French Director Jean Pierre Melville’s 1970 film Le Cercle Rouge, is among the most highly regarded, little seen stealth influences on some of the most well known directors of the last 30 years. The starkly costumed looks of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction read like homage to what must be considered the crown jewel of Melville’s multi-picture exploration of American style gangster flicks, with Le Cercle Rouge being likened by some to the idea of westerns shot with a Paris backdrop.
This is a movie you can settle down with a drink, scotch would be perfect, and study. After a while maybe you find yourself thinking heady thoughts. Maybe it’s time you think, to give the pendulum a push, maybe things have gotten just a little too precious when it comes to the opinions, lessons and injunctions you get about what you should be wearing. It’s all this moralistic relativity and lack of standards in general that’s eating away at you. All of sudden all the colors, combinations and volumes you’re seeing from Pitti or New York are suggesting surrealistic or circus clown inspired movements. “Outfits” not “clothing” anymore you’re thinking. Mixed in the dark or under the influence or both. Not inventions or expressions of true style growing from one’s personality and being but pea cocking, surface but no content, no direction, throwing things – anything – against the wall. Me Me Me. And the sunny, unstructured, yet codified modes of display, brown, Italian. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. You’re quick to add.
By contrast Le Cercle Rouge stands as an apotheosis to the stream of inspiration that resulted in the bench-mark looks of classical clothing seen through the lenses of the 1960’s. It’s got a stellar cast, no pretty boys or prima donnas. No posers. This is Alain Delon and Yves Montand and every person in the film personifying their character’s role to the tee. This isn’t a period piece; it’s a Document of its times where the height of the decade’s stylistic invention is showcased. This film’s a reference library for the viewer’s stylistic vocabulary. There‘s little here that couldn’t be incorporated by any man today. Cuff links, 3 piece suits, rich navy suits and top coats, white shirts, narrow ties, charcoal gray – and because it’s France, a naked woman and some dancing girls.
Some might view this film as an “antidote” to fashion waywardness and poseurs in general. In Le Cercle Rouge men are men. They wear suits, not costumes. Everyone looks impeccable, but the hue, cut, and forms never dictate what the men do nor how they do things even though what we see are uniforms both figuratively and literal. No one is constrained from acting in the way the fundamentals of character and circumstance evoke. Men are running, rolling, shooting, fording streams, smoking, stealing, fighting, sleeping in and working-living in their clothes with utilitarian gusto. And this association with work should be stressed because unlike most of the stylistic mentors and films normally mentioned online, the figures depicted here are not those of the upper strata, the elites of the society normally associated in our investigations or imitation-worthy style but figures from the gray underbelly with its own codes and standards of behavior but with everyone adhering to an almost mannerist depiction of stylistic mores.
The film’s title is derived from a teaching by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, who used a chalk-drawn circle in red to suggest that those men whom fate has decided should come together, will invariably do so regardless of the diverse paths and individual personalities. And so we see in this film a mélange of different personalities yet though there’s a “good and bad guys” theme, there’s a moralistic, ethical backbone and an anti-hero bias that permeates the story. They struggle and question life – the life they’ve been dealt. They do it with a sense of personal honor. No matter which side of the line they occupy, they carry on with a dignity and sense of regard for both themselves and those whom fate has brought into their individual lives.
There are no black hats to clearly identify the villains. The principals are ultra chic in a somber way. No self-consciousness. No parody. None of our simplistic irony. Yet all involved understand the lines separating the different sides are constantly moving and yet their choice of attire clearly demonstrates they are all operating on a similar level. The lines might be shifting on constantly moving sands but the uniform-like exactness of their clothing indicates they’re ready and willing to deal with the fates that are dealt to them. Watch it and learn.
Dean Balsamo is in the magazine industry and lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.