On this week’s double feature, we’re covering two crime movies. One a heist film, and the other about a gunsmith and assassin. I’ve seen both before, but only once, so this is a fairly fresh viewing. This week’s films are:
Jean-Pierre Melville – Le Cercle Rouge (1970)
Anton Corbijn – The American (2010)
I have specific memories of both of these films, some good, some bad, but I was interested to get them back in front of my eyes.
Let’s get into it.
Le Cercle Rouge (1970)
Le Cercle Rouge is a film about a thief, who after being released from prison runs across an escaped convict. With the help of a former policeman, they plan a heist of a jewelry store. But will they succeed with a determined police detective on the trail of the escaped convict?
This film is one of Jean Pierre-Melville’s final films of a fairly short career. He died only a few years after its release. It’s currently the only Melville film I’ve seen, but he’s fairly celebrated among film buffs. Other films like Le Samourai and Army of Shadows are on my list to cover in the future.
But what about this film? It starts out with a parable from the Buddha, about two men who are destined to meet. Regardless of what choices they make, they will find themselves in the red circle that he has drawn on the ground. Of course, Le Cercle Rouge translates into The Red Circle. It’s a theme of the film, and the characters seem drawn to each other in some instances.
We begin following a convict and detective boarding a train. It’s a procedural scene, a nuts and bolts scene if you will. The scene is almost silent, the detective Mattei carefully handcuffs the prisoner, Vogel to the top bunk. The film cuts between this scene, and Corey, the master thief in his prison cell. A prison guard comes to talk to him, to tell him about a job Corey can pull. Corey, played by Alain Delon, is hesitant, but eventually decides to take him up on it. He is released during this sequence as well.
Meanwhile, the prisoner slowly plans his escape, quietly picking the handcuff lock with a hidden safety pin, and biding his time until the dawn when Mattei is drowsy, then kicking out a window and slipping out into a field, making a run for it. Mattei responds quickly, stopping the train and calling for backup.
The first third of the film cuts between these two events, Vogel trying to escape, and Corey being released from prison. Corey leaves and visits a crime boss who he feels he is owed money from. The crime boss gives him several thousand dollars, but it clearly creates a sore spot, because Rico, the boss, spends the rest of the film chasing Corey and trying to kill him. There’s also a subplot here with a former love of Corey’s, who is now with Rico. When he is released, Corey is given several pictures of the woman but tries to leave them behind. We see the same woman here in Rico’s bedroom. She carefully hides in the room to avoid Corey seeing her.
However, the film drops the ball completely with this subplot. Early in the film, we are told this woman is incredibly important to the story, but short of Corey tossing another image of her in a trashcan, she has almost no bearing on the story at all. It’s not even a misdirect, the film just does nothing with that aspect of the story.
In general, the editing is filled with strange choices. We jump from scene to scene with no transitions. It’s pretty jarring. It’s hard to get a sense of how much time is passing. We cut between Corey and Vogel’s stories, but then we jump to Mattei at home feeding his cats, drawing a bath, and then nothing else happens. The same scene occurs twice in the film, and I haven’t figured out why we see those scenes. I suppose it’s nice character development for Mattei, but it isn’t really needed at all.
Corey shows his prowess after being chased by Rico’s goons, killing one, then knocking the other out. He buys a car and hits the road. He has two guns at this point, one from Rico, one from his goons, and he hides them in the trunk, which will become a plot point later. He drives through the area where Vogel has escaped, and is stopped at a roadblock. We see the procedure, wherein he gives his registration, opens the trunk, and is then set on his way.
He arrives at a diner and has breakfast. As he eats, the prophecy of the opening crawl comes true, as these two characters are fated to meet. Vogel creeps through the parking lot, and starts trying trunk latches. He finally finds an open one, and of course it’s Corey’s.
Corey leaves the diner and once again is stopped at a roadblock. But this time, when the police ask him to open the trunk, he claims he can’t, that the car dealer forgot to give him the key. Of course we know this is a lie. He manages to get through the roadblock and then drives into a muddy field and gets out of the car. He calls out to the criminal, reassuring him. They make friends, and Corey agrees to take him to Paris.
The film does a really subtle thing here, showing Vogel getting into the trunk from Corey’s perspective, but his glance is so quick it’s hard for the audience to keep up. I was really confused by this moment until I went back and watched it again.
While all this is happening, the pressure increases on Mattei to capture Vogel. He begins leaning on his contacts, including a crime boss named Santi. Santi doesn’t want to participate, but Mattei knows exactly how to pressure him.
As Corey and Vogel discuss the heist they’re planning, they realize they need a marksman. Neither of them has the skills, but Vogel knows a former policeman named Jansen who will help.
When we first see Jansen, he is hallucinating that bugs, snakes, and lizards are crawling all over him. He’s terrified. It’s a really effective scene, with a mix of puppets and real animals in the scene. He’s a drunk, and is coming down. When the phone rings, he barely can walk. But he manages to meet Corey and joins the team. The film does a good job of showing his recovery. In one scene, he can barely light a cigarette with a match, his hands are shaking so badly. But in a later scene, he lights it much easier. The film shows us his recovery while he recognizes it himself. It seems to happen a bit too quickly, and the film doesn’t spend enough time on this aspect of his character, but it’s minor.
Once Jansen joins the team, the heist moves into full swing. The film really gets it’s legs under it once the heist begins. Jansen cases the jewelry store, pretending to be a customer while he examines the electronic locks and security cameras. Meanwhile, Corey meets the fence who will buy the goods.
Once the plan is in place, the film becomes special. The heist scene plays out over about 20 minutes, with essentially no dialogue. Corey and Vogel will sneak in via the bathroom, and disable the guard, while Jansen will bring his gun in a guitar case and be let in via the front door. He must hit a very tiny target about 50 feet across the room that accepts a small key that controls the electronic locks in the room. The tension in the scene works really well. We haven’t been told the plan, so we get to see it play out as the characters perform it. Vogel and Corey climb through several buildings up to some roofs in order to get to the bathroom window in the jewelry store. The guard is suspicious, but they manage to get in and disable him without any alarms going off.
When Jansen arrives, he sets up a complicated tripod setup, to ensure he can make the shot, then suddenly takes the gun off the tripod and makes the shot with just his eyes and hands to help him. It’s a nice character moment for Jansen.
The rest of the heist goes well, with the guard managing to set off an alarm as the team is leaving. They get away without issue.
However, a problem arises when the prison guard that set them off on the job initially is confronted by Rico. He secretly goes back to the fence and convinces him not to buy the goods. When Corey is rebuffed by the fence later, he has to make other plans. Unfortunately for him, Mattei has managed to get Santi to help him, and when Corey goes to Santi to sell the goods, Mattei is there, posing as his fence.
The rest of the film plays itself out. Mattei is the final member of the Red Circle, destined to meet Corey no matter what he did.
So I think the first half of this film is slow and plodding, with a lot of confusion, and bad editing choices. But the last half of the film is essential, classic film viewing. It’s hard to reconcile.
The film really falls down when it’s trying to develop it’s characters. It shows us Mattei is a friendly man who has three cats that he loves, but it doesn’t give us any contrast or use for that information. Corey has a lost lover who is with his former boss, but it does absolutely nothing with that storyline, dropping it completely. Jansen uses the heist to get over his demons, but barely see his progress. Just the beginning and end. We never learn anything about why Vogel is in prison, or what he has done.
But the film shines when it’s characters are carefully, methodically preparing for or executing their plan. These silent, beautifully shot scenes are the reason to watch this movie.
The film is also more than two hours long. For a film that gives us such light character development, it seems like it could be a lot shorter. However, once the heist begins, I don’t care how long it is. I’m just fully engrossed.
The American (2010)
The American is a film about Jack, an assassin and gunmaker who is being chased by some criminals he’s wronged. His boss Pavel tells him to go to a small Italian town and wait there until things blow over. While there he has a job to build a very specific gun for a client. But as he waits, he’s still chased. Will he survive this job and the small town?
The film stars George Clooney as the main character, Jack. The rest of the cast is filled with international actors who probably aren’t familiar to American audiences. At least, they aren’t familiar to me. Clooney plays a very different character than he normally plays here. He usually plays characters with big personalities, in charge of their lives, funny, charming, handsome. In this film, he plays a character constantly on the run. He doesn’t trust anyone, looking over his shoulder, noticing when people notice him. When he hears a loud noise, he’s ready to fight immediately, even when he’s sleeping. He’s also almost silent the entire film. He barely speaks, and when he does, it’s short sentences. There are no long speeches, barely any smiles.
We see how suspicious he is from the opening scene. He’s in a snow covered cabin near a lake with a woman. They’re taking a walk when he sees footsteps in the snow. He knows what this means and runs immediately. The woman is confused as shots ring out. When Jack kills the assassin, he tells her to go back to the cabin, but as soon as she turns her back, he shoots her too. He doesn’t hesitate, he doesn’t even seem to feel bad about it. He just assumes she is with the killers.
Once he reaches the small town, the plot revolves around his contact with a local priest, and a job to build a gun for a fellow assassin. We see him making friends reluctantly with the priest, and making contact with the other assassin, a woman, who wants a gun with the range of a rifle, but the fire rate of a machine gun. The scenes with the fellow assassin are the most active Jack gets. This character really knows his business, and calmly explains the tradeoffs to the client.
When we see him working, it’s cold and methodical. When he needs to hammer out a piece of metal, he carefully waits for the town bell tower to chime to ensure no one can hear. He tests the gun at a secluded stream, where no one visits. When he brings the client there to test out the gun, he hides it in a picnic basket, even chilling the wine so that Italian police won’t be suspicious. He’s a careful man.
Along the way, he regularly visits a prostitute named Clara. We even see a scene where he visits the brothel, but leaves when she isn’t there. When she sees him out in the world, she asks when he will see her again. He assumes she means at the brothel, but she makes clear to him that she wants to see him on a real date.
The tension continues to ratchet up as he allows more people into his life. As he begins to care for Clara, and is attacked by another assassin, he wonders if she can be trusted. He is even more suspicious when he finds a small handgun in her purse. An incredibly tense scene occurs when he’s on a picnic with her at his secluded spot. She immediately goes skinny dipping and invites him into the water with her. He refuses, unable to be that vulnerable. In addition to the lunch, he’s packed a pistol. They talk, and he prepares to kill her. When she reaches for her handbag he points the gun at her behind the picnic basket. Only releasing the tension when she pulls out a tube of sunblock.
Throughout the film, there is a theme of rebirth. The opening credits play over Jack going through a tunnel exiting it after the credits end. Much like he is going through a birth canal, or emerging from a cocoon. Jack is interested in butterflies, having one tattooed on his back. He also points out rare butterflies in his secluded spot. This of course refers to Jack. He wasn’t to be done with his life as an assassin, he wants to be reborn as someone who can have a relationship and have a quiet life where he can have picnics, not as someone who must constantly look over their shoulder.
He makes the decision to leave, but it all falls apart, as his worst fears come to pass, and people begin to betray him. Can he make it out alive?
This is an intense movie, and one of my favorites. I first saw it a couple weeks after it came out in 2010 in the movie theater. As I was watching it, I got this feeling of tension that I just couldn’t shake. I wasn’t sure why, until I suddenly realized that I was so engrossed in the film that I was feeling the tension that Jack was feeling.
Unfortunately, the film is fairly obscure, even 7 years later. It was promoted as an action movie, and the first crowd that saw it trashed it, tanking the box office. That’s because this is not an action movie. This film is essentially a character study. We follow this character Jack through this particular moment in his life. He isn’t an action hero, though he is perfectly capable. There’s no dramatic chase scene, no explosions, just the tension, the never ending tension. It never would have had an easy time finding an audience regardless, but the bait and switch certainly didn’t help.
Clooney here takes a good risk, trying out a different character, something that he can do because of his star power. After this, he was onto more familiar roles in films like The Ides of March, and The Descendants. Unfortunately, this film will likely become a footnote in his career. The type of film that only a small few remember. Hopefully, it will be rediscovered in the future, and it will find it’s audience.
The Double Feature
These two films have a lot in common, which almost makes me wonder if Le Cercle Rouge was an inspiration for The American in some ways. Both films are very quiet, with very little dialogue. They focus on the actions of the characters, rather than the conversations there are having. Both of them could play as silent films, and a lot of scenes in both films do play that way.
The heist scene in Le Cercle Rouge is stunning. The best part of the double feature today. But I think The American is a higher quality film overall. Clooney plays one of his most interesting characters. The film is shot beautifully, and the deeper themes really add a lot to the film.
Watching the films together was really enjoyable. The deep character study of The American helped temper the shallowness of Le Cercle Rouge, while the plot heavy Le Cercle Rouge tempered the more meandering The American.
I think I’m in a good place right now. But I can see a lot of stuff piling up on me. I think I can just put my head down and power through, but the stress can overwhelm at anytime, and I’m aware of that. That’s why it’s super important for me to keep this blog going. It’s the thing that helps remind me that there’s more out there than the PhD, and even if I don’t finish it, I’m talented and capable, and I’ve got a good future.
So let’s look at next week’s films. I have a pretty extensive film collection. But it isn’t infinite. One of the goals I had when I started this blog was to watch a lot of the films that I had bought, but never actually watched. I’ve watched a lot of those films. This is the 32nd post, which means I’ve watched 64 movies since May. Eventually, I’m going to run out of movies. And I don’t have a ton of money to go buy more. I can extend things by a bit, but I don’t have the money to buy two movies a week indefinitely. That day is a ways off, but I need to start relying a bit more on Filmstruck and services like it to fill in the gaps.
But this week, we’re digging into my personal collection, with a couple of films that I’ve seen before. Next week’s films are:
Alexander Mackendrick – The Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Christopher Nolan – The Prestige (2006)
Both are films I’m familiar with. I’m not totally sure how they’ll fit together, but I think they’ll work out well. Both films are about rivals. The Sweet Smell of Success is about rivals in entertainment, while The Prestige is about rival magicians. This will be the first film from both directors I’ve covered.
See you next week.