Right now a thing is going on where alot of Americans hate the French. I’m not talking about any Americans I ever met or saw in person, even from a distance, but I am talking about people I saw on TV. They can do alot with computers now but I think these were real people. It’s hard to explain this feud, it’s like you know, why did Andre the Giant turn evil against Hulk Hogan? I don’t fuckin remember, man. But this one can be traced back to an incident where those fuckin French, man, they were telling us we shouldn’t invade Iraq, that they didn’t pose a threat to us and it would be illegal to invade, etc.
So we were like oh yeah well what about those weapons of mass destruction that they have stockpiled over there, what about that Mr. auteur theory with the beret and all that? And they were like I’m not wearing a beret. And we were like okay, Mr. I love Jerry Lewis. And they were like, what are you talking about, that’s an urban legend, plus Jerry Lewis is an American who had a long and fruitful career in America, and still lives there. Not to mention Carrot Top, Jeff Foxworthy, Gallagher, Sinbad, Jay Leno, the Police Academy series, the traditional american sitcom, etc. And we were like fuck you man. And they were like seriously though guys I don’t think they pose a threat to you, and you will be stuck in this shit for years to come. And we were like yeah right Frenchie, we’ll get back to you in a couple years and you better fucking apologize then.
Well now it’s a couple years later and they won’t apologize, because they were obviously right from the beginning and it would be ludicrous for them to apologize for trying to stop us from making a huge mistake that we will be paying for for decades. Still, they felt bad, so they pretty much did the most pro-American thing possible: they had Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres honor none other than Mr. Bruce John McClane himself Willis as an officer in the Order of Arts and Letters. This is one of France’s highest honors for cultural achievement, almost on par with our outlaw awards and Badass Laureate status. One previous recipient was free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman. Also Robert Redford. So you see, Americans and Frenches are brothers.
So as a representative of the United States – and that is not an official status yet but hopefully at some point it will be granted to me by Officer Bruce Willis of the Order of Arts and Letters – I figured it was time for a powerful gesture of brotherhood, understanding and all that sort of crap. So I decided to dip into some of the classic French crime pictures I’d never gotten around to. Somebody recommended a couple heist movies to me, RIFIFI and TOPKAPI by Mssr. Jules Dassin. One problem: Dassin turned out to be an American, run out of America by the blacklist and still overcoming all obstacles to make a badass fuckin crime movie in France (RIFIFI), which almost makes him double American. And then the other problem, TOPKAPI wasn’t even French, or very good. It turns great at the end with a heist scene that was definitely the inspiration for that quiet break-in in MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE:THE MOVIE. But the rest is a dopey cornball comedy. It was a year after CHARADE and it seems like they were going for that kind of lighthearted romp, but they got no Cary Grant and instead of charming Audrey Hepburn they got fuckin Melina Mercouri. I don’t want to be mean but I gotta be honest, if this lady had been time-warped to the ’90s, they woulda put her on a “My Mom Dresses Like a Hoochie” episode of Ricki Lake. She’s 44 trying to act 22 but can’t hide the age in her face or her gravelly smoker’s voice. Anyway, long story short, four long paragraphs into this fuckin thing, I finally watched an actual French movie, and a good one: Jean-Pierre Melville’s LE CERCLE ROUGE.
LE CERCLE ROUGE means THE RED CIRCLE, or I guess THE CIRCLE RED if you’re gonna be an asshole about it. What does THE RED CIRCLE mean? Well, something about buddhism I guess. Forget it man, just go with it. Anyway the story follows an ensemble of individuals including
- convict who jumps out the window of a train while being transported (bravo)
- bad motherfuckin Alain Delon with a mustache and a scowl
- prison guard trying to catch escaped guy
Basically, the criminals of the story come together by coincidence and plan a big jewelry store heist. Also there are some other crimes committed, they fight over money with some other crooks, etc. Meanwhile, as you saw in #3 above, the guy is trying to catch them.
Like RIFIFI, there’s a lot of build up before the actual heist, and then when it happens it’s real quiet and professional and shows the whole process in detail. Very involved. One aspect of how they pull it off (using some pretty spectacular marksmanship) seemed completely phoney to me, but it was cool enough to be acceptable. Apparently Melville was supposed to adapt the book that became RIFIFI before Dassin did, and then avoided heist movies for years because Dassin did such a good job. Here I wouldn’t say he tops RIFIFI but he makes a worthy successor, anyway.
One thing I like, the movie really doesn’t take sides. The crooks and the cop are shown with equal emphasis and respect. It really doesn’t seem like the movie is rooting for one team or other. It’s just showing what happens when they go head to head. Here it is, you can watch. I heard John Woo loves this movie, which makes sense because in his old good movies he used to make, he had the same approach to the ol’ “good guys and bad guys” nonsense. Turns out Woo is planning a remake of LE CERCLE ROUGE as his next movie. Bad idea if you ask me but I’m not scared because I remember when Woo was gonna do a thief movie with Chow Yun Fat, then a movie where Chow Yun Fat is building the train tracks, then he was gonna do karate turtles and then He-Man and then a gangster musical starring Huge Ackman and then The Rock driving a magic spy car. And now LE CERCLE ROUGE. You know what John Woo it’s one thing to SAY you’re gonna make a movie and it’s quite another thing to make one, so you don’t scare me motherfucker. You can “remake” LE CERCLE ROUGE all you want as long as you don’t actually ever film or release it.
(seriously though bud if you’re gonna do it DON’T FUCK IT UP. Here is a handy chart to tape to the side of the camera for reference: BULLET IN THE HEAD = good, WINDTALKERS = time to go back to being a dance instructor.)
Anyway, the real revelation for me in this picture, but not for alot of you I bet, is this Alain Delon. See I’ve heard of the motherfucker and I know he’s in lots more famous movies than this, it’s just I never actually watched any of them until now. And now I see what the fuss is about. It’s almost hard to believe that a man speaking the language of romance could be so god damn Lee Marvin.
I’m not saying he looks like Lee Marvin. He’s young and handsome and has that scruffy hair with the long bangs that young musicians have again now. But he’s got a dead-eye stare and a constant scowl that signal not to fuck with him. One extra on this DVD, he’s on a talk show with Melville. And he politely answers any question that’s asked of him but I swear he never cracks a smile. This guy doesn’t play. He’s as intense sitting in a chair talking about acting as he is busting into a jewelry store.
I feel that in my opinion LE CERCLE ROUGE lives up to the strict collection of criterion that makes up the Criterion Collection. This is not an ARMAGEDDON type situation in other words. So have at it boys. And like Bruce said, Vive le France, motherfucker!
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.