Le Cercle Rouge (1970), directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, is a French film about a trio of criminals who come together by circumstance and fate to pull off an elaborate jewelry heist. That sounds like a setup for an action thriller, and while the film contains its fair share of thrilling moments - particularly the heist itself and its fallout - the narrative spends more time illustrating how these men are brought together, how their personalities and skilled compliment each other and what their final fates are. At nearly two-and-a-half hours long, Le Cercle Rouge is deliberate and thoroughly involving.
Thief Corey (Alain Delon) is released from prison the same day murderer Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte) escapes from his police escort, Mattei (Andre Bourvil), on a train. By chance, the two criminals end up traveling together, and Corey divulges a plan to rob a jewelry store. Needing a professional marksman, the two recruit Jansen (Yves Montand), a disillusioned former police officer. As the three make preparations for the heist, Mattei works to catch them.
Watching Melville's direction is watching an assured master do his work. No shot feels wasted or extraneous. Many sequences feel like they could have been lifted from the silent era because so few words, if any, are uttered. All the exposition is revealed gradually through action, not plot dump dialogue. There is not one scene I can think of where the three criminals outline the details of their plan and explain how they'll do it. We see them prepare, not sure why they're performing a particular task, but the preparations payoff when we see the plan executed. Afterward, you see how the pieces fit together. Strict attention must be afforded by the viewer.
The characters are also fascinating; the film probably could have worked without the heist plot. Corey is cool in an unstated manner. He's not flashy, and his face hardly betrays any emotion, but he's not a stoic robot. His personality is dry, and you get a sense he anticipates everything, and his brain is always working. Vogel is more volatile, just kind of going with the flow and kind of stumbling onto things, but he's smart enough to know he's an "amateur" and not a "professional" marksman. Jansen is a haunted alcoholic who, as the heist and its plotting progresses, gradually conquers his demons. Meanwhile, Mattei almost feels like he belongs in another type of movie but somehow fits here. He's not a hard-boiled, revenge-minded cop. He loves cats and is curiously laid back and patient.
I don't have much more to add. Watching the film is to experience greatness, and to see it is to understand that point. Just don't expect a lot of shootouts and chases.