Corey (Alain Delon) has just been released from prison after 5 years, but not before one of the guards tells him about a job on the outside – a jewellery heist – that needs someone of his talents. Corey seems hesitant but, after an altercation with his former boss, who is now sleeping with Corey’s girl, he buys a car and heads out of town. Meanwhile, Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté) has been arrested, and is being transported by train by Le Commissaire Matteito (Bourvil) to be questioned and potentially sentenced. However, on the journey Vogel escapes and, by sheer coincidence, hides out in Corey’s car, which initially proves a problem for Corey, but perhaps these two can work together on the planned burglary?
I’ve been borrowing Le Cercle Rouge from Will at Exploding Helicopter for about a year, and never found the time to sit down and watch it until recently. Hence it was something of a white whale in my mind; this built-up experience that Will had recommended, that I kept looking at and thinking “Not today” because it’s almost 2 1/2 hours long and subtitled, which I’m fine with watching but makes it more difficult to fit into the standard schedule. Either way, now I’ve seen it and I’m annoyed I left it so long, because it’s really good.
I’d previously watched Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur (also borrowed from Will) and had liked it, but was disappointed by the lack of any real heist scenes in a film focussing on a planned casino robbery. Fortunately the same criticism cannot be played here, because there’s a tremendous jewellery robbery scene reminiscent of the beautifully silent heist in Rififi. There are other great scenes here too, most notably at a road block early on. A police search is being undertaken to find the missing Vogel after he has escaped from the train, with blocks put on every nearby road and thorough searches being undertaken of all cars. Corey is stopped at one – prior to Vogel getting into his vehicle – and his boot is routinely searched without finding any escaped criminals, as you’d expect from a car not carrying any. However, after Vogel gets in the car, and before Corey finds him in there, Corey is stopped at another road block. We know for sure that the car will be searched, Vogel found and Corey cannot help but be implicated in it all, and will most likely be sent back to prison for harbouring or aiding a fugitive, and it’s unbelievably tense watching how it all plays out.
Elsewhere there are a couple of distractions to the primary plot that could probably be cut to reduce the run-time, but which add a little flavour and background to some of the characters. Matteito is put in charge of retrieving the escaped Vogel, despite the fact that he was incompetent enough to lose the prisoner in the first place, and he goes to any lengths to find the fugitive and restore his own good name, but the ramifications to some of Matteito’s more underhand techniques cannot be foreseen. And Jansen (Yves Montand), the sharp-shooting former policeman and third member of the heist team has his own problems in severe alcoholism, deftly shown by him being bedridden and plagued with visions of lizards and rats crawling all over him. It’s a very odd and unexpected scene for this kind of film, and was something of a shock, but by the end it made sense for his character’s journey, and I loved his ingenuity to overcome certain obstacles required for the job.
My only issue was a lack of motivation. I never really understood why Corey, who early on seemed intent on remaining on the straight-and-narrow after his spell in prison, would so readily opt to fall back into the life of crime again. He isn’t made out to be in a desperate need for the money, nor are there any other apparent factors forcing him to endanger his future in such a way, yet he does it anyway. Also, the overall robbery plan just kind of comes together. If Vogel hadn’t climbed into Corey’s car, would Corey have still gone ahead with it somehow? Regardless, it’s not enough to detract too much from the otherwise excellent movie.
Choose Film 8/10