Today I want to talk about the act of looking in film. Looking is perhaps the simplest activity one can do. You just open your eyes, and that’s it – you’re looking. When we see a movie we look at the screen, we look at the characters, we look at the story unfold.
One thing about looking in film is that we often confuse the act of looking with the act of witnessing something. A lot of movies nowadays feel extremely distant, and not because of their plots or the narrative they use, but because they aim to tell a story without needing the participation of the viewer. Witnessing a movie means trying to figure out what’s going on. Usually when people get into an argument on screen we feel detached from their reality. We feel like a bunch of intruders walking into the lives of those strange people. We’re clearly unwanted.
Then there is looking, and looking, if done right, can be the epitome of a true cinematic experience. When we look at a film, at a story, at a moving frame, we’re not viewers anymore. We’re more than that. We’re participants. That is why today I chose Jean-Pierre Melville’s brilliant crime film from 1970, Le Cercle Rouge, to try and make an argument about the importance of the act of looking.
Le Cercle Rouge could be considered by the average viewer a typical crime film with the policeman chasing the bad guys, but trust me. It is more than what’s on the surface. The film’s cast is pure French acting royalty: Alain Delon, Yves Montand, Gian Maria Volonte and Andre Bourvil. And the remarkable thing about this cast of actors is that their chemistry does not get in the way of the story. It is not underwhelming and at the same time it is far from overwhelming. They are just there. Doing what they’re paid to do.
However, what stands out the most about these actors is their capability of looking at each other and conveying a thought just with the use of the simple act of looking. When Delon looks at the camera we get reassurance and inner peace. When Montand looks at a mirror we get insecurity and error. When it is Volonte’s turn we get wit and perseverance. And at last, when Bourvil confronts us with his eyes we get compassion and arrogance.
This film (much like the rest of Melville’s filmography) is mostly based on the physicality of the action that takes place in the unfolding of the story. Le Cercle Rouge has in fact a simple plot, very little dialogue and whenever a character says something, the sentences are very robotic, characterized by quick rhythm and low intonation. Most secondary characters that appear in this movie have very little to say but an awful lot to do: they engage in gunfights, beatings, car chases and manhunts. Melville does not care about character development or inspirational speeches made during the last five minutes. No. What he does care about is telling a story through the use of movement captured on camera. His attention to detail is perhaps only matched by the likes of Bresson and Hitchcock.
In order to present the following scene I’ll just set it up nicely for those of you have yet to watch the film. The three robbers are planning to steal huge amounts of jewelry and diamonds and sell them on the black market to a trusted buyer. The heist is to take place in a security covered building where every inch of the area is being monitored by cameras, wires and motion detectors. The jewels are hidden inside bulletproof glass vaults. The heist sequence is in theory very basic, but the way Melville manages to sell it to us is remarkable. There is no dialogue for the entire 25 minutes.
Clearly inspired by its French noir predecessor, Rififi, and its earlier Hollywood take, The Asphalt Jungle, Melville’s crime thriller observes the heist taking place not from the perspective of a random bystander or witness (something usually found in the Bourne Trilogy or even in a movie like Captain Phillips) but rather with the eyes of the camera hidden in the far corner of the room.
The lack of any major sound or music during this sequence not only helps in making the action seem smoother and more realistic but it also serves to heighten the tension of each step one of the three robbers take in order to get to the jewels. Each movement comes at a price and as you wait for something bad to happen, Melville drags you into his world by making you observe what most of us would usually consider to be boring, uneventful and uninteresting. It is the simplicity of what you see that makes this entire watch incredibly special and unlike anything you’ll encounter in most crime thrillers of Hollywood production.
Another topic I want to cover is the way the characters interact with one another. Most scenes include only one or two of the main characters together, separating each storyline and creating a sense of alienation within the criminal underworld these characters belong to. Alain Delon’s Corey is the one character we get to observe the most. Delon’s on-screen presence is very demanding and the attention he brings to himself even in scenes where he meets other characters, such as fellow gangsters or mob bosses, is the trademark of this movie. It seems as if he’s always capable of transmitting a certain sense of hostility with little to no effort. When he teams up with Volonte and Montand’s characters, he behaves just as he did when he acted on his own. His dead-pan expression turns the observer into the observed. While the remaining characters often face mirrors and reflections of themselves, and usually they reflect upon the sight of it, Delon is the one who faces the camera more frequently than anybody else without even blinking an eye. As much as we get to look at him we really don’t know if he’s good or bad, or if we should even be rooting for him at all. His gaze is a challenge to the viewer, a pit-stop on the 2h20 long journey this movie has to offer.
Each character we meet on this journey is unaffected by the people around him. What I mean is, the environment does not offer any kind of change. The environment, similarly to the characters, is just there, because it has to be there. There is no sense of palpable change, the atmosphere is the same all the way through and that is perhaps due to the fact that Melville insists on making his viewers pay attention to the physical, material details, rather than the abstract, the spiritual.
It is safe to say that this movie is one of the ‘manliest’ movies ever made because of how well structured it is and simultaneously stripped of any useless (in Melville’s opinion) cinematic layers such as plot, character development and a conclusion.
The act of looking is a deadly weapon. You see the right things and you immediately have the upper hand. Melville says, ‘Trust me.’
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