The following discussion of Jean-Pierre Melville’s masterpiece of crime cinema Le Cercle Rouge is excerpted from Melville On Melville, a book-length interview with the great French director by Rui Nogueira first published in 1971.I’m not interested in realism. All my films hinge on the fantastic. I’m not a documentarian; a film is first and foremost a dream, and it’s absurd to copy life in an attempt to produce an exact re-creation of it. Transposition is more or less a reflex with me: I move from realism to fantasy without the spectator ever noticing. -– Jean-Pierre Melville
How do you feel about your twelfth film, ‘Le Cercle Rouge’?
Since there’s no knowing if there will be a thirteenth, l have to talk about Le Cercle Rouge as though it were my ‘latest’ film – as you say when you’ve just completed a picture – but also my ‘last’ film [Melville would make one more film, Un Flic, in 1972]. Which in turn obliges me to speak about my filmmaking career as a whole, as well as my life as a spectator. Maybe I won’t want to make any more films. That could happen, supposing fate decreed that I wasn’t to be allowed to rebuild my studios here, and I decided to go live in America, not to make films there, but to write. So I really am obliged at this point to take stock of twenty-five years of professional activity and some forty-five years’ activity as a moviegoer. I’ll begin by being hard on myself, before moving on to other people. Then I’ll talk about the film, but also about what it’s like working on a film surrounded by people who haven’t at all the same reasons for being involved in it, for living in it, while it’s being made.
All right, then. If I look at myself very objectively, I realize that I’ve become impossible. Not egocentric – I’m not in the least egocentric – but, if I may be allowed to coin a word, opocentric; ‘opo,’ from opus. As I grow older, in other words, nothing matters except my profession and therefore my work, by which I mean the work at hand, which I think about day and night and which takes precedence over everything – I repeat, everything – else in my thoughts... I’m not talking about my affections, of course. So, I begin thinking about the film I’m working on as soon as I wake up in the morning – and I’m always working on one, even if I’m not actually shooting – and only when I go to sleep at night do I stop thinking about it. That’s pretty extreme, and I was made aware of it last night. I was having dinner with Léo Fortel, and at the next table there were two girls and two young men. One of the two men was obviously part French, part Indo-Chinese... and opposite him was a ravishing Asian girl; I think she must have been of mixed parentage, with extraordinary hair – probably a wig – pitch-black, in Joan of Arc style but longer, and the most fantastic face. I was staring at her throughout the meal, but when Léo asked me if I wanted him to get her name and address, I said no. ‘Really?’ he said. ‘But why not?’ ‘Because I don’t have a film in mind for her,’ I said. And I realized that beautiful women interest me only insofar as I can use them in a film. You see how far it’s gone?
Le Cercle Rouge is by far the toughest movie I have tackled, because I worked the plot out myself and I didn’t do myself any favors in writing my scenes. I said to myself, ‘This is going to be difficult to shoot, but I don’t care, I want to do it.’ And I did manage to film what I had written. But instead of completing it in fifty days, which would have been normal, it took me sixty-six days.
What is Le Cercle Rouge? Le Cercle Rouge, to my mind, is first and foremost a heist story. It’s about two professional crooks, Delon and Volonté, and another man, Montand, who is a sort of unplanned helper.
As I’ve told you, I wanted to write a heist script long before I saw The Asphalt Jungle, before I’d even heard of it, and well before things like Rififi. I think I also told you that I was supposed to make Rififi? No? Well, I was the person who got the producer to buy the rights: he announced that I was to direct the film, and then I didn’t see him again for six months. Finally, the film was made by [Jules] Dassin, who had the extreme courtesy to say that he would do it only if I wrote to tell him that I was happy about the arrangement. Which I did.
So I’ve wanted to ‘do a robbery’ since about 1950, around the time I finished Les Enfants Terribles. I’d like Le Cercle Rouge to be masterly, of course, but I don’t know yet if it will be; I think the elements are sufficiently interesting to make a good sequence, and time will tell if I’ve set the robbery in the right context or not. It’s also a sort of digest of all the thriller-type films I have made previously, and I haven’t made things easy for myself in any way. For instance, there are no women in the film, and it certainly isn’t taking the easy way out to make a thriller with five leading characters, none of whom is a woman.
Was ‘Le Cercle Rouge’ one of the twenty-two scripts destroyed when your studio burned down?
No. Actually, with my memory, I could have taken any one of those scripts and rewritten it down to the last comma. But if I had, I would have done it differently. I don’t like to repeat myself. I will never film those burned scripts, because I wouldn’t want to do them now even if I still had them in my drawer – which doesn’t mean that I won’t often use ideas from those scripts, as I in fact did for the relationship between the head of Internal Affairs and Captain Mattei in Le Cercle Rouge.
The Cercle Rouge script is an original in the sense that it was written by me and by me alone, but it won’t take you long to realize it’s a transposed western, with the action taking place in Paris instead of the West, in the present day rather than after the Civil War, and with cars instead of horses. So I start off with the traditional – almost obligatory – conventional situation: the man just released from jail. And this man corresponds pretty much to the cowboy who, once the opening credits are over, pushes open the doors of a saloon.
Originally you had a different cast in mind, didn’t you?
Yes. Captain Mattei, who is played by André Bourvil – and played beautifully – was a part originally intended for Lino Ventura. The ex-cop, Jansen, turned crook and alcoholic, was to have been played by Paul Meurisse and not Yves Montand. And I had thought of offering [Jean-Paul] Belmondo the role of Vogel, finally played by Gian Maria Volonté. I think that if Delon hadn’t wanted to do Borsalino with Belmondo, I would have got them both together in Le Cercle Rouge... But every film is what it is, and it stands or falls on its own merits. A film is a moment out of one’s life. In my case, at least, you must remember, it represents fourteen months of uninterrupted work squeezed into twelve – 1968 was a completely wasted year for me, because I’d signed a contract with the Hakim brothers to make La Chienne, and they found a way not to honor it. They made me lose a whole year immediately following the fire at my studios, which was a terrible blow in a lot of ways; because losing the studios and all they represented in terms of money and opportunities was bad enough, but then to be reduced to twelve months of unemployment by a contract retaining exclusive rights over your services and preventing you from doing anything else whatsoever – that is a terrible blow. So, those fourteen months of work squeezed into twelve, because in 1966 I made Le Deuxième Souffle, in 1967 I made Le Samouraï, in 1968 I did nothing, in 1969 I did Army of Shadows, and in 1970 Le Cercle Rouge. Well, when you reach my age, you’re entitled to think that a film is an important thing in your life, because it represents at least a year’s work and then dogs you for another year: you remain the man of last year’s film, or of your last film shown. So in fact a film may be said to take up two years of your life.
In the shooting script for ‘Le Cercle Rouge’, when Captain Mattei is hunting Vogel after his escape, you have him say, ‘He isn’t Claude Tenne. I couldn’t ask the minister of the interior to block every road in France.’ Who is this Claude Tenne?
Claude Tenne was a member of the OAS, and during the Algerian crisis, he was tried and imprisoned for his anti-government activities. He managed to escape from prison on the Île de Ré by folding himself into four and hiding inside a military trunk, a sort of big iron trunk, though not so very big, actually – I have no idea how he did it. And at the time, roadblocks were set up all over France.
At another point in the script, you describe Jansen as follows: ‘Jansen, stretched out on his bed, fully dressed, filthy, unshaven, with a three-day beard. Like Faulkner in one of his alcoholic bouts.’
Yes, I imagine Faulkner or Hemingway as being like that in their bouts of alcoholism. As a matter of fact, I think there are many eyewitness accounts of how Faulkner sometimes used to stay shut up in his room with his bottles for a week, with orders that he wasn’t to be disturbed.
But Jansen’s hallucinations – rats and spiders crawling slowly toward him – are the sort of nightmares Edgar Allan Poe might have dreamed up.
Well, of course. You know that Poe and Melville have a great deal in common... But now I’m getting mixed up, forgetting when I say Melville that it’s not me, but the great...
Could you tell us about your working relationship with the cast of ‘Le Cercle Rouge’?
I had an excellent relationship with Delon during shooting. We have an extraordinary personal understanding, which enables us to work in a very special way.
This was the first time I worked with Yves Montand, who is a very fine actor, but he comes from the music hall and that’s what sets him apart from Delon. Delon is enormously gifted and doesn’t need as much preparation as Montand, who is a perfectionist like me. Montand is the sort of actor who arrives on set in the morning with the whole thing in his head. Everything went beautifully with him too – he’s enormously willing and dedicated. If you want proof, consider what he’s just been doing in [Costa-Gavras’s] The Confession. This man, known to the whole world as a Communist, has had the courage to accept the role in The Confession of a character who accuses the Communist regime of having committed inconceivable crimes... Anyhow, it was marvelous working with Montand, and I hope to make many more films with him. In the first place, because he’s a man of about my age – he’s three years my junior, actually – so he’s easier for me to use as a vehicle than a much younger actor. Alain and Jean-Paul, let’s say, are vehicle characters for me because they are thirty-five years old, and if I give Delon a mustache, that’s it, he’s the man, not just a nice-looking young man but the man. Handsome, maybe, but it doesn’t matter, because it no longer gets in the way. Anyway, to my mind, Montand is also handsome.
André Bourvil is an excellent actor, one of the best in France, but he probably isn’t a priori a Melvillean actor. I think he gives a very fine performance in my film, and I’m all the more convinced of this after going through the whole film again on the cutting table: there are moments where Bourvil is absolutely staggering. In his case, I’m very happy about the casting change, because Bourvil brings an element of humanity to the part that I hadn’t expected and Lino Ventura certainly wouldn’t have provided. Lino Ventura would have been ‘the Police Captain,’ and there would have been no surprises. Whereas with Bourvil – thanks to Bourvil – there are quite a few.
As for François Périer, there’s really nothing more to be said. Everyone knows he’s one of our finest actors. I remember the evening I met you outside a cinema where they were playing Le Samouraï, and we both exclaimed together, ‘Périer is fantastic!’ This film can add only a little to his reputation. The astonishing thing, though – and it’s one of the distressing aspects of this business – is that at this moment, François Périer isn’t rated as a star, and he should be. This upsets me, just as it upsets me that [American character actor] Richard Boone isn’t a star. But in this area, it’s still the distributor who lays down the law and not the filmmaker... Distributors won’t take the risk. They always say, ‘No, no, think of the billing, use name actors, etc.’ I think it’s a pity you can’t even think of making an expensive film, costing, say, a billion old francs, with unknowns. I could make a film tomorrow with unknowns if it cost three hundred million, but not a billion. They’ll pay out three hundred million on my name because they know more or less what sort of merchandise they’ll get from me, but they won’t give me more. The billion for Le Cercle Rouge was possible because I had Delon, Bourvil, and Montand, and because there was a sizable Italian coproduction interest, since I was using an Italian actor, Gian Maria Volonté – totally unknown in France, I might add – whom I’d had in mind to play Vogel after seeing him in Carlo Lizzani’s Banditi a Milano.
If you want me to talk about Gian Maria Volonté, that’s a very different story. Because Gian Maria Volonté is an instinctive actor, and he may well be a great stage actor in Italy, he may even be a great Shakespearean actor, but for me he was absolutely impossible, in that on a French set, in a film such as I was making, he never at any moment made me feel I was dealing with a professional. He didn’t know how to place himself for the lighting – he didn’t understand that an inch to the left or to the right wasn’t at all the same thing. ‘Look at Delon, look at Montand,’ I used to tell him. ‘See how they position themselves perfectly for the lights, etc., etc.’ I also think the fact that he is very involved in politics (he’s a leftist, as he never tires of telling you) did nothing to bring us together. He was very proud of having gone to sit in at the Odéon during the ‘glorious’ days of May–June 1968; personally, I didn’t go to sit in at the Odéon. It seems, too, that whenever he had a weekend free, he flew back to Italy. That’s what I call a supernationalist spirit. I once said to him, ‘It’s no use dreaming of becoming an international star so long as you continue to pride yourself on being Italian – which is of no consequence, any more than being French is.’ But for him, everything Italian was marvelous and wonderful, and everything French was ridiculous. I remember one day, we were setting up a rear-projection scene, and he was smiling to himself. I asked him why, and he said, ‘Because... you’ve seen Banditi a Milano? There are no rear projections in Banditi a Milano. Everything was shot direct, inside a moving car.’ ‘Really?’ I said. ‘And were you shooting night scenes like this? Were you inside a car filming the action going on outside at night?’ ‘Well, no,’ he said, and it seemed to sink in that we weren’t using rear projection just to amuse him. He’s a strange character. Very wearying. I can tell you, I won’t be making any more films with Gian Maria Volonté.
Can you draw any conclusions from the twelve films you’ve made since 1947?
In these twenty-three years, or let’s say these twenty-five years, because after all, it was in 1945 that I founded my production company – I was demobilized in October 1945 and formed the company on November 5, 1945 – in these twenty-five years of professionalism, I’ve done lots of things. First, in 1947, I got the idea of building my own studios, which I did. At one point, I was the only filmmaker in the world to have his own studios. This period lasted from 1949, when I made Les Enfants Terribles, till 1967 – eighteen years in all, with a short break when I gave the studios up for a time, before being able to rebuild them as I wanted. Then in June 1967, they burned down. Nothing much remains, but I am rebuilding them, even though I haven’t received the permit yet from the city of Paris. So parallel to the films I have made... Well, in an article I received yesterday, there’s a sentence that reads, ‘. . . the novel Le Silence De La Mer, which was adapted for the screen by the father of the new French cinema, Jean-Pierre Melville.’ This was published in the Algerian newspaper El Moudjahid, by the critic Ahmazid Deboukalfa. I don’t know this man except by name, but I’m delighted to know that someone outside France remembers from time to time that it was Melville, after all, who shook things up in 1947.
Then in 1957, I built a screening room on the rue Washington, along with editing rooms, but since leasing out screening space and editing rooms isn’t my business, I sold my interest. However, I’ve always felt the need for some parallel creative activity, in building and materials, because cinema isn’t created with ideas alone. There’s the whole mechanical side of it, and, of course, projection. For instance, during the three years my studios were leased out to Pathé-Marconi, I couldn’t stand not having my own screening room, so I built one, which I leased out to other people but could use myself in the evenings to run through any films I wanted to see. This sort of thing will always happen with me. At the moment, I’m ruining myself in advance to create a screening room here on the rue Jenner, which is going to be marvelous because if, for instance, Monsieur Cocteau of Fox were to lend me a print of The Kremlin Letter tomorrow morning, what a joy it would be to screen it here during the morning and then return it to the Balzac Cinema at 1:30 p.m., in time for the first show.
I don’t know what will be left of me fifty years from now. I suspect that all films will have aged terribly and that the cinema probably won’t even exist anymore. My guess is that the final disappearance of cinemas will take place around the year 2020, so in fifty years’ time, there will be nothing but television. Well, I would be happy if I got one line in the Great Universal Encyclopedia of the Cinema, and I think that’s the sort of ambition every filmmaker must have. This is a business in which you have to be not arriviste, certainly not that, nor yet ambitious, which I’m not, but you have to have ambition in what you do, which isn’t at all the same thing. I’m not ambitious, I don’t want to be something – I have always been what I am, I haven’t become anything – but I’ve always had, and I shall always try to retain, this feeling that ambition in one’s work is an absolutely healthy, justifiable thing. You can’t make films just for the sake of making films. If fate wills that I should make more films, I’ll try to remain faithful to this ideal of being ambitious when I start a film; not being ambitious between films, but being ambitious when I start work, telling myself, ‘People have to enjoy this.’ That’s my ambition: to fill cinemas.
– ‘Melville on Le Cercle Rouge’ in Rui Nogueira: Melville on Melville (Martin Secker & Warburg, 1971). This excerpt from criterion.com, April 12, 2011.