A scene-by-scene analysis of 'Le Cercle Rouge' by Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970
by Daniel O'Reilly 2012
“I am amazed that (as far as I know) no one has ever treated the idea of a 'master-thief,' an idea that certainly would lend itself very well to dramatic treatment.”
“My guiding principle is this: Guilt is never to be doubted.”
Film coils around spools inside the camera-eye machine as it is exposed to the light. It then spirals inside film canisters; then it is passed from coil to coil on the editing deck; then again inside the projection room, a spinning transport from full-coil to empty-coil. This geometric figure, of taking a straight length of [captured] time and winding it up into a coil for playback is the figure of the recording device, a figure in the mode-of-capture. The groove in the gramophone record is a concentric, ever-tightening coil, sent spinning at set-speed until the line runs out, until there is no space left for this time to run, and that’s the end. The film-coil is passed from the full-spindle to the empty-spindle, a master-slave figure; the light seen by the camera-eye is now thrown back up from the projector-eye onto the cinema screen, giving the appearance of motion from a series of arrested images, captured by exposure. The opening of a film is the point of departure, a strictly defined movement with an absolute destination – the empty spindle - the final frame of celluloid signifying that there is no [captured] time left to run.
‘Le Cercle Rouge’; the circular motion is figured by the movement of the [material] film itself, though it is also the name of this film in particular. It is also a figure drawn onto a flat plane; imagine the occasions where you have drawn a circle around something – a word or area of a picture. What did the encircling motion-mark signify then? A mark of differentiation – look at this one. It tells the eye to focus here and not there. It shows us what to focus on. But the figure of the circle will be echoed throughout this film in many other details; it is the retina of the eye; it is the opening of a burrow-entrance; it is the capturing circle of the handcuff. Finally, it is the opening made by a bullet; the opening which closes [both life and film]. It is the figure of a destiny:
A green Buddha spins around as if sitting on a potter’s wheel or gramophone platter. Prologue to a symbol; Siddhartha Buddha drew a circle in red chalk, said the divergent paths of unknowing men will come together inside the Red Circle; an orbiting motion, a figurative marriage or loyalty, an empty cipher, closure or trap. But this is fiction, part of a fiction. Jean-Pierre Melville, the auteur, takes his own text, signs it ‘Rama Krishna’. The sign or signature is the codename or cryptonym; it appears innocuous or only in half-sense without de-coding it. The name ‘Jean-Pierre Melville’ both is and is not a signature. It is at once codename, nom de guerre and nom de plume. It is also the sign-nature, sig-nature, the authentic nature of the mask, Dionysian; under the mask there are only other masks; even human nature is one mask worn amongst many. Disguise-nature. Dis-sig-nature. Born under the name ‘Jean-Pierre Grumbach’, an Alsatian Jew, the name is already a signifying mark, a mark of differentiation, a target for Nazi capture. Imagine the proscription order; a series of faces compiled together in photomontage, the photograph as mode-of-capture, marked for death by the photograph. During the war, he changes that name to ‘Jean-Pierre Cartier’; he also takes the alias ‘Nano’; then he becomes the American author ‘Jean-Pierre Melville’. He operates underground - the name or sig-nature is a burrow. At the beginning of ‘Le Cercle Rouge’ he signs himself ‘Rama Krishna’, ‘Siddhartha Buddha’. These names are drawn together in the Red Circle, divergent paths drawn together under the same sign.
A green traffic light becomes a red circle, the Red Circle; a car hurtles towards it, towards an urgent connection: “A red light, tough!” The sign says ‘Halt!’ but the car careers across, across the signifying mark of arrest, onto the wrong side of the Law. It is a police car, but this has not yet been shown to us. The car pulls up at Marseille-Blancarde train station to make the urgent connection; the plot is driving the car. Two men step out, dressed almost identically, perhaps gangsters, perhaps detectives – at any rate, undifferentiated. They race toward the train, running together, closely, almost hand in hand. One is the detective [André Bourvil], the other the fugitive [Gian Maria Volonté]; the detective is a function of perception and capture, the fugitive is a function of evasion and escape – a relationship created through the dynamics of seeing. Their close connection, the relationship, is figured by handcuffs - manacles of rude marriage - an encircling steel coupling which prevents escape from the enclosure of Law, the Red Circle, but this detail has not yet been shown to us. The ambiguity between men inside the ring of steel, Law, (for they are both handcuffed, both drawn together inside this figure,) is our point of departure; only a distinct, concrete signifier could set these men truly apart, but the concrete signifier is lacking, the mark of differentiation is abolished by the figure of Law itself, drawn as it is around all men together, a territory. Entering a sleeper car, the fugitive climbs up the bunk. Now the handcuffs are revealed, showing us, not telling us, the power relation which has brought these men together inside the circle. The credits, the names of the actors in and the makers of the film, (all agents, accomplices drawn together on a list,) ‘roll’ as the train begins to roll away; the circle of capture is uncoiled into a line, a fixed horizontal movement guided by parallel steel tracks to the single terminus, from the point-of-departure to the point-of-arrival which is the movement of the [physical] film itself inside the projector. The connection has been made, the destination we infer must be the completion of the circle and full circumscription by the Law, inscribed in a sentence, the length of which determines the enclosure of the fugitive behind steel bars, his unfreedom. But the concept of capture contains a significant flaw; it always contains the possibility of escape. It is a mode of being in the fugitive to bring this possibility into actuality; he exists to escape, being on the lookout for the tiny window of opportunity through which he can slip, [detecting] the necessary flaw of capture by means of which he can take back his freedom as though it were a term written in the Law of his free will, as though it were his natural right to do so.
Handcuffed to the bed, the policeman is finally free of the fugitive. This is one of many reversals or oscillations between the inside and the outside of the Law, (almost an arbitrary one,) which creates a diaphanous boundary through which men may pass as though it were an exchange of essence from one container to another. The camera tracks back from the window of the sleeper car, away and up into the sky, disembodied, the illuminated compartment now a temporary cell isolated in the centre of the screen, a single frame of film passing before the light of the projector, the reality of these two men isolated from all other realities by the walls of the compartment and the frames of the celluloid. The other compartments of the train may well have contained other narratives, dramas and intrigues; but they do not. The other compartments, the segments of the train, the other travellers cannot be seen, are not being captured – and therefore do not exist. They do not exist for these characters and, by extension, do not exist for us either. This is a hidden reality which is being identified and marked for differentiation; a reality which is out of sight is being brought into sight – from behind closed doors, from the next compartment along into which we never see, from confined, illicit spaces shrouded by codes of noir, invisible to the general gaze. The presentation of this filmic underworld converts the cinema into a peephole, requiring that we view the image-screen, the peephole and the eye of the viewer together as matrices of capture in which ‘seeing itself’, (both the act of seeing and the reflected gaze,) becomes a function of arrest in which the viewer is caught, caught as an apparatus of capture incriminated by the act of seeing. The inside and the outside of the Law, its remit, is the difference between seen and unseen; the logic of the underground is framed in this sense.
The man of too much liberty, who has attracted the gaze of the Law as its object of desire, the fugitive, now tied to the train and seemingly rendered impotent, lays down to sleep. The camera closes into his face – now just another dark piece of cabin-furniture, unfree - the policeman looks up at his charge on the bunk. The sound of the train tracks racing past, the melting away of time into oblivion fills the frame, continues, but through montage, the hard-cut, we now see a different man lying in the dark, in the same position, as though two separate gazes capture one and the same man. We still hear the train tracks but we see a prison cell, a different compartment, (the fugitive’s future); the coupling of image and sound in this way puts space and time out of joint and by confusing two sensory inputs creates a synthetic spatial continuum, circumscribing these two men together. A circle of light appears from the darkness of the centre-screen, exposed directly into the camera-eye; a disembodied eye appears within it, peering in. The lock on the door snaps, a prison guard furtively enters the cell-enclosure, (just as the police car crossed the red light in the opening scene, the diaphanous boundary of Law is crossed by its agent,) and the guard disguises his having crossed over this line, this territorial mark, by ‘fixing’ the lock from inside, by creating the appearance that the line of capture is still intact. The concrete enclosure of the Law and the abstract differentiation between its insides and outsides are drawn together and dissolved in the same permeating motion, manacled together like so many seeming-opposites; legal-illegal, policeman-fugitive, gaoler-prisoner, outside-inside, free-unfree. The Law divides actions up by introducing a boundary; it thus creates criminals, polices choice, governs action and monopolises freedom. The cyclopic eye of Law sees either one thing or the other, reconstituting space through [en]forced perspective, creating a territory of detection and capture which it seeks to dominate. It creates a tyranny of the image and a fear of the visible. In so doing however, the unlawful agent creates his own freedoms in this territory; the freedom to hide, the freedom to operate out of sight, the freedom to slip across borders unseen, becoming a being-on-the-lookout, a becoming-animal obeying the logic of evasion.
When the enclosure is broken-into or passed-through, when the border is crossed by an agent, ambiguities begin to appear as the result of an oscillating differential, of difference under deconstruction, allowing us to enter into a mutable, dynamic space in which the concept of Freedom can be seen from alternative perspectives. In Sartre’s understanding, (another soldier of the French resistance,) men cannot choose but be Free. Man still has choices, even when he is in chains. Unfreedom, a total reification from one’s freedom, is thinkable only by means of hiding one’s freedom from oneself, by making the choice to hide one’s freedom behind an imagined boundary: he calls it mauvais-foi, or self-deception. The eye of the Law as the eye of the camera, which captures the visible and subsequently imposes unfreedom on what it sees, framing the seen within cells, becomes a fugitive-perspective in its attempt to negate freedom, becomes part of the apparatus of self-deception and is itself caught. This differential shift in perspectives is corrected through the choices of Melville’s protagonists, who enter a relation of struggle with this mode-of-capture framed by the eye of Law. For example, the guard’s uniform differentiates his role, function and place within the Law as does the uniform of his prisoner, signifiers within a structured relationship between the free and unfree; when he chooses to enter the cell-space, the unfree-space, the fixed codes to which he belongs and in which he is enclosed start to slip by virtue of his presence, indicating the free-will of the agent to enter the unfree-space. As concrete containers these codes are as flawed and inadequate as the cells they inhabit. The guard is tipping-off the prisoner about his immanent release from prison. As the fugitive is hurtling toward jail on the train, toward the beginning of his time inside, the prisoner is approaching the full-stop of his jail-sentence, his immanent release to the outside. The montage draws this circular relation from point-of-departure to point-of-arrival and the space it demarcates becomes both cell and territory, a space of free choice within the fatalistic span of the movie or lifetime, from the first frame to the last.
The guard [Pierre Collet] who is charged with keeping men within this physical enclosure of the Law, informs the inmate Corey [Alain Delon] of a ‘job’ to be done on the outside; “Classic, easy, no risk.” Corey refuses, recognising that he is being baited by the deceptive description of the ‘job’, (i.e. how can any robbery contain ‘no risk’?) The guard however presses the point, arguing that he wants to get out of the prison; now we do not know which one is enclosed by the Law– the prisoner or the guard. A noise interrupts their hidden discourse – footsteps outside – and Corey feigns sleep whilst the guard conceals himself. Another guard is making his rounds, the disembodied eye of the Law again appears within the illuminated circle in the door, inspects the integrity of the cell, but their encounter remains hidden in the blind-spot of his vision. “Leave nothing to chance, boss.” says Corey – indeed, chance is not a cause for passive resignation, to sit back and allow fate to do what it will, a fate of ressentiment; rather, this chance, this chance for freedom becomes affirmative, becomes an active demand, come what will – the action of a dice-throw which positively affirms the inevitability of fate but which still chooses to roll the dice, acknowledges that fate and free choice are not only compatible but entirely necessary. “The dice which are thrown once are the affirmation of chance, the combination which they form on falling is the affirmation of necessity.” [Deleuze, ‘Nietzsche and Philosophy’] Corey cannot resist freedom, his powers of action, his desire to roll dice; knowing this, the guard baits him further by describing to him a new security system at a jewellers’ shop. [Note: he does not describe the jewels or their value - he describes the security system they are behind.] This is what attracts Corey; the cell governed by the gaze of Law, the peril of capture in crossing the boundary, the expenditure of superfluity in the attempt, the exploitation of a minute flaw in the codes in which the restricted space unfolds before his powers of action and in which only he has the skill to be able to act – it is a stage upon which only he can perform. This type of freedom – the freedom to act where it appears there is none, within a zone secured by the steely gaze of Law, its spectator - is as attractive to Corey, as irresistible, as bait. It is both the kernel which organizes joissance and it is the nourishment of his will. The type of freedom he values carries the highest degree of restriction; it is a freedom harassed by deterrence, entrapment and imprisonment, setting it at a higher order than other types of freedom – the types permitted within the codes of policed space. In willing this type of freedom, the Master Thief fashions himself as the ultimate object of desire for the Law - a possible exception to its rule - and thus becomes the peg upon which all its authority hinges, a resistance to its field of absolute ordering, the object of capture which justifies the Law itself. In its efforts to establish territory over all men alike, to reduce all men to the same degrees of action, the Law enters into a necessary conceit in its self-image in which it sees itself as Absolute, creating a tyranny of the image. Without Corey, without the exception to the rule, the Law is merely obeyed by those who require freedoms to be created for them, on their behalf, by those who willingly form part of the assemblage of that great power in order that they might enjoy some small part of that power themselves, giving it power when they choose to give away their own. But the Law takes little pleasure in this, for it has no opportunity for over-power, to master its own territory and grow stronger. Corey is about to choose his own fate; he is going to choose to seize his rightful possession – his powers of action – out from under the eye of the law which has territorialised it and made it wrongful. His choice makes him an agent of fate; though about to be set free, he is already enclosed by the Red Circle, and the conclusion of the film has been affirmed with the same efficiency of Attic tragedy. Corey turns to the prison guard - a simple, silent gesture through which he accepts both the deal (the dice throw) and the fate it entails (the combination) - but the montage exchanges the guard for the policeman; we are on the train again, careering along the concurrent lines which drive this narrative.
The fugitive is feigning sleep under the eye of the policeman just as Corey did under the eye of the guard outside the door, a playing-dead or becoming-animal. He is secretly fashioning an instrument by means of which he will ‘fix the lock’ on his handcuff, try to snatch the freedom he values which is under lock and key, and in so doing realise his powers of action. The spatial arrangement in which Melville’s characters operate is significant - under the cover of night or in a shadow, in the blind-spot, obscured by the existential noir into which the eye of Law cannot penetrate or which it chooses not to see, in which it hides from itself. A tiny pin, a mere sliver is wide enough a window of opportunity for him to try and grasp at this chance of freedom.
The montage flicks back to Corey, who is being presented with his personal affects as he is being unfolded by the envelope of the prison – an expired passport, a set of keys and three photos of a girl that he refuses to accept from the warden. Each object is significant: the passport is the legal document which allows him to come and go between territories, but it has expired. The house keys give him access to his own territory, his own cell. The photographs are the mode-of-capture; the girl smiles and waves goodbye, perhaps seen from the back of the police car, signifying she helped send him to prison all those years ago. Corey signifies her betrayal in his silence, drops them on the counter and makes to leave, but the warden stops him and insists he take them. It is another silent gesture, a suggestion of the revenge code under which he has the power to correct wrongs for himself. Corey is about to step out of the prison, out of this enclosure and into the wide field of territory, but he is unable to do so alone; the montage cuts back again to the fugitive in the train compartment who is quietly releasing the latch on the handcuff. The two events are happening concurrently in the montage, within the Red Circle of their joint affair.
The fugitive frees the latch, gently and inaudibly negotiates himself into a position for flight – then shatters the diaphanous window-screen and bolts feet-first; he is free, wild into the woods. The policeman halts the train, gives chase, shoots, misses – the tiniest avenue of freedom with its attendant risk and mortal danger has been blown-open, it is the fugitive’s active affirmation which dilates it, his absolute refusal to obey, lie down and resign. This sudden enlargement and aperture of freedom, of territory on the part of the fugitive finds its counteraction in the policeman who now perceives his own freedom suddenly contract, for now he will suffer the correction of the Law by allowing the fugitive to escape, for failing to enfold him tightly enough, for failing to conceal the diaphanous window of opportunity. The bond between policeman and fugitive is interlaced as in a web, both of which are under the eye of Law; as one moves so then must the other, creating an operation of shadows, a noir which binds each of the characters - for the Law must find someone guilty. An exchange has been made; the burden of guilt has been discharged from one to the other and now the cop must exchange essence with the fugitive and put the mark, the Red Circle, back on him by entering the game. In the woods, the fugitive becomes game, wild quarry, a becoming-animal, the policeman becomes hunter, two fates entwined by the spectator of Law. Looking at a map, Mattei the policeman gives orders by phone for a ring to be placed around the fugitive’s location, the encircling, ever-tightening mode-of-capture, an enlargement of the handcuff-figure. He asks the train driver to bring him the two hats from their compartment – the hat, one of Melville’s fetish objects from the American cinema, signifier both of gangster and of detective, recalls another meaning in the code of the underworld: it means ‘to put on the hat’ – the police informant. The hat is offered to the Alsatian sniffer-dog, part of Mattei’s assemblage of the hunt, an enhancement of his powers of detection which joins the scent-trail of the line-of-flight, and so the hat becomes accessory to the mode-of-capture.
Corey is tasting freedom, coffee, in a bar; a waitress eyes him over sexually. Now he is in an elevator ascending to a penthouse, the head of the building where the powerful enjoy residence, and arouses an affluent-looking man from his bed [André Ekyan]. The man comes to the door which is fitted with locks like the prison cell or vault, and looks through the peephole from inside his room; it is no coincidence that this man, the boss, is brother to the prison guard who peeped into Corey’s cell at the beginning – forming a reduplication and inversion of the spatial arrangement - and the woman captured in Corey’s photograph [Anna Douking] is in this man’s bed. Without verbal indication we see through a series of visual inferences the dynamics of the situation. Corey switches on the hall light so the man can see better who is calling on him at this early hour, wanting to be seen through the peephole this time – the man is shocked to see Corey on the other side, thinking him still to be locked-up and quickly resolves on a course of action. He opens the door with warm, affectionate gestures and display of friendship – codes to conceal a traitor. Corey conversely displays no emotion – indeed, he never betrays himself with outward appearances and shows; he acts without showing whilst Melville shows without telling; a trinary, three-level logic of sense. We must infer that Corey does not resent this man for his actions against him – indeed, Corey does not have so much psychology; Corey is defined by his ability to act in and for himself, redress his own wrongs, and functions solely within the set of immediate relations which encompass him in his filmic reality. The half-finished hands of poker on the gaming table shows that he too is a player. The woman, the gun moll, listens to their conversation from behind the bedroom door, hidden, another cell for another prisoner and possession. Corey approaches the door, door without a peephole, the montage cuts back and forth between them to show that he knows already who is enveloped by the vault of the bedroom, but does not open the door, another silent but poignant gesture. He disvalues the contents of this safe. She is to remain inside the cell, the possession of this other man, just another exchangeable affect, the matériel of the underworld. Instead, Corey identifies the whereabouts of the man’s hidden safe without even looking for it, (its hiding place behind a picture locates itself within the semeiotic of concealment which is the Master Thief’s vocabulary,) and demands the money from the safe, (not the girl in the bedroom-vault.) As the boss opens the safe, Corey snatches the gun from inside it as if with a foreknowledge of its existence – it is a gun which has been lying in wait for precisely this occasion, it was there for him, so to speak – and so, within hours of his release he has acquired cash, a gun, dispensed of his emotional ties and exacted his revenge, seizing his desires from each window of opportunity. There is no surplus in Corey’s life, no excess, embodying as he does the ethos of pure cinema; he maintains a ruthless concentration upon the conditions of his own freedom. Likewise, this is a film with no fat; if it is not shown in the montage, it does not exist for this world. Melville creates noir reality, a closed world containing pockets of space; of cells, apartments, compartments, nightclubs, safes, strong-houses, gaming-rooms, back-rooms, secured by locked doors and punctured by viewing-holes. It is however permeated by windows; windows of the will – in which a safe is opened, a room is broken into, a cell is broken out of - the diaphanous screen in the noir which permits entry and exit; the window of opportunity. This is an art where nothing is left to chance, (closure,) though chance becomes the highest affirmation of will (aperture). “I’ll pay you back.” says Corey. “Sure you will.” says the boss. Corey places the photographs of the girl into the man’s safe, his pocket; the symbolic exchange is completed. Corey leaves, deterritorializing the space, and as he does so the boss goes round to work, dialling into the circle of a rotary telephone, electrical impulses forming a connection to his underground network, entering a code into the cycle of revenge.
On the early morning streets with its garbage collectors, Corey eyes a Plymouth in a car showroom – another fetish object and signifier of the gangster, but which at the same time constitutes a slippage and overcoding of American cinema, the cultural inheritance of post-war France. To kill time until the showroom opens for business he goes into a billiard hall, up a dark flight of stairs into the underground burrow of the nighthawk and gangster, a cinematic construction existing between gaps in perception, blind to the eye of Law. It is closing for the morning, a noir space, a few shady-types are leaving, but Corey bribes his way in – access to the underground burrow has its own codes of access and permeation. As he enters, Corey fingers a tripod, an apparatus of the camera-eye, (an object we will meet again in the middle and at the end of the film, his existence always determined by the presence of the camera,) and from the darkened room is revealed a series of empty green baize gaming tables. He draws with chalk a red circle on the end of a billiard cue; the red circle always prefigures the moment of selecting fate, as Corey is doing now, and his gaming affirms the necessity of chance in freedom. Two white balls and one red one, cast onto the baize table, manoeuvred into a game of positioning and concealment; the balls are not free, for they are enclosed by the edge of the table, just as the game of freedom is always played within those boundaries, between enclosures. He requires/desires an opponent in order to play. The camera moves into an overhead shot to show the balls being struck and rebounded on the flat plane, but also shows the appearance of a second cue making a play and contesting Corey’s skill; the two white balls, not content to remain on the table, are suddenly converted into two gangsters who have entered the game space. Corey smiles. They are apparatus of the revenge game of the boss Rico having easily found him in the underground semeiotic – a hand is suggestively thrust into a pocket as they demand Rico’s money back. “I lost, anyway.” says Corey, feigning resignation. Through a perfect economy of montage, Corey strikes one man with the cue, parries the other holding the gun who shoots the first, (the object of Carom billiards to strike two balls with one shot,) and the red circle of the bullet-wound appears on the man’s forehead. Corey acquires the gun for himself and creates a new escape from the enclosure of the game, all within seven hard-cuts, seven seconds, 168 frames of celluloid, each cut a concussion against the retina, the virtuosity of the Master Thief. Corey’s game of chance is affirmed within such terse parameters, as is Melville’s – they are inscribed together in montage. Corey disconnects the wire through which the billiard-hall attendant tries to contact the police, disrupts the apparatus of capture, the connection and has created freedom by tempting capture. He passes a sign at the foot of the stairs upon which is inscribed two white balls and one red one; it says - ‘ENTREE LIBRE’ – even though Corey paid to enter, and to exit cost one man his life. The sign has slipped, the rules rewritten. Corey’s freedom, his becoming-animal, consists in what it is within his power to do, what he is able to overcome, which direction he can turn to evade capture, which activity he can engage in to enlarge territory, which trap he can evade, which game he can win and that is the freedom he values. He buys the Plymouth.
Behind the wheel of the car, a line-of-flight is drawn away from the site of crimes he has already committed in his short period of freedom. He stows a gun in the glove compartment, thinks better of it and instead puts it in his pocket. Then he pulls onto the hard shoulder and puts both guns into a bag inside the trunk of the car, a pocket within a pocket; an innocuous detail, but one which later reveals his foreknowledge of the cinematic fate he is engaged in.
The Gendarmerie swarm out of vans in the early morning mists of Burgundy, a gentle crescendo of cymbals and drums accompanies the encircling of the escaped fugitive. An Alsatian is offered the hat of the fugitive-quarry, the scent molecules direct the sensory apparatus of detection, an eye led by the nose. An horizontal line of policemen bisects the screen, closing all windows of opportunity through which the fugitive can extend his freedom further, severing the line-of-flight with an unbroken ring which closes tighter and tighter until it becomes the handcuff again. The sound of the barking dog crosses into the image of the frightened fugitive’s face and his stumbling movements through the dense forest, a fox; building percussion creates a synthetic sense of immediacy, driving the scene toward the inevitable cinematic climax. The scent is detected, the detective points his finger and the stranglehold is closing. The fugitive halts before a stream, a natural diaphanous boundary he must pass, a new horizontal bisection which annuls the one closing behind him through the disruption of the molecular scent-trail of his line-of-flight. He strips down, tosses the clothes across in a bundle, wades naked through the stream, pauses to look back and dismisses the apparatus of capture. The drums roll like a storm which never breaks - a diminuendo and momentary relief. The dogs and police gather at the edge of the stream unwilling to remove their uniforms and cross the boundary. He has worked his way out of another circle of restraint and the trap remains unfulfilled.
Police lay ‘stingers’ across the road, demarcating the remit of the apparatus of capture and closing all lines-of-flight, rude verticals across which the smooth circularity of the tyre cannot pass without interruption, a vicious circle. In the background of the image, behind the capture-activity of the police cordon, a granite monolith announces: NICEPHORE NIEPCE INVENTED PHOTOGRAPHY IN THIS VILLAGE IN 1822. A gravestone for a birth. But this is not a backdrop; the action has converged on this spot as in a rendezvous. The text is drawn into cinematic time-capture at precisely the point that both fugitive and Corey are under peril of arrest; the impression of the engraved words on the block are burned-into the celluloid negative, permeating the entire frame as though capturing the medium at its naissance. The policemen with their roadblock drain into the mode-of-capture and are ensnared by it. Photography itself, the arrest of light and space across time is the subject acquired by Melville’s gaze, the subject in which he is himself exposed and captured; his concerns, his inmost desires, his sinthome arrested and revealed to the eye of the spectator. The camera-eye captures what he chooses to focus on, the subject framed within his sights is in the field of differentiation, within the enclosure of the frame, the enclosure of the billiard table, the enclosure of the cell, the enclosure of the safe into which photographs are deposited. A policeman inspects the trunk of Corey’s car, another safe containing a gun, but does not look closely enough into the details to see what we have been shown previously in the sequence, a device of pure cinematic tension. He is waved on under the presumption of innocence, undifferentiated and unimpeded by the eye of Law.
Mattei flies into the ineffectual circle of the dragnet, tells his subordinates to comb every inch of the region, looking for a flea in a dog’s hair; his window of opportunity is closing with every frame the scene is permitted to extend, aperture and shutter becoming a dialogue between capture and escape. The helicopter circles about, and carries him into a diaphanous white rectangle of sky, into his own fate.
The Plymouth, ambling through a snow-encrusted landscape breaks its course abruptly as it passes a roadside diner, reverses, and pulls in with a scream of tyres. Corey unlocks the boot of the car, (a sound effect indicates this detail,) and then goes inside, his reason for doing so unclear given that he has left two firearms in it. The jazz playing inside the Plymouth seeps into the diner, enveloping the day in noir – a capture is about to take place, but a benevolent one. He looks around, as though waiting for something outside the peripheries of his field of vision. In the driving snow the fugitive is leaving visible tracks behind him, the impression of his line-of-flight obvious now to the eye which again he must interrupt; he makes for the diner. The montage shows Corey in the same sequence but does not show him seeing the fugitive approach. The fugitive tries to open the trunks of each car in the parking lot sequentially, looking for an opening, a dark pocket or burrow-entrance into which he can vanish undercover, another window of opportunity; Corey’s is the only one which is unlocked, and a semicircular camera-pan shows Corey acknowledge the opening of his car trunk through the window. He straightway leaves the diner, his trunk having become a hiding-place, an envelope, a burrow-entrance and safe. They are now coupled, but one is at the mercy of the other.
Mattei is in Paris preparing to face the image of his failure before his superiors, having left too great an aperture for the fugitive to slip through the shutter and out of his sights. Due to his ‘hunter’s instinct’ he explains, he knows the fugitive will evade their trap because ‘for once, the quarry is intelligent’ – our first piece of information about the fugitive. For 38 minutes we have been engaged in his audacious break for freedom, we have cared for him without moralising him, without one shred of information about who he is – which is to say, what he has done. Indeed, Melville does not reveal the nature of the crime this fugitive is accused of on the basis that his guilt is inherent and therefore, irrelevant. Guilt, the subject which is captured here, is an existential condition containing no differential element, an indiscriminate umbrella term which is meaningless because it is universal, a borderless territory or Law in itself. There is a parallel to the predicament of Joseph K. in Kafka’s ‘The Trial’; arrested, yet unable to discover the nature of his crime, his enquiry into the Law and how it functions reveals a self-justified authoritarian regime which accuses the individual for universal, original and oedipal guilt; a guilt which he is born into, of which he himself is a condition. It is an absurd fight in an absurd situation. ‘The Red Circle’ however treats the stage of judgment as something to be evaded at all costs and therefore Melville remains reticent on the details that make judgment possible. Inasmuch as it is a commonplace that an audience desires to judge the protagonist, to acquire evidence for assessment, to know in which position he stands before making a commitment betrays the desire in question; for the desire of the judge is primary and his judgement follows as a function of his desire. Any fight on legal ground, on legal territory, would be absurd - would be too late. By avoiding capture, the capture which precedes the stage of judgement, Melville shifts ground to the field of vision which is the territory of capture, brings the figure of the eye that sees into focus and brings it under scrutiny itself - for everything which the eye of Law sees is captured and incriminated, even its reflected gaze. It is here that the cause of freedom is to be fought; a conceptual shift which constitutes Melville’s striking originality and depth of insight. Evasion of the eye of the Law is the logic pursued, (the logic of the resistance fighter,) which consists in hiding activity from it, deceiving it, running from it, performing a singular, liberating act right under its nose; a process which is a trial in itself – the trial of the Master Thief.
The secondary purpose of this important omission is that Melville is cautious not to say too much – not only in the way that the criminal or the resistance fighter must not say too much – but that, in an art of ‘pure cinema’, there is no space for extraneous explication; within the terse parameters of the director’s vision, ‘filling-in’ the viewer on details which are outside the field of vision damages the very form which differentiates cinema as a unique mode of expression. But the twofold nature of showing and not telling once more asserts the primacy of the eye that sees; by allowing the viewer to make inferences from characters and situations as they unfold, by making the viewer a witness, the viewer himself becomes entangled and enmeshed in the plot, the crime, becomes himself the figure of the eye that sees, becomes himself culpable before the law which judges and must be evaded. The viewer feels himself in anguish during those moments in which the criminal is about to be caught, about to be recognised, about to be seen - and pure cinema exploits this tension by making the viewer immanent to a feeling-criminal. This cinematic device was prefigured by Dostoevsky in his ‘Crime and Punishment’, (and the idea of the ‘Master Thief’ also derives from here, the perfect crime undetectable by Law,) but the effect in cinema is slightly different; the viewer is silently there, with the criminal, not only a witness [engaging in the visual pleasure of the cinema] but an anxious accessory to a crime, afraid for capture - and therefore is himself caught looking –is himself guilty. The viewer-as-judge finds his moral grounds disintegrate into ambiguities beneath his feet and must therefore shift ground in pace with the action, must feel the immediacy of the threat of capture as an animal does, becoming a being-on-the-lookout.
Corey heads toward yet another roadblock; militaristic percussion announces the threat of capture erected specifically for what is hidden in his trunk. What we have seen previously in the montage makes this encounter more intense, more anxious for us, for we know what is in the trunk just as Corey knows, and we empathise with the anguish of the being-revealed of the crime. The policeman outside Corey’s window waves down approaching cars with a queer ‘Heil Hitler’ salute, round tin helmet on his head, nondescript black uniform, time again slipping out of joint in the double-exposition. Having left Marseilles at the beginning of the film, in the ‘Free Zone’ of Nazi-occupied France, the protagonists’ approach to Paris, (which is both a burrow and a nest of vipers,) becomes increasingly fraught and danger-ridden; scrutiny becomes more intense and the subterfuge becomes more strained. After checking his papers the cop demands the trunk, the pocket of noir space, be opened and revealed to the eye – the fact that we know, that we don’t want the fugitive’s cover to be blown makes us confederate, makes us guilty; we too are hiding, both in verb and in adjective, both as fugitive and as Corey. Relief comes when Corey pretends that the keys do not fit the lock and the cop is fortunately distracted by an angry lorry driver who doesn’t want his whole cargo to be searched. Corey is waved-through; “You are free to go, sir.” Even if the viewer considers himself a law-abiding citizen and despises the criminal element, he too is reprieved by Corey’s deception of the cop, through the intensity of pure cinema.
Now the Plymouth is off the road, driving through the middle of a muddy field toward the rendezvous, the ‘recognition scene’ or Anagnorisis. This is where they first sight one another, first reveal the mutual gaze in a field-of-vision excluded from the eye of Law, and this sight is seen only by the camera and the viewer. Vibraphone-jazz continues to emit from the car radio after it is switched off, the sound segues into the orchestral film-score and is reified from the electrical device, a breakdown of cinematic reality, a nouvelle vague device which smears the image in noir tones, foreground and background become undifferentiated, arranged on a single plane. Corey beckons the fugitive out from the trunk; “Come out. The coast is clear.” he does so, gun-first. Corey has no cause to be afraid however; he has acted as a friend to this man whom he has never seen, to this man who had an immediate need to be concealed - a situation he recognised immediately. They are unknown to each other and yet, they are comrades. Grumbach-Melville, soldier-auteur of the underground resistance-gangster couples two distinct worlds by breaking down the signifiers that differentiate them, contriving a superior double-exposure, a time out of joint, for his superseding Anagnorisis; one in which both he and the viewer first sight one another as part of an existential fraternity which dissolves the mark of difference, binding men together despite the Law which divides and rules them, inviting us to join his underground movement, the cinema-screen becoming the field of recognition.
Corey presents himself at the mercy of the fugitive, alone and unarmed, simultaneously revealing to the fugitive that he has been at Corey’s mercy all this time, exposed to his cognisance but concealed in his will to keep silent, within his trunk, his pocket of noir. In his mind the fugitive existed for-himself whilst he was in the trunk just as a man does who believes himself to be alone and unseen. Realising that his existence for-himself was false, that his mode of being was false, that he existed for-another in the trunk, his sense of solitude and his entire mode of being drains into Corey’s field-of-vision, binding them together on an existential plane of fraternity and disarming him in an act of friendship. Corey shows the fugitive his jail-release card, explains all that is necessary in silence, showing without telling. Incredulous, the fugitive asks about the road-block; “And you weren’t afraid?” Corey asks; “What of?” “Me, to start with. And of them finding me in your trunk...” Corey says nothing more, but throws his cigarettes, then his lighter, to the fugitive. Anagnorisis has taken place. Corey’s powerfully fraternal motive has been revealed through a simple gesture and the first, perhaps the only profound emotion of the film is distilled serenely from out of the silence, swelling through the scales of piano keys; the fugitive knits his brow, a vulnerable man, naked, rescued without his knowledge and without his asking, his freedom given to him in a free act. Freedom is the only motive. The camera zooms into their eyes as they exchange this recognition; though coupled within the guilt-bond of the Law which seeks to capture them and remove their freedom, they nonetheless affirm their bond as does the criminal who is equal to his crime, who has no regrets; it is an affirmation in which they answer the call of a different Law governing a different type of Freedom - one that is written and exercised in their will. Through this recognition, in answering this call, they abolish guilt just as easily as if it were a law they could not see, from which they were exempt, simultaneously affirming the persecution and suffering which will shadow their remaining freedom. The camera pans across the field of isolation, detached from the world by everything that ties them together.
Paris, signified by the Pantheon; the camera zooms back and into a window, constructing a psychic location for the subsequent interior, the architecture of montage. A door opens in a dark room, Mattei’s enters. The hunter returns to his lodge and to his familial animals, his three cats, apologises for being away so long - we likewise find ourselves in Melville’s apartment with his three cats, photographs on the desk of a wife we never see but in a photo-frame. As he switches on the light we notice a cut in the film, reminds us that this sequential continuum is constructed from celluloid, an interceding scene which builds spaces within the overall construction of a narrative.
The Plymouth cuts across the frame through a forest road and the camera follows as it disappears toward the horizon. Inasmuch as the camera holds a foreknowledge of the sequence however, it then tracks back to another American car far behind the first one, differentiating it from just any other car on this road; as Corey perceives it in the rear-view mirror, realizes it is there for-him, his being for-himself drains into the mirror engulfing him in the being of his pursuant. Interrupting the line-of-flight of Corey’s car, cutting across it like the billiard-ball in a game of manoeuvring, the car cuts him off and blocks escape to demand the subsequent encounter. The surviving thug from the billiard-hall, the player engaged in the revenge game of the boss commands Corey at gunpoint into the forest for execution. “End of the line, Corey.” At the end of the line-of-flight, snookered between two balls, Corey is presented with no way out; every possible choice will result in the complete loss of the game – which is death. But, at the moment of execution, an advantage is played; a trump card, a hidden hand, slips out of Corey’s pocket and changes the rules of the end-game, granting him an extension of his life, an unasked-for reprieve, a freely-given hand of comradeship. The thugs, incautious because of their advantage, are surprised at the voice behind them that commands them to put their hands up in the air; their mode of being drains suddenly into the gaze that perceives them from advantage, at the recognition of the upper-hand. Corey watches. The fugitive executes both men with the guns that Corey placed meritoriously in the trunk of the car, removes both pieces from the table in such a skilful manoeuvre as to make it appear they have killed one other, framed for the eye of Law. The red circle of the billiard cue is impressed on each of the thugs as bullet-wounds, staining the money which makes it detectable and thus, valueless. The fugitive slips back into the pocket of the trunk and they are away.
The camera is passing under a Parisian bridge from a boat, a tracking shot of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Mattei and the Chief of Police [Paul Amiot] are reporting to their superior, the Inspector General [René Berthier]:
Chief of Police: “Only chance can help now...”
Inspector General: “Chance hasn’t had much luck. Mr Mattei, didn’t you know that a suspect must be considered guilty?”
Mattei: “Not for me, sir. I’ve dealt with so many suspects who were innocent...”
Inspector General: “You’re joking! No one is innocent. All men are guilty. They’re born innocent, but it doesn’t last.”
The Inspector General, who is directly responsible for police procedure within the French Republic, (and consequently for upholding the Constitutional Law which states; "Any man being presumed innocent until he has been declared guilty...") suspends the responsibility of his position in his insight of a profound, existential Law: “No one is innocent. All men are guilty.” By necessity his all-embracing doctrine, the Law of Guilt, circumscribes himself as it does all men alike, abolishing the differential of the individual and installing a forced, absolute perspective; a fatalistic perspective onto humanity – one which makes his own position and authority completely untenable and hypocritical. The principal policeman of the state, the policeman who investigates the police, is a Grand Inquisitor after a style, the ‘Internal Affairs’ which are his department are at once: i) The dynamics of Guilt as a Law of human nature and a policing of that nature, (which receives its transcendental perspective from this very office.) ii) The paradox of the enforcement of transcendental Law by human agency and the continuation of Law regardless of the inherent corruption of terms this entails. iii) The contradiction manifest in this man’s authority, his position, within the Law being a question of no small interest.
We learn the fugitive’s name at last: Vogel. The Inspector General orders that he be found ‘by hook or by crook’, either by baiting him or by extra-legal means, the continuation of Law by other means. This most senior of policemen, who governs from the apex of responsibility in the enforcement of the Law of the State, abuses his mandate to order the capture of a criminal by criminal means? The logic in such a paradoxical assertion follows: the Law of the State is subservient to the Law of Guilt, therefore the guilt of the fugitive is as irrelevant and inherently meaningless as the guilt of the Inspector General; inasmuch as it is being formulated as dogma, the Inspector General’s authority goes without question. The real issue here is the tyranny of the image which is the true meaning of Law. The Law cannot allow the wanted man out of its sight for its entire power lies in its sight. If it allow this breakdown in vision then the image of Law as Law would lose integrity, would cease to conduct the same tyranny; it must make him bow to correction (Zephania, Ch. 3) Such is the position of man when he wraps himself in absolute authority; the upholders of the Law must break the Law in order to uphold it, for policemen are men, and all men are Guilty. The doctrine of the Inspector General can be formulated in the following dogma: Guilt is the Law - the Law is Guilt. The full circumscription of the Red Circle.
The camera makes an X-motion across the desk as the Inspector General asks the Chief of Police for security of Mattei’s success; a threat which creates a compact, an enforced bond that weds them into collaboration with his doctrine, in which they turn from their duty to the State and become agents of the Inspector General instead, circumscribing them together in guilt through their betrayal of the Law. The Inspector General is a man to be feared:
Inspector General: “And don’t forget: all guilty.”
Mattei: “Even policemen?”
Inspector General: “All men, Mr Mattei.”
Mattei is now sniffing around the entrances to the burrow-territories, speaking to his informers, the collaborators in his pocket, people dug-into the underworld that can be touched for information in exchange for his continued blind-eye to their former misdemeanours. They offer remote ears and eyes into the burrow. The informant straddles the boundary between the lawful and unlawful creating a third territory in the field-of-vision of Law, a vantage-point offering greater depth-of-field into the noir of the underground, in which the hunter’s blind-eye is offered to small fish in exchange for helping to bait the big fish and bring them into range. This third territory also constitutes a blind-spot in the Law, for it permits criminals to continue in their courses, permits justice to lapse in order to gain access to the real object of desire. But the network that he must now infiltrate, the web of guilt by means of which he hopes to detect traces of the game he is hunting, is one which enmeshes and envelopes him. The camera peers-in from behind the diaphanous glass screen of a window, seeing without hearing, screening-out the secret conversations which take place in the den - conversations Mattei has come to press his ear to, to find a mouth for his ear. He speaks to a barmaid, an elderly copy of Corey’s ex-moll, the female which fronts the den. Back in the car the camera passes through a dark alley whose sole illumination is a doorway packed-full of brightly-coloured prostitutes, another hideout of the pack dissimulated by a female show at its entrance. The pimp, their master who dangles them before the predatory eyes of the street like worms of a hook is being asked to bait Vogel, but he does not know what sort of prey he is being asked to lure out; “Is the fish you’re after pike or perch?” Mattei replies “Spare me the fishing lesson.” Then the pimp asks Mattei a poignant question:
Pimp: “But tell me one thing...you sure he’s guilty?
Mattei: “I am.”
Mattei’s reply is reluctant, a resignation – as if at that moment he recalls his pact with the Inspector General and answers in his voice; under cover of the mask of the policeman, he becomes a surrogate for the doctrine of Universal Guilt. In his abandonment of the law of the State in favour of the dogma of his superior he captures himself, affirming his own guilt within the superseding doctrine of the Inspector General - the guilt of the hypocrite.
The Plymouth is pulling up at Corey’s place, his cell and dug-out. Surreptitiously knocking on the trunk of the car before going inside, he signifies that the coast is again clear. The apartment is secured by three locks, another ‘safe’ in this network of chambers. Corey goes with a flashlight into his own apartment, an intruder, and without being told Vogel waits outside in the event of a trap, setting a trap himself. The apartment is exactly as Corey left it before being dispatched to prison; the windows are wide open, but everything is caked in cobwebs and dust, affects of creeping time passing through an unoccupied cell, an abandoned burrow. Four framed nudes array his wall to signify his Eros, illuminated by the flashlight, a circle of light punctuating the interior noir. As the image follows the unfolding of his memories inside the room we see a duplicate photograph of the woman who betrayed him, whom he once anticipated would have sat in his nest to prevent decrepit time from settling here, now discarded in the bin, part of the boss’ assemblage and territory.
The photographic image of that woman is suddenly reified from the unwanted photograph by a hard-cut in the montage and reconstituted on an illuminated stage, accompanied by sassy, big-band jazz. Eight identical women, duplicates or hard-copies of that image are performing the stilted sexualised gestures of attraction, a ritual for drawing the gaze, mirror-images of Corey’s ex-moll providing a photographic link or tunnel from one chamber in the burrow to another; the underground nightclub. This show however is not what it seems; it is nothing more than a simulation. This codified feminine image is the clichéd cinematic object of the male gaze, but in here it is just a decoy - nothing more than a noisy, distracting backdrop for drowning-out the conversations taking place at each of the tables in the room, all of which are access-points to activities of the underworld; it is a show which hides the voice - a deconstruction of pure cinema. This simulation produces numerous pockets of noir inside the overexposed chamber, the chamber of full aperture, where underground operatives can show themselves openly whilst simultaneously conducting their shady affairs under cover. This type of room is yet another Melvillian leitmotif. The symbolic woman, Corey’s woman, who is a property of the underworld, a drone, here represents the mark of betrayal. It is here that Mattei will find his traitor-informant, where his ear will find the mouth which decrypts the noir in which Vogel is hidden.
Mattei is greeted at his car by the doorman who performs the function of the meerkat at the mouth of the burrow, who recognises Mattei for the danger he represents instantly. As he walks through the glass-fronted façade, (a transparent opening used to declare that nothing in here is hidden from the eye of Law - but it is a false aperture, a sense-deception,) a quick succession of hard-cuts reveals guilty male gazes looking up from each of the tables in the room, each of the secret pockets of noir, meeting Mattei’s hunter-gaze, acknowledging his arrival in the territory of the den. Everybody in this chamber, this territory, is part of the assemblage of the criminal underworld, and the arrival of a detective is like a fox walking into a chicken-house. The manager appears from behind a curtain-screen, from the back-room chamber which is at a second-remove in the hierarchy of the burrow, the noir pocket which conceals both the seen and the heard. He acknowledges his guests with the affability of a man who provides a special service to these clients, who not only provides a dumb-show to conceal their speech, but also a safe-house, a territory for their social needs; the criminal, like the resistant, is essentially vulnerable – and the safe-house acts as a pocket in which the oppressive gaze of the Law breaks down, in which the threat of arrest relaxes, creating a space in which operations for the acquisition of territory can continue.
Santi [François Périer] the nightclub owner understands Mattei’s presence in the den; it is to make him look like a snitch, a collaborationist and put both his business and his reputation in jeopardy; it is a form of coercion. The reputation of a crook, who is governed by the virtues of honour and loyalty, is a hinge upon which he swings at first this way, then that way, depending upon how he is pushed - but Mattei has only just begun to push. He is looking for an access-point, a crack through which he can see into the deepest and most jealously guarded chambers of the underground; a crack in the code of silence, the noir in which Vogel is hidden. Mattei changes strategy, changes lures:
Santi: “I’ve nothing to say.”
Mattei: “With all these customers?”
Santi: “I don’t know what’s said here and even if I did...”
Mattei: “You wouldn’t tell me. I know. I’m warning you Santi. I hushed up your little affair...for the time being...Even if it’s against your nature, you have to help me.”
Santi is being coaxed into position by his opponent, blackmailed into a ‘no-choice’ situation by Mattei who is using a tactical knowledge of Santi’s guilt to frame him within the tyranny of the image, within the forced perspective of mauvais-foi; ‘I have no choice but to cooperate, I have no choice but to see things this way.’ It is at this point that the logic of extension, the logic of the burrow breaks down; the freedom created for oneself in the hide, in the freedom to act because one is unseen, is inverted into a hiding of one’s freedom from oneself; freedom put into an existential pocket of noir. To break Santi’s cover, to flush him out from his ‘deny all knowledge’ hiding place, Mattei produces a photograph [the mode-of-capture] from his pocket which shows Santi and Vogel together, smiling. The card from the pocket trumps the poker-face; his dissimulation is exposed by the photographic-image. Mattei sarcastically remarks; “He a look-alike?” The look-alike or simulated image coats the characters in Melville’s semeiotic; the dress-code of the detective and the criminal which is exchangeable, undifferentiated; the duplicate females emanating from the photographic print. Mattei furthermore offers to simulate Santi’s arrest; the honour-code, which must be unbroken to remain in the underworld in which trust is set at a premium, (as it must be with a being-on-the-lookout,) can appear intact by feigning his arrest; a scenario which itself is a duplicate of the one in which the prison guard hid his breach by fixing the lock to make it appear intact – thus it is the simulation which maintains the image, another cover under which people may act unseen. Santi can therefore cooperate with Mattei without being suspected of disloyalty to the pack. Santi looks around him with an air of disgust for Mattei, but furtively slips the picture into his pocket. He has put himself inside Mattei’s pocket, into the vault of mauvais-foi.
Mattei hasn’t slept for forty-eight hours, has been in pursuit since the film began and is finally ready to retire for the night. He is not alone in this respect; the Inspector General is also working late in his office, working at the same issue. He holds a document wallet containing his information on Françoise Mattei; it is his own pocket of capture. The process of ‘working through others’ that Mattei is engaged in issues from out of this office; it is the mode through which the Inspector General’s sight penetrates into the extensions of the underworld, through which the tyranny of the image is conducted and which flows down into the underworld, polluting, choking and engulfing the chambers of the burrow, flushing out to the surface its deepest operatives.
Morning. Vogel is looking out over a rain-swept street. Corey is explaining the proposed jewellery heist which they can execute together, but Vogel argues that they will require a third-party for the ‘job’, a marksman, as only a professional will be able to hit the proposed target, the lock, which disables the security system. What they require is expert ‘sight’. Vogel recalls a crack policeman he once knew, one of the best shots on the force who was ‘finally corrupted by his work environment’. A policeman corrupted by the police force. “Between my prison guard and your cop, aren’t we overdoing it?” replies Corey. Although it is an ironic suggestion as Corey implies, the proposal holds a twofold logic of sense; the heist of a Master Thief must be conducted between the two strata of law enforcement which circumscribe the fate of the criminal – between the man who executes criminals [the marksman] and the man who keeps them incarcerated [the prison-guard]. It is this tragic irony which elevates this grand heist to the status of a masterwork, abolishes the definition of the ‘criminal act’, providing the innocent motive both for Melville’s protagonists and for Melville himself. A second element to this ironic formulation is that it is entirely sensible to bookend the project between two men who have been corrupted by the Law and who wish to escape from its pocket; that sort of corruption produces a disloyalty to the Law which may be converted into criminal fidelity – honour – the virtue of the underground.
A curious series of jump-cuts from a car to an isolated house looming over the brink of a hill. A cut to an interior signifies that now we are inside. It is a richly wallpapered room in which Louis Vuitton travelling trunks act as furniture; it is a temporary and mobile cell. A secret door clicks open ominously in the wallpaper, a burrow entrance; a man in bed [Yves Montand] lies awkwardly positioned, bent by a process of torture upon begrimed, sweat-soaked sheets, acknowledges the intrusion into his cell. What his eye sees is a mental image, is not seen by the eye at all and yet, it is shown to the camera by means of privileged insight. Two arachnoid creatures dance an uncanny, horrific dance across the floor towards him, tendrils of creeping paranoia, climbing into the bed of the police marksman, up onto his chest, trying to get inside him from inside him, a paranoiac-burrow. The room is littered with empty spirit bottles. A shuffling snare-drum, discordant notes gradually build. More creatures emerge; a boa-constrictor, monitor lizards, chameleons. The chameleon, the animal that simulates the look of its territory in hiding from the eye of prey and predator, climbs up the blanket and into his bed. Then it is rats. Rats, the swarm-animal, plague-animal, crowd over his belly, multiplying, almost entering into the burrow-opening of his silently screaming mouth. The telephone rings, a connection to the outside shatters this addict’s reverie of insides, froth flies from his mouth as he is shaken from his private horror. He collects himself, moves haggardly across the room, totally at odds with the fine, bourgeois possessions which mark his territory, answers the insistent and rudely ringing object, a bell breaking the internal circuitry of this vile, guilt-infected neurosis. A meeting is arranged with Corey who, without knowing it, has acted as a friend to Jansen simply by calling for him, interrupting his meaningless, destructive interiority. A mother-of-pearl-handled revolver illuminated on blue velvet, a trophy, testament to his great but corrupted skill, a virtuoso of the gun, the samurai. He shuts the secret door of his bad conscience, locks it. He is sick, wrecked by his work for the Law and this ‘job’ may cure him, exonerate him from the sickliness ‘Guilt’ which crowds across, into and through his body, Corey offering him the chance to correct his perception. The [telephone] bell acts as a symbol inside the guilt-complex which calls him to open his eyes and awaken; thereafter he catches his own gaze in the mirror and lights a cigarette. It is in this mirror held up to him that he first catches his own sight, a sight trained to function as a fatal, surrogate eye of the Law which was ultimately corrupted by what the Law made him see. Now he has seen a chance to overcome the tyranny exerted over his sight, the tyranny of the image which he used to enforce; it is a chance offered by Corey both to Vogel in the field and Jansen in his home – the chance to obey a different Law and a different conception of freedom.
Police photographers capture the dead-image of the two assassinated assassins in the forest, arranged compositionally by Vogel to conceal an external hand. The hats, guns and bloodied banknotes signify to the police that they were gangsters, but they do not yet see the entire picture. Plaster-casts taken from the tyre tracks reveal a barely visible trace in the image which indicates that an American car, a Ford, Chevrolet or Plymouth was also at the scene, again signifying the Mob. They are tracks Mattei must trace to his quarry.
The montage, ahead of Mattei, cuts to the car in question, the Plymouth, which ambles into shot like a powerful, lazy beast with Corey at the wheel, arriving at Santi’s nightclub, the place of noir rendezvous. The doorman acknowledges him as a comrade with a salute. Inside, Corey says to the barman; “Anyone asks for me, my name is Corey. I’ll be over there.” This is where interested individuals are brought together, brought into one another’s sight, where illicit activities are discussed - not a place of entertainment. Another show, another series of girls who are now Charleston flappers, a dance of defiance from the backroom speakeasy. Corey looks at his car registration card, or at least shows it to the camera; it just says ‘Corey’ – filmic reality does not require him to have a forename. Footsteps come down the staircase; it is Jansen, the marksman, sober and sharp, his eyes looking for and isolating the single gaze which is there for him. The barman points, differentiates the pocket which he willingly enters and the fatal rendezvous is made. The eye of the camera shows two more men enter the club immediately afterward who also make enquiries of the barmen; Santi appears from behind the screen, the back-room, and we see that the two men are there for him, though we cannot differentiate their conversation from the general noise of the music, the audio screen. The two men escort Santi outside, so we may infer from what we have already seen that they are Mattei’s men feigning his arrest so that he can freely be questioned about Vogel. Mattei has staged this show for Santi’s customers, (for those who are not in-the-know, who have not seen with the privileged insight of the audience,) who now become an audience to another show, an unwitting audience that is captured in its opinion by the spectacle played out for it.
(Note: As the superseding audience, passively watching from behind the fourth-wall of the cinema screen, the cinema our private pocket of voyeurism, might we not do well to observe the operation of that visual conceit in which what is seen exists precisely in order that we may see it? The spectacle which is staged for-us, in which a passive audience itself becomes a screen onto which is projected the tyranny of the image, becomes itself part of the assemblage of visual tyranny; the spectator becomes a collaborator in his own repression, enters into a state of mauvais-foi.)
The police stood not ten feet away from Corey and Jansen who were discussing Vogel - the ultimate object of their enquiries - but the audio-screen was efficacious enough to conceal the words from their ears. “Two whiskeys.” says Corey to the barman, but Jansen refuses; “I never touch it.” The job is a curative for driving-out the poison. Corey takes a double, the double.
Mattei is breaking-down the criminal façade of Santi to find an access-point into his conscience, tapping his interior guilt through a process of interrogation. “Inform your lawyer, even if I can prevent you.” Mattei’s thinly-veiled threat hints that the law can continue by extra-legal means if he chooses to do so, if Santi will not cooperate and play ball. By replying in scorn and defending his position, Santi counterproductively offers an opening for Mattei:
Santi: “You said even if I haven’t an informer’s nature, you’d force me to help you. You’ve got your psychology all wrong. Nothing can change a man’s basic nature.”
Human nature - that is what is at stake here - the question of the grounding quality of human nature. Santi claims to know himself, knows that he will not warp from what he exclaims is his nature; Mattei must however treat this discourse as a façade, the retort little more than Santi’s turn to hit the ball and wait for Mattei’s reply. Mattei holds his finger to a button on his desk, waits for Santi to see him with his finger on the ominous button, and then presses it. Two men come in; “Put him on ice.” Another ‘X’ motion made by the camera recalls the Inspector General’s office again, the pact; it is the Inspector General’s philosophy of human nature which takes possession of Mattei, tendrils that reach out through the enforcer and out into the world at large. The doctrine of universal Guilt will crack Santi’s understanding of himself, will cause him to doubt the honour-code that governs what he calls ‘nature’ and after which will bring him into play as part of the mode-of-capture, the police assemblage. Mattei explains to his officer that Santi’s discourse on ‘man’s basic nature’ is nothing more than ‘the classic opening routine’, an act, an evasion; however, the Inspector General’s discourse on ‘man’s basic nature’ is here being treated as the enforceable Law, a Truth, which places Mattei inside a contradiction, inside of mauvais-foi; for man has no basic nature – the concept of human nature is itself a mask worn in bad-faith, the pocket of existential noir in which man attempts to hide his terrible freedom from himself, a mask which speaks of universal concepts: in this instance, Guilt and Law. In this formulation, Guilt and Law form their own entrance to the burrow, an escape, a freedom from truth.
Corey and Jansen drive to another rendezvous where Vogel jumps into the car. He explains that he is wanted by Mattei – a classmate from Jansen’s schooldays - prior to his corruption and turn for the worst. The circle closes further, though it had always been closing since youth. Corey explains the extent of the underground network necessary to execute the ‘job’ – another man will be required, a ‘fence’, who will make the merchandise saleable and bring it to the black market. This means that the three of them will be bookended between the honours of both the fence and the prison-guard who put them to the job initially. Closing this contact brings with it the maximal risk of exposure however, for in breaking-the-surface, by perpetrating a spectacular heist that will draw all gazes to them, by giving vent to their insufferable freedom in this way, they also create a new trail detectable to Mattei who is already poised to strike at various openings to the underground.
Jansen is nominated to make a reconnaissance mission at Place Vendôme, watched-over by the imperious phallus-spectre of Napoleon-as-Trajan, the only site suitable for such a bold endeavour in freedom. The camera follows the name placards all the way up to the penthouse, but he is going to the Mauboussin jewellers. Jansen strolls into the building, as though it were natural for him, a building equipped with a very special type of security - it prevents entry due to its exclusiveness. What is signified by this merchandise is a hierarchy of wealth accessible only to the petit-bourgeoisie. This is the impenetrable chamber these men plan to break-into, their freedom taking them to forbidden territories; legal, social and philosophical territories. Melville was a carrier of diamonds as a teenager; he would run them, hidden, between the family jewellers and their buyers, but during his deliveries he would always stop and sit in the cinema for hours at a time, unsurprisingly losing the job very quickly. The very first film he ever watched was called ‘The Red Circle’, a 1915 serial drama, (now lost,) about a woman with a birthmark on her hand in the figure of a red circle. It is a mark which becomes inflamed and causes her to steal under compulsion; theft becomes her nature. The plot may or may not be linked to Conan Doyle’s ‘The Scarlet Circle’, a story of the Neapolitan underworld, the eponymous title signifying the name of a secret organisation of criminals. The figure, the mark of differentiation, is not a novel one, though in its current form makes a far deeper excavation than its predecessors.
Jansen’s hand trembles momentarily before touching the door handle, (a significant detail,) and he opens it. Another room, another vault, another safe-house. Jansen has been chosen for his great sophistication in order to blend in with the clientele, using their appearance and their behaviour to camouflage his intent and move freely in this territory. His glances are not guided by the desires of the other customers; at no point does he look at the jewels shown to him. There is now a single object for his gaze, fragmented and cast into the corners of this room; it is the gaze of the electronic-eye, the mode-of-capture, the security system. It is at once the eye of Law and the eye of the camera. Like a wolf, he squares-up to the unblinking gaze, unyielding and overcoming. Man-woman pairings sit like facets around glass cabinets, the female gaze fixed onto the glittering apparatus of their own repression; the bracelet is a handcuff, the necklace a collar, the ring a contract and a leash. Jansen holds a sapphire bracelet up to the light, looks beyond it and into the electronic eye in the corner of the ceiling; it is the eye in the centre of the cell-door, the reflected gaze he fears. He holds up a ruby bracelet but inspects the electronic cabinets, the guarded cell-doors. Now he perceives the very epicentre of his desire and overcoming, the wall-key, the tiny eye he must hit with his virtuosic shooting, through his ‘sight’, the symbolic target of his self-overcoming. As he examines further items of jewellery, the camera-eye, by adjusting the depth-of-field, pushes the jewels out of focus and brings the circuitry of the safe-cabinets into focus. The object of the Master Thief’s attention is never material but is rather obtained through material; it is not an ‘object’ at all, rather a full subjectivity.
Jansen the hunter is in the woods, rehearsing with his instrument, the voice of his spirit, selecting the correct instrument for the job. Meanwhile, Corey is in the desolate suburbs at the fences’ house. Another safe hidden behind a screen, a gun, a Great Dane; it is Melville’s studio-house with its vertiginous spiral staircase in the centre, Corey looks up through the circular, diaphanous opening. A dissatisfactory deal is struck.
Mauboussin is securing his jewels for the night, for the possession of these valuables entails the possibility of them being stolen. Mauboussin hold all his security in these items like barks upon the Rialto; it is a double-image – Mauboussin is not free from these objects, he has become their keeper, he watches for them, he serves them. He is neither free, nor does he value freedom. He is a collaborationist. This shop is another cell, a honey-trap or pitcher-plant, another mode-of-capture; the fetish of the exclusive material item, the most valuable material item, baits this trap and begs the criminal to join its assemblage in capture. There is even a guard at the entrance to this [currently] uninhabited prison to bring the double-exposure home, though this time it is the wall-key which replaces the guard’s eye at the peephole, the gaze, the Law. There’s an expression; ‘Possession is nine-tenths of the law.’ That is what this room represents for the Master Thief; a bold challenge to possession, possession of his person, (and by means of this, a challenge to the Law itself.) A chime is sounded as each of the lights in the room is switched off - now the mousetrap has been set - and at the final chime, we cut to Jansen lighting a cigarette, the burning embers of a red circle; it is time to chance freedom. Jansen makes bullets, becomes metallurgist-alchemist. Corey and Vogel put on uniforms and sneakers, become ‘night-workers’. We are not shown much of the exasperating details which constitute the preparation for the heist, preparations which must have indeed been lengthy and meticulous, but we shall appreciate these details when they are shown in the technical veracity of the montage. It is only then that we shall perceive Melville’s conception of the heist, perfect to each detail, thought-through with the same seriousness as that of the characters who are going to perform it for him. A real heist would require the same preparation as this scene. As Master Thief, the heist-scene is Melville’s topmost consideration, and it should be necessary to ask from now onwards; what is it he is trying to get away with?
Rico gripes to his brother (the prison-guard) about his losses at Corey’s hands. The guilt of the brother is written shamefully across his face, betraying to Rico that it was he who sold Rico out to Corey in order to gain his own freedom from the prison. The bond between brothers, the natural fraternal bond, is weaker in Melville’s conception than the bond between fellow criminals/resistants, and constitutes another reformulation of ‘human nature’. If not, then the guard would surely have tipped-off his own brother that Corey was coming out so that he could get prepared. Having found the nail [guilt] upon which his brother’s loyalty swings, Rico can now draw the information out of him, as Mattei is doing to Santi in a more protracted style, mobilising the revenge-cycle machine into its relentless action again, drawing its subjects toward the tragic conclusion.
Corey and Vogel move towards their stage, the heist-scene. Vogel strokes the breast of Venus, a statue, a material, concrete female, a petit-bourgeois possession. This scene can only logically be articulated without dialogue, an extreme form of pure cinema which approximates silent film or dumb-show, played out before the security-camera eyes, in front of our eyes. For twenty-five minutes the film montage creates a semblance of real-time, both to heighten the tension of the scene so that the audience may ‘be-there’ with the criminals, (i.e. incriminated in the act,) and to concentrate the focus of the camera-eye onto each detail in Melville’s conception of the heist. The audience will experience the event from the viewpoint of the criminals, (inasmuch as a sense of being-there is created, being-involved in the act, being-criminal and hoping for success,) but at the same time separated from the action and rendered impotent by the spectacle, and thus forming part of the circuit of the mode-of-capture, (the photograph, the spectacle, the ‘arrest of action’.) The audience is therefore awkwardly positioned in this situation in terms of perception, being at once incriminated by seeing and incriminating what is seen. In a sense, Melville has trapped the ‘seeing spectator’ on an oscillating scale of involvement, bringing them into play on his curious billiard table. The attentive viewer will recognise how he is being positioned by the director and will take an active role in the game, refuse to be positioned passively, will choose involvement over spectacle, a question posed silently to a would-be ‘resistant’ in occupied France. An inattentive viewer will continue to be positioned, having never recognised that a game was in progress, will therefore become the passive accessory of capture, the indecisive spectator who, through his indecision, becomes the ‘collaborationist’.
Up the spiral staircase into darkness, vertiginous motions, circumnavigating the authorized territories of an obedient and toothless desire, through corridors, down light-wells, over roof tops, silhouettes, silhouettes. Jansen is feeling alive; he exists to operate within confines, within a forward-facing predatory ‘sight’ in narrow-focus, in the absolute minimal space for error, hesitation or doubt. He affirms life by selecting his virtue, his liberty hanging on a single ‘shot’, a squeeze of a trigger, everything he values in freedom cast in a single dicethrow. The value of the jewels is affirmed by the degree of security which envelops them, and it is a security created precisely for the Master Thief. It only beckons to him, dissuading all pretenders and common thieves; this ‘security’ is a type of assertion, a gloat, which the Master Thief cannot tolerate or resist, his virtue impels him to overwhelm it. The montage now mirrors the precision of the job in progress, spreading into the camera-work, the storyboard; the timing of each movement between the camera, the actors and the crew are now a rendezvous with success, and this alone constitutes a heist in itself. What is it the Master Thief is trying to get away with? Overstepping the artificial boundaries of liberty, (the liberty of the state, the liberty of the dominant morality or value-system,) mastering the perfection of their own movements even, tempting the trap, feeding on bait, on seduction, Eros. Abseiling down a shaft, down into the pitcher-plant, detecting the tiniest flaw in the building’s security, the Achilles heel; each entry they make constitutes a new avenue of freedom, yet each movement has been constrained down to the minutest possible degree, pitched at the same degree of peril as the fly walking across the sweet surface of the Venus flytrap. They remove a circle from the diaphanous pane of a bolted window, and they are in. An eye appears through a rude slit in a silken vizard, our central symbol; it was an eye in a cell door, it was a peephole in a private apartment, it is the wall-key and now it is in a mask, a portable peep-hole for a burglar, an undifferentiated façade, constituting a reversal of security to provide access to the ultimate vault. The guard, who has possibly been waiting for his entire career for this very moment, waiting in anguish, never knowing the time of its arrival, is suddenly eliminated, surgically removed from the game by the concussion of two jarring hard-cuts in the montage, the pure economy of cinematic violence; never excessive, never brutal or overexposed to the retina, but swift, artful and virtuosic, performed again within seven seconds, 168 frames of celluloid. The guard is incapacitated, merely another impediment to their success like a window or a door, and removed with the same absence of malice. It is performed as it was in Melville’s imagination, played in a masque before the camera-eye.
The montage between inside and outside the vault begins to tighten as the rendezvous approaches. As Jansen enters the building he introduces circuit-breakers to the doors to prevent them from locking, interrupting the unbroken ring of security to ensure unimpeded egress from the stage, for their line-of-flight. The guitar-case he carries is at once both code and cover for the real instrument of his virtuosity – the rifle. Dressed in evening-wear, the virtuoso walks toward the eyes before which he will perform his seminal work, the camera-eye as both mode-of-capture and audience, the wall-key as a minuscule and distant avenue of freedom; to strike it will send the electronic eyes to sleep, deterritorializing the flawless, impregnable vault of Mauboussin’s territory and rights of ownership, turning it into a picnic. At the appointed time he arrives at the vault-door, opened from within by Corey and Vogel. The guitar-case opens to reveal a tripod, the instrument for steadying sight both for cameraman and sniper, producing a new fusion-term in our camera-eye formulation; the camera-gun-eye. As Virilio states in ‘Desert Screen: “The function of the weapon is first of all the function of the eye: sighting. Before attaining his target, a hunter or a warrior must always take aim, to align his target between the eyepiece and the sight of his weapon, exactly as a cameraman frames the subject that he is about to shoot.” He prepares to make the shot at the wall-key, the eye in the centre of the image-screen, the reflected gaze of his conscience in the mirror, the peep-hole of the Law which he has come to deceive and overcome. Suddenly, as if wrenched by some uncontainable impulse, Jansen removes the rifle from the tripod and aims freely, completely trusting his mastery over the filaments of his nerves, tendons and muscles, requiring no props to make his hunter’s gaze true. The other two men look at each other in angst. Jansen chooses the handheld shot over the static shot, both for the gun and for the camera, exponentially decreasing the probability of success and increasing the probability of capture. This is not about stealing jewellery. What is it the Master Thief is trying to get away with? He takes aim. He shoots true. All the eyes have been deceived, all the codes and locks fall away; he has unlocked his own secret, his desire, his powers of action, every avenue of desire opened with a single cast of the dice, but a dice biased by massive disfavour. As Corey and Vogel lift the jewels, the secondary object of the heist, the object through which they attain their desire, (which is the act itself - a deed rewarded by doing it,) Jansen sniffs the whisky in his hip-flask, satisfied only with the vapour lifting from the opening in which his addiction has dissolved. Mauboussin, the dealer in apparatus of petit-bourgeois repression, handcuffs of the super-rich, their bondage equipment, is rendered powerless to defend his matériel; his wares are taken gratis, traded against the value of virtuosity and chance. Jansen’s masked eye looks into the wall-key, the eye, the gaze. By looking directly into it, without flinching or doubting, he has revealed the maximum potential of power to which he has access and tapped the kernel of his pleasure, a man who may without hesitation fully respect himself. Jansen leaves to collect the car. The single illuminated window he passes is filled with bewigged busts of women, the mortified female figure that punctuates this film through subtle details. The guard manages to raise the alarm, a green light becomes a red circle, the symbolic bell rings within the empty cell, but too late, for they are away. The tension of twenty-five wordless minutes is finally at an end.
Though the stage for this grand heist has been left empty, as viewers we are not yet finished with it. The scene is being repeated on a television set from the viewpoint of the camera-security eyes; a dumb-show in black and white, a silent film, the surrogate gaze of Law which permits Mattei to see through its eyes in order to extend the efficacy of the trap. Mattei is however rendered little more than a passive spectator, for due to the masks and the absence of dialogue, he is unable to see precisely the detail he requires, the differentiation; it has instead become a show put on by the Master Thief, another gloat to top the pretensions of security. This spectacle has become bait for another type of animal – Mattei the sniffer-dog, the hunter, who likewise is unable to tolerate this bold taunt against his potency and is unable to resist this bait, and who will enter into this theatrical spectacle himself in order to capture his quarry. “They’re not much for talk.” says he. All show and no tell - principle of the resistance of pure-cinema, the reticence of pure cinema; idle talk is dangerous in both a criminal underworld and an underground resistance. Only a cretin or traitor talks. The headline reads:
SENSATIONAL PLACE VENDôME HEIST
Daring burglars make off with 20 million in jewels
A circle marks the spot of the heist on a photograph, the Red Circle of differentiation, Melville’s virgin cinema experience, the compulsive theft. The Parisian press revels in the daring of the coup no less than if it were a national triumph. But, constructed from a cut-up newspaper, a deconstruction of the same text, encrypted with the newsprint to secure anonymity, Mattei has received a message:
THE BURGLARS’ NAMES IN THE NEXT LETTER
This is the same anonymous letter a Nazi captain receives which discloses a resistance fighter, one of the most fearful texts which can be produced, a sentence and a proscription. Time is again out of joint – our thieves are becoming freedom fighters; superimposition, the cinematic art, deconstructed into a duality of timeframes, intermingling. ‘The Red Circle’ is now synchronous to ‘Army in the Shadows’, completing the ambiguous double-reference which locates Melville’s mature portrayal of freedom. This conception ‘freedom’ is never ‘Freedom’ in the sense of an absolute or abstract natural right as written in the laws of religion or state; it is instead ‘freedom to do x, y, z’, freedom to gain this way, freedom to run this way, freedom to die this way. Freedom is a power of action, a quality of action, something created by men even in their very final choices, formed within the mutable struggles for dominion and the relationships created by them, utterly without ressentiment; it is a freedom of necessity, chance, choice - at once fatal, tragic and affirmative.
Corey’s fence will not take the goods, they are too hot. He inspects them nonetheless with his monocular magnifying lens, his ‘sight’. Without a word, Corey departs, understanding the fence’s coded message; someone has been ‘having words’ with him, and the all important solidarity of thieves has been interrupted. Rico emerges from the back room; the revenge circuit has interrupted the loyalty circuit, a partial and unrecognised collaboration between an opponent and the Law which is manoeuvring our protagonists into an endgame. “I won’t forget this.” says Rico. “Corey won’t forget this, either.” says the fence. “He won’t have the time to remember.” says Rico. The circle of freedom is about to be enclosed completely, to the nil point. Another fence must be found quickly, and Santi’s name is suggested, having ‘never been seen to make a false move’, although we have seen that his loyalty circuit is being worked on, is in the process of being corrupted by the Law, by Mattei and the doctrine of universal Guilt. Jansen is at Santi’s place, making arrangements for the new fence via telephone. Now a confusing image appears on the other end of the line: it is a richly furnished room, with all the right signifiers crammed into a single wrong frame – a roaring fire, a billiard table with one white ball, one red, a statue of a dog, a statue of a child, a bizarre and unnatural-looking man wrapped in a camel coat, jewellery, dark glasses, hat – too many signifiers of the gangster, too unnatural. It is the new fence, Santi’s contact. But it is another stage, filled with props. For the moment, the fence is genuine, but the man inside the outfit is reassignable.
A group of students, the first young people we have seen; they are being arrested and put in the back of a car, suspects, freedom under arrest, all under Mattei’s eyes – he is laying a trap, a coup of his own, staging a scene in which the conscience of a man can be trapped. One of the boys is taking a grilling, accused of drug-dealing; he emphatically denies the charges, but then his gaze drops to the ground and he swallows. He is the image of the father, of familial guilt. The father is being brought in to shame him and be ashamed of him, a fundamental dynamic of Law; but the boy’s guilt is merely an access-point to the father’s guilt, a way of guiding the sniffer-dog Mattei to the Achilles heel in the father’s loyalty circuit. Mattei is trying to break in. It is Santi’s son, accused of a crime he has not committed. Mattei theatrically stages a meeting by ‘accidentally’ bumping into Santi in the corridor whilst reading a book, and Santi explains the situation. Mattei offers to ‘help’, but in such a way as to let Santi know how he is being manoeuvred into play by extra-legal means. Santi cottons-on to the trap; “Cut the playacting.” But then a sudden and unexpected interruption occurs, something urgent and unlooked-for; the boy has attempted suicide. The officer in charge explains that he tried to scare him a little, not aware of Mattei’s real intention with the boy; “This was all done for the father. Why go overboard?” Urgently walking past a series of black, numbered doors, compartments containing scenes of their own and yet, empty, Mattei catches hold of himself, slows down and considers what to do. Santi has been informed, and it will simplify matters. “I dream up this charade, and it turns out to be true. These kids...” Then the words of the Inspector General come into Mattei’s recollection like a prophecy; “They’re born innocent, but it doesn’t last.” Mattei invented the guilt of the boy, but all men being guilty, it naturally turned out to be true. All men are guilty. The Inspector General’s doctrine of human nature rings with tragic profundity. Santi’s defences have now been shaken sufficiently for Mattei to strike a deal; his loyalty to the Mob, his fraternity, has been subordinated to the suffocating paternal-oedipal Guilt. “Your boy’s in over his head. Only you can help him now.” He has become a collaborationist.
A trophy placard, grand prix, a film festival award for a police marksman. Jansen is describing to Corey the technical details of his shot with the accuracy of a photographer – the trajectory, the feet per second, the alchemy of the bullet, how it moulded against the wall key. The trophy gun is set directly between the gazes of Jansen and Corey; it is the figure of Jansen’s perception, through sights, into the eye of the Law, the photographer-sniper. Jansen explains that he studied ballistics with Merchand in his youth, the man who is now Chief Inspector of Internal Affairs – the Inspector General, head of “the police who investigate the police”, the alchemist who knows the composition of men and how they are moulded. “All men, Mr Mattei”. Jansen’s shot into the eye of the Inspector General does not eradicate the Law of Guilt but instead offers noble resistance, realises a power of action and affirms chance and fate together by making the choice – qualities of the tragic hero acting within the ring of fate which is closed precisely at the moment it is affirmed. Jansen does not want his cut of the money; he explains, somewhat mysteriously, that Corey offered him the chance to lock the beasts away. Acquiring the money was never his motive, (and we might ask if this was therefore criminal intent,) but instead, Jansen has acted as an artist with an inexplicable desire to realise a power of action and follow it all the way to its conclusion, even if it brings with it the bloody constraint of his person; by doing so he has achieved a tragic quality and a noble stature – he has overpowered the corruption of Law and mastered his bad conscience. He has regained innocence. Regained it through the criminal act sans guilt. He has looked through his sights into the gaze of Law which masters human nature, which produces it even; he has shot the arrow of his desire into that eye, made it blind, and stolen his freedom from it. If Merchand believes that men are born innocent, but it doesn’t last, Jansen knows that it doesn’t last because of Law – that Law exists to make men guilty, and through his in-sight has taken his innocence back with his own hands, has taken his rightful possession. He walks across the room to the secret door [of his bad conscience], opens it; it is black, and a door opens inside it, a man is coming in. It is Mattei’s apartment. Repetition. Melville has disguised the cut by an all-enveloping darkness, permitting Mattei to walk into the dark room of bad conscience in which he operates, wherein he searches about for a man’s guilt in order to break him, deceive him into conforming to the will to power flowing through the Inspector General. If Jansen had vermin then Mattei has cats; he is a cat to catch the mouse of conscience. There are cat pictures on the walls. Mattei is now our mystery, for his guilt is yet to be revealed and he may yet capture himself.
Darkness. A circle of light in the centre of the screen illuminates three African drummers beating out a driving rhythm, (recall the statue at the end of ‘Le Doulos’,) another stage show is opening at Santi’s place. The multiple women on the centre-stage have become African women performing a mock-tribal dance, (recall the mysterious woman in ‘Le Samourai’ – Melville’s symbolism is now constellating across films, across time-zones, at the exact point of intensity in the tragic conclusion.) The dance is a stylised feminine, but is out of joint with the surroundings, primal and Dionysian, a Bacchanal, festive interlude in the tragedy. A circular clock on the wall, Corey checks his own timepiece; he is waiting for his rendezvous with the fence, with the conclusion. A mortified, vapid female, a hostess, offers him a red rose, (a code for the rendezvous, the blind-date,) but more than that – she offers him a glance from the interior, her internal affairs. He requites a thin smile, acknowledging the finality of the gesture, and as the camera draws back, she has disappeared. An apparition. In her stead, an arm appears to light his cigarette – camel coat, jewellery, a mask of symbols, a play; “Did Santi fill you in?” “Yes. On everything.” It can only be Mattei who has put on the coat of the fence, speaking the truth from behind the mask, for Santi did fill him in on everything. It is a simulation; Mattei is becoming-criminal in a Bacchanal of mask-wearing, entering the stage of the Master Thief to capture him on his own territory. Mattei is becoming Master Thief; by deceiving the trusting eye of the noble criminal he too wishes to take the jewels as they did from Mauboussin and thus access and fulfil his own powers of action. A meeting is arranged in Louveciennes, a rich, palatial suburb west of Paris. He draws a map for Corey, the drums pound out the frenzied tempo of inevitability. The red circle of the cigarette burns its light into the centre of the negative and into the retina.
Corey explains the deal to Vogel as they pack the jewels into a leather bag. Vogel wants to come with him to meet the fence, but Corey protests that it would be a needless risk to expose himself now. He explains that Jansen is not worried about the consequences, does not want his cut and will not be clearing out with them; “To each his own.” replies Vogel. Corey makes to leave, his departing words are; “We’ve seen worse.” He opens the door, looks back, hesitates, and closes it behind him. The camera however does not follow – it is unwilling to leave Vogel here alone; its gaze lingers like a pair of eyes weighted with expectation as if that look or that expectation alone were enough to oblige a man into action. The montage cuts back and forth between Corey going down in the compartment of the elevator and Vogel in the room, examining his course of action; we see that he is holding the red rose now, left to him by Corey, signifier of the rendezvous, the bond of comradeship. If this is the end, the full closure and seal of the circle, it would be base not to go and meet it with both arms open. It is the ultimate rendezvous, the last chance to affirm his way of living.
The screen ‘wipes’ in transition to the car window wipers, left-right, left-right; at once a soldierly figure and a metaphor once used to describe Melville’s oscillating and ambiguous alignment in the political spectrum - a position for which he attracted much scorn in post-war France. Melville perceives factions in conflict as forming a total human fraternity, in a sense morally undifferentiated. Men are caught in an interconnecting web in which one never moves independently of the other, a seismographic web that registers actions across each of its surfaces, recording movements - temporal lines of connected action which create an overall tension in suspense, linked together inextricably. Within this web resides the individual faced with his free-will, his actions, interactions and the sequence of repercussions that issue out of them. He may either avoid this sequence by hiding his free choice from himself, or he can willingly enter into the fatal mechanics of tragedy. In a sense, the sequence of this film is just this; and as his audience we are not simply ‘held’ in suspense but are drawn into the destruction of his characters, in schadenfreude and morose delectation. The eye is a witness, not only to a crime, but to its own act of perception, of seeing-as-capture, that now takes pleasure in the downfall of others. This is a tragic form of enjoyment, of amor fati, the joy of destruction. Corey tells Jansen to wait in the safe enclosure of the car while he meets the fence, just as he told Vogel to wait in the safe enclosure of the apartment; with prudence he takes the risk alone. But his comrades will not be base.
Corey approaches the giant gates of the chateau, the grand style which forms the stage of the final scene. As he enters, Mattei winds down the staircase and waves him into the next room, his mousetrap. The shadow of a tripod is cast over the door he passes through which Corey recognises from the billiard hall and again touches it affectionately as he passes, manoeuvred into another game of odds. It is a last premonition of his fate as a character, as an agent of Melville’s internal drama, staged and framed for capture by the camera eye for the pleasure of an audience. Corey shows Mattei the merchandise, who whistles as he lifts his dark glasses to gaze into Corey’s eyes, standing as he is in full exposure to the Law. Suddenly, a window-pane shatters Mattei’s theatrical scene - it is Vogel with a gun – he commands Corey to take the bag and run, there is still time to run. Vogel and Mattei are seeing each other again for the first time since he smashed the train window, the diaphanous screen of escape. Mattei asks Vogel why he did not tell Corey who he was; Vogel explains that if he did, Corey ‘would not have left’ - he would have killed Mattei. Vogel has saved Mattei’s life by not talking; Mattei has been saved by the criminal code of silence, the code of pure cinema. Who is the criminal – who guilty? Vogel and Corey run across the lawn, but policemen emerge out of the dark space from all sides, shooting; Vogel falls. He is dead and can run no further. Jansen aims at Mattei, but Mattei shoots him. “You!” [Recognising his school friend] “So...stupid as ever on the force, eh?” he replies. Jansen dies, fulfilled, innocent, but at the expense of Mattei’s innocence. Corey is alone, running, and...shot down. Each man has the fatal red circle of the bullet-wound inscribed upon him. Each man caught in the final arrest of their powers of action, having lived at all in order to take liberty where it was not given. All have been murdered by the police over some jewellery. Who criminal? Only Mattei is left, his own guilt fatally inscribed in the deaths of these three men. He walks into a floodlight, remembers his disguise and removes the jewellery from his hands, his costume, in disgust at it. The Inspector General appears out of the darkness:
“All men, Mr Mattei.”
Mattei nods his head; as witness to the proof, the photographic capture of the Inspector General’s doctrine, he has affirmed his own guilt. Whatever Law made this situation a necessity, whatever unjust Law created a perspective in which all men are guilty, all men apprehended, whatever Law created the guilt for which these men were sacrificed, transcends men and they perish beneath its suffocating ideal. It is an enemy which these men have fought – an idea. The idea is the vault which conceals from them their rightful property and they must hazard everything in order to take it back – that is the philosophy of the Master Thief. Now the audience appears who were silent this whole while – a massive force of gendarmerie, vans, cars, the dragnet - all the agents of the Law are spectators of this downfall, all waiting in the wings of the theatre until the curtains have been drawn, substitutes for us. Mattei is walking through the darkness, walking away from the stage he has acted on for our pleasure. We cannot know what he is thinking, for he is all the muteness of a character with no more lines to speak. He has no more audience for whom to be. His fate ends now, at the terminus of the film, as the spool is about to be emptied. There is no more film left to run. The theatre empties because the spool is empty; the theatre, illuminated by the projector-eye, is the final cell which breaks the fourth-wall of the film, producing the simulacrum.