The existential burglar genre is less an affectation of plot than circumstance. Paul Muni's defiant, plaintive declaration at the end of I Am the Fugitive of a Chain Gang ("I steal!") seems to sum up the movie's purposiveness, and with it all of its descendants. The thievery at the center of the story is a fait accompli, its execution generally flawless (or at the minimum hypercompetent) but something must come after the caper - ahh, yes, la vie ...

The evolution of the genre then, is not in the technology of crime (though the novelty of The Red Circle's burglary - bordering on alchemy - serves its characters better than others have) or the motivations driving our anti-hero (and again, The Red Circle deftly avoids sentimentalism in favor of the original sin, greed), but in how society (inevitably anthropomorphized flatly as a cop - a trope beautifully and darkly subverted in Petri's Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion) responds to the act. Without engaging in too much spoilage, consider the fates of the masterminds of Jules Dassin's Rififi, Michael Mann's Thief (and his subsequent Heat - a whole litany of papers could be produced on its transgressive use of actors' offscreen personalities), and The Usual Suspects, respectively. As goes film, so goes justice.

So, here is Le Cercle Rouge, Jean-Pierre Melville's well-shot, expertly underacted film that raises the central question at the heart of the heist: how to root for success before intermission and retribution thereafter? Melville unkindly splits his protagonist up into left brain and right brain. There is Alain Delon in a trenchcoat, the robot, methodical, all menace and mustache. Yves Montand, the ex-cop, alcohol and redemption always within reach, sensitive to the last. (I omit Gian Maria Volonte because his role is that of facilitator, he is Rosencranz's flipped coin, The Stranger's letter, Hamlet's ghost.) As they meet in the Buddha's apocryphal "red circle" (Melville's own invention - to each his own Buddha), we think we know their fate. It's that obviousness that we respond to, that gives Andre Bourvil's role as the equally competent policeman on Delon's trail such a ponderous weight - one review compares him to Bergman's Grim Reaper, and I find this deeply satisfying.

People praise its atmosphere, its theatrics, its effortless cool, and The Red Circle is perhaps the most minimalist crime movie on record. I can think of only one improvement: a movie in which the heist itself is spoken of, once (and fleetingly) and then ignored for the duration. We already know what these men are capable of. It is us we must learn more about.

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