The work of great sound design is knowing when to strip away all of the elements of a soundtrack. Silence can have a multitude of effects on us. In some cases, it can calm us, it can frustrate us, or it can make us nervous. Jean-Pierre Melville understands this and uses it to great effect throughout his heist film Le Cercle Rouge (dir. Jean-Pierre Melville, 1970).
When I talk about silence, I am not referring to the complete absence of sound. Even our quietest moments, we are still hearing ambience. The air condition blowing. The wind rustling the trees. The sound you hear when you swallow (which you are taking note of now). We are never really in total silence. You can always hear something. And that’s what Melville realizes in Le Cercle Rouge. Due to the film’s spare use of dialogue and music, ambient sound becomes the primary soundscape of Le Cercle Rouge.
This lack of a layered soundscape is initially present in the film’s opening twenty minutes. We are introduced to our two primary characters: recently paroled criminal Corey1 (Alain Delon) and recently captured criminal Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte). As we jump through simultaneous scenes with both men, Corey is our funnel for exposition. This is when he and us first learn about the heist that will be the central goal of the film and where he has his primary dealings with the police department. Juxtaposed with this is a prolonged, entirely ambient sequence of Vogel escaping being handcuffed to a bed in a room with an inspector (Andre Bourvil) as they travel in a train car. We cut back and forth between Corey and Vogel as the former begins to transition back into criminal life, while the latter is in the midst of criminal action. In these opening minutes, silence is used as a cinematic tool to build anxiety (we are anxious to see if Vogel escapes his current predicament) and a tool to show the difference between successful criminal action and regular society (illegal action must operate silently amongst legal action in order to be successful).
And throughout the film, that second use of silence is ever present, especially in terms of dialogue. The main sources of dialogue throughout the film are that of the investigator, his police force, and his informants. There is a scene towards the beginning where Corey coldly and silently dispatches two henchmen who have tracked him to a pool bar. With the sound of some struggle and one gunshot, he is able to continue on his mission like a ghost.
And his and Vogel’s central mission is the ultimate culmination of Melville’s showcase of silence. The final act of the film includes a 30 minute, completely dialogue free heist where Corey, Vogel, and an ex-police sniper (Yves Montand) meticulously rob a jewelry store. The sequence is a cacophony of careful footsteps, glass cutting, and unlocking safes with no backing soundtrack. With the addition of a plot related reason to be inaudible, we are now completely engrossed in the men completing their mission in total silence. But even more than that, having so much sustained silence sensitizes us to any sound that does occur. A muzzled bullet sounds even more impactful when it breaks up minutes of creeping footsteps. The locks of each case flicking off provides us with even more relief.
After the entirety of a film that posits that criminal action thrives in silence, a completely silent final set piece is the perfect climax. The only reason that the main characters do eventually get caught is because one of the criminals adjacent to their work decides to talk to the police. In the construction of Le Cercle Rouge, silence is a way to control how we feel in the moment and a statement on how the criminal world works.
Le Cercle Rouge is streaming on most major VOD platforms.