Thursday, December 01, 2011

Le Cercle rouge

1970, France, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

This is an entry in the second Late Films Blogathon, conjured out of thin air by David Cairns at Shadowplay.

Though he wasn't an old man when he died, there was nothing unexpected about Bourvil's death at the age of 53. He had been diagnosed with cancer in the late 1960s, and had known that the disease was incurable at least since 1968, when filming his role in L'Arbre de Noël - a film, oddly enough, about a young character with a terminal illness. Each of Bourvil's films from that point on was made in the knowledge that it could be the cap to his twenty-five-year screen career.

Still, few of those films seem burdened by a sense of legacy. For the most part they hark back to familiar themes and personnel, both in front of and behind the camera, whether it's Le Cerveau, in which he was once again directed by Gérard Oury, or his final role, filmed days after he completed Le Cercle rouge, in Le Mur de l'Atlantique, whose wartime setting not only recalls his biggest hit, La Grande Vadrouille, but also features one of his co-stars from that film, Terry-Thomas. Despite his crowded plate in those final few years, Bourvil was actually a rather more cautious man than several of his fellow comic stars, at least by the credit-happy standards of French cinema. While he made over 60 films, his key early influence, Fernandel, amassed over 100 credits in the same time period, and both were left in the shade by Louis de Funès, who had racked up 150 screen credits by the quarter-century mark.

Le Cercle rouge sticks out from the pack not only in that Bourvil is cast in an entirely atypical role, but also because he is credited as André Bourvil - not his real name, which was André Raimbourg, but the only time he was credited with more than a single name. While there are dramatic parts scattered through his filmography, notably a pair of roles in 1958 when he appeared as both the villainous Thenardier in Le Chanois's expansive version of Les Misérables and as Michèle Morgan's petty husband in Le Miroir à deux faces, his turn as Commissaire Mattei was something different again, a tightly controlled, often taciturn performance from an actor better known for expansive gestures and loquacious characters. That's entirely in keeping with Melville's style of course, not least in this film, which features a terrific, virtually silent heist sequence, and in which men (there are essentially no women in the film) communicate most frequently with few or no words.

When Meville approached Bourvil for the part, he took him out to dinner and afterwards to the movies: the director wanted his actor to see Richard Brooks's In Cold Blood, for he envisaged the character of Mattei in the same mould as that film's Alvin Dewey, played by John Forsythe. Bourvil's reaction was apparently to exclaim of Forsythe, "But he's handsome," and Melville had to convince the actor that he, too, was handsome, even that his character was seductive to a degree. While Mattei is certainly a compelling character, it's a little harder to see the evidence of his seductiveness given the lack of female characters. His only interaction with a woman is a brief scene, filmed from through a glass door, of apparently pleasant conversation with a barmaid. The woman turns out to be an informant, and our only glimpse of Mattei's private life shows him feeding his cats, of whom more later. Still, it's hard to imagine Melville's original choice for the part, Lino Ventura, in such a quiet moment of domesticity: Bourvil's casting gives the part a greater depth, akin, perhaps, to Hitchcock's casting of Cary Grant or James Stewart.

Bourvil is introduced in the opening scene, in a car careening toward a railway station - the same motif re-appears in Melville's next film, Un Flic - where Mattei and a prisoner board a night train to Paris. The prisoner, Vogel, is played by Gian Maria Volonte, who played a character called Mattei himself a year or two later. Melville apparently found Volonte a real handful to deal with, and complained at length about the Italian actor's "unprofessional" attitude on his set, though their differing politics hardly helped. Actually, Meville has few words of praise for anyone, in front of or behind the camera, on the film: Bourvil is one of the very rare people for whom the director appears to have unreserved respect, and after the actor's death, a few weeks before Le Cercle rouge premiered, he eulogized his star in moving terms.

Vogel sets one of the film's plotlines in motion by escaping - a strange turn of events, in many ways, because you'd expect it to undermine the viewer's confidence in Mattei and yet it proves to be the springboard for a demonstration of his competence. He's no Javert, whose success seems to lie as much in his sheer doggedness as anything else, but is an intelligent and surprising flexible man who nonetheless sets strict limits on his actions. Still, he's clearly troubled by his own willingness to pressure his witnesses and informants. One of the film's key sequences is a short scene with Santi, a mafioso played by François Périer, who suggests that people are unable to change their true nature. Santi cites that as a point of pride, suggesting that he'll never squeal, but the same might be equally true of Mattei's ethics; Santi is confident that the policeman won't transgress certain limits. The scene features a telephone on an extendable frame, and given Melville's encyclopaedic knowledge of film it wouldn't surprise me to discover that the prop is a conscious reference to Edward G. Robinson's moral struggles in Five Star Final, in which a similar telephone becomes almost a character in its own right.

But back to that train, now minus Vogel, which stops near Mersault L'Hôpital, a small town whose cinematic significance lies primarily with Bourvil: a key sequence in La Grande vadrouille was filmed there a few years earlier, and the town's website still features a picture of Bourvil and co-star Louis de Funès, which may not say a whole lot about the excitement of the intervening decades. It's not the only time a location in Le Cercle rouge recalls the actor's earlier career. The film's final scenes are filmed on the ample property of Jean-Claude Brialy, with whom Bourvil made the 1959 film Le Chemin des écoliers, along with a very youthful fellow by the name of Alain Delon. On that occasion Bourvil played Delon's father; by the time of Le Cercle rouge Delon was all grown up, and the two men share only a few minutes of screen time given the film's separate plotlines. Bourvil has even less time to play off one of the film's other stars, Yves Montand, with whom he has the very briefest, and most terminal, of exchanges; ironically, given the nature of their exchange, it was Montand who took over Bourvil's part in La Folie des grandeurs the following year, the film that was to mark his triumphant reunion with Louis de Funès, though the character was substantially re-written in light of the casting change.

 Ah, the cats. Our host Mr. Cairns comments that the three cats that Bourvil feeds on a couple of occasions - in near identical scenes, with only the animals varying the routines - are Melville's own pets, going by the wonderful names of Ofrène, Grifollet and Firello. Melville mentions his cats a number of times in interviews, suggesting that in his home life he has no interest in surrounding himself with more than four fellow creatures - his wife and the trio of cats (in that order). While Mattei doesn't seem quite such an anti-social fellow, it's hard not to read a certain amount of Melville into his driven, highly professional character. What's most impressive, ultimately, about Bourvil's performance is that his work makes you forget almost everything that's come before: as Melville said, Adieu le pitre, farewell to the buffoon. Farewell, indeed.

Jacques Lorcey's 1981 book Bourvil was something of a treasure trove of information, along with Rui Noguiera's 1972 book of interviews with Melville, Melville on Melville.


Anonymous said...

Very nicely done, sir! I don't know this film at all but now I am very intrigued and have it on my must-see list.

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