Venice Classics 2020: Jean-Pierre Melville’s ‘The Red Circle’ is a heist thriller with poetry between the lines

Posted on August 29, 2020

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When we think of a “heist movie”, we think of carefully made plans, careful preparations. But here, things come together… by chance.

Quentin Tarantino’s love for French New Wave cinema, especially the crime dramas, is well-documented. He said directors like Jean-Pierre Melville (whose Le Samourai was discussed in an earlier column) took inspiration from the Warner Bros. gangster pictures with Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney, and instead of focusing on the plot, they focused on the “poetry between the lines”. I was reminded of this observation when the Venice Film Festival announced that Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle, 1970) would be part of their Classics line-up. (Due to COVID-related reasons, the Classics section will be screened at the festival Il Cinema Ritrovato, in Bologna, from August 25 to 31.)

The film opens in a manner that is a universe away from the typical Warner Bros. film. It’s a quote that explains the title. Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, drew a circle with a piece of red chalk and said: “When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day, whatever may befall each, whatever their diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come together in the red circle.” There’s always a sense of the existential in crime/noir cinema, but the French take it a few steps further.

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