Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about one shot from Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le cercle rouge (1970). The first thing I must confess about this shot is that I had never really seen it before – at least, not properly. It belongs to this scene happening 35 minutes into the film.
The scene is the culmination of a particular idea: using intercutting to bridge the gap between Corey (Alain Delon) and Vogel (Gian Maria Volontè) – two characters that have never met, but whose destinies are, thanks to a magnetic parallel montage, intertwined from the very beginning. At this point, the distance between the two characters has been effectively abolished: not just suggestively but also physically. For the first time, Corey and Vogel share the same shot. The last shot of the scene. The shot I happened to miss.
Let’s put aside, for a moment, all the knowledge that comes from foreshadowing and retrospection (in a later scene, for instance, Corey confesses to Vogel that he saw him hiding in the car’s boot). And let’s concentrate solely on this shot. Once you’ve seen it, it seems impossible to have missed it. Melville’s choices appear to be unmistakably designed to pinpoint, precisely, the action going on in the background: first, Corey’s fast glance through the window; second, the camera movement that opens up the space outside the restaurant; third, the loud noise of the car’s boot closing. How, then, could I have missed all that? Well, maybe I didn’t …
In this shot, what matters is the choreography that Melville engineers to put the different layers of the image into relation. In the previous shot, we’ve already seen Vogel opening Corey’s car in order to enter it. So, what is at stake here is not so much our direct apprehension of the action happening in the background, but whether we grasp Corey’s awareness of it. In this sense, the most crucial gesture is Corey’s brief glimpse across the window. This glimpse may seem unequivocal, but it is so only if we notice the car’s open boot. If we assume, as I did, that Vogel is already locked inside the car, it’s less likely that we notice the open boot. And if we don’t notice the open boot, Corey’s glimpse, by itself, will tell us nothing.
Alain Delon’s performance deserves special mention here. His much commented underplaying is key to Melville’s cinema, but not just for the restraint and inexpressiveness it brings to the characters, but for how it supplies a very limited set of gestures (such as opening a door or throwing a fast glance) that are played again and again, with the same cadence and de-dramatisation, under very different circumstances. Early on in the scene, Corey walks into the restaurant, chooses carefully the best spot to sit, and gives a quick look to his vehicle. It’s the same dispassionate, mechanical, checking glance that he performs in this last shot. Inconclusive and misleading, this glance is a sign that increases the span of possible significations associated with it, to the point of becoming devoid of any clear meaning.
Then, there’s the camera movement. It’s a beautiful track and pan, lasting about five seconds, that makes the most of its brief motion. It advances laterally, tracing a line in front of Corey’s body, while panning intermittently and more widely at the end, opening up the space at the other side of the window. It’s an elegant but unostentatious reveal – that is, of course, if you happen to see what is revealed. If you don’t see the reveal, you may experience this camera movement differently: as one that relishes in Delon’s performance, while preparing us for his subsequent standing and exiting from the frame. The magnetism between the camera and Delon is such that it can obliterate anything else, throwing us into the contemplation of his concentrated attitude as he savours his coffee and holds the cup suspended in the air.
Finally, there’s the sound made by the car’s boot when Vogel closes it. A sound that is quite prominent in volume, only a bit below the music and noise coming from inside the restaurant where the camera is located. The fact that this sound is unrealistically enhanced contributes to making it noticeable – but also obfuscates its point of origin. If we haven’t noticed the action in the background, we can easily assume that the sound comes from somewhere inside the restaurant. Only if we’ve seen the open boot does the sound ring out meaningfully. Detached from its visual counterpart, this sound is as inconclusive as Corey’s glance.
I’ve watched Le cercle rouge many times, but it was only recently, while I was working on an audiovisual essay with Adrian Martin, that I re-discovered this shot. Of course, it’s not that I had missed the shot altogether (I’m not that bad!), but I had never noticed the action in the background. To miss what happens in the background, however, is also to misunderstand (at least partially) what goes on in the foreground. Our grasp of this shot depends on us following the relation between the string of choices made by Melville: it’s the whole interplay that counts.
This interplay is structured in successive stages, each one marked by a delay in relation to the next. When Corey looks across the window, the camera has already begun moving, but the architecture and décor of the place (first) and Delon’s own body (later) block our vision. Only when the camera movement reaches its final stage, does the open boot become visible for barely one second; at this point, however, Corey’s attention has shifted, drawing our own attention toward his body. Then, we hear the sound of the boot but, by then, this boot is already closed – there’s nothing for us to see in the background anymore.
The three choices discussed here present breaks, deferrals, mismatches: between signal and designation, between movement and stasis, between an opening up and a shutting in, between seeing and hearing. The suture that connects them, threading the action’s progress, linking the different planes of the image, is also a gap that blurs their correlation. The very act of emphasising, of pointing out, conspires against itself, carrying within itself the gesture of hiding and masking.
My fascination with this shot very much summarises my fascination with Melville’s cinema as a whole. What keeps marvelling me about these films is that, even after you’ve disclosed their twists, secrets and withholdings, you can still feel the vibration of the different tensions at work – you can still sense these tensions colliding and collapsing into each other. For me, this shot embodies the uncertainty, ambiguity and unbalance that lurk in Melville’s cinema. This is not the same as saying that my adventures in missing, misunderstanding and noticing – my attempt at reconstructing backwards my experience of this shot – reflects, in any way, Melville’s own, pre-planned intentions. But I think it does reflect certain effects that his cinema produces, makes palpable and keeps very alive.