A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Gliding almost without speech down the dawn streets of a wet Paris winter, these men in trench coats and fedoras perform a ballet of crime, hoping to win and fearing to die. Some are cops and some are robbers. To smoke for them is as natural as breathing. They use guns, lies, clout, greed and nerve with the skill of a magician who no longer even thinks about the cards. They share a code of honor which is not about what side of the law they are on, but about how a man must behave to win the respect of those few others who understand the code.
Jean-Pierre Melville watches them with the eye of a concerned god, in his 1970 film "Le Cercle Rouge." His movie involves an escaped prisoner, a diamond heist, a police manhunt and mob vengeance, but it treats these elements as the magician treats his cards; the cards are insignificant, except as the medium through which he demonstrates his skills.
Melville is a director whose films are little known in America; he began before the French New Wave, died in 1973, worked in genres but had a stylistic elegance that kept his films from being marketed to the traditional genre audiences. His "Bob le Flambeur," now available on Criterion DVD, has been remade as "The Good Thief" and inspired elements of the two "Ocean's Eleven" films, but all they borrowed was the plot, and that was the least essential thing about it.
Melville grew up living and breathing movies, and his films show more experience of the screen than of life. No real crooks or cops are this attentive to the details of their style and behavior. Little wonder that his great 1967 film about a professional hit man is named "Le Samourai"; his characters, like the samourai, place greater importance on correct behavior than upon success. (Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog" owes something to this value system.) "Le Cercle Rouge," or "The Red Circle," refers to a saying of the Buddha that men who are destined to meet will eventually meet, no matter what. Melville made up this saying, but no matter; his characters operate according to theories of behavior, so that a government minister believes all men, without exception, are bad. And a crooked nightclub owner refuses to be a police informer because it is simply not in his nature to inform.