I just saw Le Cercle Rouge (1970) for the first time and I was blown away. I have yet to see Army of Shadows (1969/2006), which I desperately want to see very soon. I had seen Le Samouraï (1967) a few years ago, but I was not as taken with that film as with Le Cercle Rouge, although it is also very good.
I’m no expert on Melville, but in my mind Le Cercle Rouge is an example of brilliant and controlled filmmaking. As I watched this police procedural proceed with much less flashy action and dialogue typically found in American films of the same ilk, I couldn’t help but wonder at its director and how he thinks. I don’t mean what he thinks (or thought, actually) about, but “how.” What really was going on in his head? [Note: I tend to think of dead filmmakers in the present tense because their films are still in the present tense.]
I wonder because I fancy myself to be a filmmaker (in the future tense, but still…) and I am fascinated with Melville’s obvious assurance of his narrative capabilities. I say this because the crux of the film, the extended jewelry heist scene, takes many minutes of screen time with only one word of dialogue being uttered. In fact, there is very little on the soundtrack at all during this scene. One could say that Melville made a silent film and put it right in the middle of this big budget (relatively speaking) star vehicle movie at possibly the most vital narrative moment. And my eyes never left the screen. How did he do that?
I could analyze the scene shot by shot, but that might be like the old saying about analyzing a joke – you kill it in the process. In other words, for a “how did he make it work?” perspective I can only wonder in awe. In fact, that gets me thinking… for all the studying of filmmaking I’ve done over the years, and all the film/video production I’ve done in years past, and the television production classes I’ve taught (how many years ago??), I still don’t think I can really describe anything beyond basic filmmaking tactics and strategies. There is, and I believe always will be, a certain amount (great amount is more like it) of mystery to the process – as it is with all the arts. That is why those interesting little vignettes showing the filmmaker on the set discussing lighting and acting strategies reveal almost nothing of the true creative process – which is largely invisible. One can only see the outside shell of the process. As far as I’m concerned, there’s something really beautiful about all that.
At least we still have the films to watch – which is really what it’s all about anyway. For now, I have to see Le Cercle Rouge again, watch Le Samouraï again, and see Army of Shadows.