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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A classic French heist movie takes its sweet time getting to the crime

Illustration for article titled A classic French heist movie takes its sweet time getting to the crime

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The Nut Job has us thinking back on our favorite heist movies.


Le Cercle Rouge (1970)

For years now, Hollywood has been kicking around the idea of remaking Le Cercle Rouge, a 1970 jewel heist movie by that French ambassador of cool, Jean-Pierre Melville. Following in the footsteps of a master is always intimidating, but that didn’t stop Neil Jordan from making a pretty solid movie, The Good Thief, from one of Melville’s classics, Bob Le Flambeur. So what’s the delay on cannibalizing Rouge? Chalk it up, perhaps, to the methodical nature of this 140-minute opus, which confounds the conventional wisdom that the best thrillers are brisk, compact creations. Though economical in dialogue, music, and character development, Le Cercle Rouge takes it time getting to the crime, laying out the numerous pieces that have to fall into place before a small group of hard-nosed professionals can make their move on a seemingly impregnable jewelry store. “An affair this big has to be done in stages,” someone says late into the film—and Melville seems to agree, given how meticulously he traces the separate, parallel trajectories of his various players.

Le Cercle Rouge may be languid, but it’s never dull: There’s too much boyish bliss in the way Melville collides genre-movie archetypes, as when a suave thief (Alain Delon, from the director’s seminal Le Samouraï) first encounters his future partner in crime, a volatile escaped conflict (Gian Maria Volonté, from For A Few Dollars More). Mob bosses, crooked wardens, shady nightclub owners, doomed henchmen, and obsessed detectives all factor into the plot. They’re drawn, as if by gravity, to the red circle of the title—a metaphoric point of collision, described in an opening epitaph that Melville (falsely, cheekily) attributes to Buddha. Save for a sharpshooter plagued by night terrors—including a truly haunting dream vision of hostile vermin—none of these characters really have backstories or interior lives. Melville sees them instead as extensions of their occupations, professionals defined entirely by their set of skills. Putting a nearly mythic spin on familiar cops-and-robbers material, Le Cercle Rouge eventually builds to a corker of a heist sequence; riffing on Rififi, Melville devotes 30 wordless minutes to the art of the steal. Any Hollywood hack looking to pilfer his mojo has got his work cut out for him.

Availability: Le Cercle Rouge is available on Criterion Blu-ray and DVD, which can be obtained from Netflix, and to stream through Hulu Plus.