave, he was a member of the French Resistance during World War II and a devout admirer of American culture and cinema (born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, his last name is an homage to American writer Herman Melville).

His films explored the ideas of personal codes, crime and the relationship between the criminal world and the rest of humanity. Although he might not be well known to those in the United States, his influence still reigns. His 1967 film noir Le Samourai, about a lonesome hitman, shaped later films, such as John Woo’s The Killer and Jim Jarmusch’s Killer Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai.

Melville’s films were often low-budget film noirs, focusing on criminals and their actions. They were distinct in their style, reaching existential arguments without trading substance for flair. Nowhere is this more evident than in Le Cercle Rouge (1970).

The film displays all aspects of Melville’s style, from his editing to his deliberate pacing. It works as a character study, a social critique and a heist film, with no focus overpowering the other.

The movie opens silently with a prisoner escaping from a train. We do not learn until later that he is a murderer, though it does not matter, as such details are not important in Melville’s world.

In Melville’s world, there is little difference between criminal and cop. They are two faces of the same coin, each as ruthless and cunning as the other.

They are drawn together by fate, unknowingly destined to meet — as the title card forewarns. This is the point of the film. Who can keep track of the seemingly infinite connections that bind humanity together? Even the most clear and best laid plans can be undone by the very forces that brought it into being. Fate, which brought men together in one instant, can in the next tear them apart.

This existential logic is intriguing enough, but the true brilliance of the film lies in the fact that it is at heart a superbly executed, simple heist film. The players are just stock characters, and the setup is simple.

A recently released conman, Corey (Alain Delon), has learned how to rob a jewelry store. Incapable of doing so on his own, he recruits the help of Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté), a recently escaped murderer. True to form, they meet by chance when Vogel hides in the trunk of Corey’s car to escape police.

This leads to a brilliant scene between the two after Corey has driven to an open field. It is an exercise in superior exterior photography and sparse dialogue. Vogel emerges from the trunk holding Corey at gunpoint.

“Aren’t you afraid?” he asks.

“Of what?” Corey replies.

“Of me, for one. And of getting caught by the police.”

To this, Corey silently tosses a pack of cigarettes to Vogel, and their companionship is sealed.

To help them in their heist, they recruit Jansen (Yves Montand), an alcoholic ex-cop and sharpshooter. Corey rescues him from a den of booze and monstrous visions. Standing in their way is the cat-loving Captain Mattei (Andre Bourvil), the man who was escorting Vogel when he escaped.

With Mattei’s job on the line, he is willing to strike crooked deals with members of the underworld and is just as morally compromised as the men he is pursuing.

Melville’s characters are stoic. They are grim, and they talk little. They have work to do. Their lives are not glamorous, and they don’t expect them to be. They are driven neither by delusions of grandeur nor psychological disorders. In fact, Melville never reveals their motivations — it is an unspoken element of the film.

The filmmaking echoes the characters. The editing is deliberate, neither fast nor slow but instead determined. Melville tells his story on his own time. You, the audience, must wait and allow the characters to reveal themselves in pieces. It is a welcome reprieve from the “flash bang,” rapid-cut, action-oriented thrillers of today.

Not that Le Cercle Rouge lacks excitement — it doesn’t. The shootouts and chases are superb, made sublime by the deliberate editing that allows true fear and doubt to build in the minds of the audience. Good things come to those who wait. Today, it is a forgotten lesson, but one that Melville understood well.

The influences of the American gangster genre are readily apparent in his work. Much of the approach to character in Le Cercle Rouge can in fact be explained by the post-war cynicism that took hold of France after World War II.

The coloring (Melville frequently used beautiful blue hues) can be seen as patriotic. Though the basic structure of the film is reminiscent of the old pre-war Warner Bros. gangster films, this film is French. Like Kurosawa, who took Western literature and made it Japanese, Melville does the same with the American gangster flick.

Whereas its origins were pulpy and built on shock value, Melville took the tropes and arranged them in such a way that Le Cercle Rouge and his other films reach a philosophical level the American films did not even consider.

In so doing, he took a genre defined by low budgets and high entertainment value and elevated it to the realm of art. He made it beautiful.

Sam Colen is a junior majoring in economics/mathematics. His column, “’O Lucky Critic,” runs Fridays.