A Bullet for the General

“Buddy movie” is a somewhat vague term. Common to genre films, particularly the Western, war and crime film, the buddy movie exhibits recurring and delineable motifs of its own. It usually features two men, initially antagonists, often on a physical journey that reflects the emotional process by which they come to respect, understand and care for one another – Il Buono, il bruto, il cattivo (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Sergio Leone, 1966), for example. Usually they share a love interest – The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962) – or they double date – Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (Michael Cimino, 1974). Proficient in the use of firearms – be they soldiers, cops or gunmen – it is common for them to save each other’s lives (see all of the above). A sub-genre perhaps, rather than a genre in its own right, the buddy movie nevertheless represents a recognizably homogenous cinematic family. Appropriately however, as a sub-genre, its devices are thematic rather than formal, as the films’ stylistic surfaces tend to be determined by their genre proper: the widescreen space of the Western, or the urban geometry of the crime film, for instance. Freed from æsthetic responsibility then, the buddy movie’s narrative space increasingly appealed to self-consciously transgressive directors who gradually expanded its curious milieu, until in the 1960s, when it evolved into something quite mysterious and akin to romance.

Prior to the 1960s, the buddy movie had shown itself to be an inherently self-reflexive medium, ripe with the potential to subvert its own conventions. In The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949), for example, the two men begin as friends, and the film documents the process by which they become estranged, one finally betraying and killing the other for the greater good. Anthony Mann in particular, began to qualify the buddy movie in his westerns – The Naked Spur (1953) and Winchester ‘73 (1950) in particular – which feature two men who remain enemies throughout, but who nevertheless often have a shared love interest and, most notably, who exhibit a marked similarity of character, which, rather than bringing them together, perversely drives them to kill one another.

However, while the buddy movie had certainly been tweaked, this essay will argue that in the three films to be discussed it became overtly, strangely homoerotic. What began in El Chuncho, Quién sabe? (A Bullet for the General, Damiano Damiani, 1966) as a paradoxical, almost schizophrenic relationship between two antithetical men was echoed and amplified in Lieber ist kälter als der Tod (Love is Colder than Death, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1969), ultimately reaching its apotheosis in Le Cercle rouge (Jean Pierre Melville, 1970), where the buddy movie finally becomes an unabashed, albeit peculiar, romance: queer in every sense.

Damiani’s Quién sabe? demonstrates all the motifs of the buddy movie. Featuring a central relationship between an aggressive, coarse extrovert, El Chuncho (Fian Maria Volontè), and a stoic introvert, Bill ‘Niño’ Tate (Lou Castel), the pair undergo a series of picaresque adventures during the Mexican revolution. These include a shared female figure, Adelita (Martine Beswick); the fetishisation of guns; caring for one another during illness; killing together and for one another – each saves the other’s life – betrayal on behalf of, and finally of, one another; and, near the end, a double-date. The film’s ending, however, makes a striking departure from the buddy movie formula, with Chuncho killing Niño just when the pair have made it rich and are free to escape with their gold. The ending is nevertheless perfectly logical, because the preceding narrative has established the compromises and personal betrayals that Chuncho has made in order to nurture his relationship with the young gringo. These include killing his fellow gang member, Guapo (Santiago Santos); betraying his revolutionary principles; abandoning the town of San Miguel to its bloody fate; and finally even accepting the murder of his brother at the hands of Niño. The motive behind these concessions becomes increasingly clear. At the beginning of the film, Chuncho takes the young foreigner under his wing, christening him “Niño” or “Boy”. Flippantly patronising the young man, their relationship becomes more troubling – in genre terms – when Chuncho, without warning, kills a close friend, who becomes aggressive toward the relative stranger, Niño. A confederate asks Chuncho why, to which he replies uncertainly, “Because Guapo was about to kill Niño, and Niño is a friend of mine.” The saving of a friend’s life is a recognizable convention of the buddy movie, but in this case the convention is notably subverted, with Chuncho killing a friend in order to save a stranger. The significance of the act is reflected by this inversion of generic expectation, as well as by Chuncho’s evident confusion at his own action. That the victim should be called Guapo, or Handsome, further suggests the confused motivation behind Chuncho’s action.

A Bullet for the General

The emblematic significance of the firearm is likewise established and then upended in Quién sabe?. Two guns are significant: Niño’s rifle and Chuncho’s machine-gun. The first is discovered by Niño in the home of an overthrown landowner. Chuncho watches as Niño examines and caresses the gun, the young man showing more sensual rapport with the rifle than with anything else in the film up to that point – including the flirtatious Adelita. Chuncho, meanwhile, dreams of finding a machine-gun and, when one is discovered, he abandons his new girl to go and inspect the exotic weapon, cooing, “It’s more beautiful than any woman.” Following the acquisition of the machine-gun, the formerly lustful Chuncho loses interest in his girl, saying of her sensual demands, “She bothers me with that nonsense.” The machine-gun becomes identified with Niño, both of them exotic visitors from a technologically more advanced land. When the gang choose to leave the town of San Miguel, taking Niño and the machine-gun with them, Chuncho dutifully stays behind with his brother to protect the people. However, finally tiring of town life – and the absence of Niño – he deserts both the town and his brother to track down the gang. On rejoining them, he leaps aboard the wagon transporting the machine-gun, and frantically tears aside the canopy to gaze on it. He looks reassured, at which point Niño smiles and asks him knowingly, “Are you happy?”, as if Chuncho’s recovery is not so much of the gun as of Niño himself. In this way, the gun becomes not symbolic of Chuncho’s virility, as it might in an earlier buddy movie – Winchester ‘73 being a case in point – but, on the contrary, of his sexual confusion and abandonment of moral principle – the townspeople, without the protection of Chuncho or machine-gun, are slaughtered by government forces.

The assassin’s rifle serves a similar purpose for Niño’s character, symbolizing the sublimation of his libido into the achievement of his professional goal: the assassination of the revolutionary General Elias (Jaime Fernández) for the reward in gold. Hence, the golden bullet he uses for the job. Niño is not overtly homosexual; he is just more interested in wealth than in people. Chuncho says to him, “You’re not interested in women; what are you interested in, Niño?”, to which the young man replies emphatically, “Money.” Thus, his sharing of the reward money with Chuncho at the end of the film is more expressive of his affection toward him than any words, and answers Chuncho’s own sacrifices for Niño up to that point. It is significant, therefore, that Chuncho should decide he must kill Niño at the very moment their mutual attraction is most apparent. When the bewildered Niño asks his friend why he must kill him, Chuncho replies, “Quién sabe?” This can be translated literally as “Who knows?”, but perhaps more properly, as “Who can say?”: this surely is what is meant by the phrase, “The love that dare not speak its name”. That Damiani chooses to call the film Quién sabe? foregrounds the mysterious tension between the two men, lending it primacy over the film’s more overt political themes – Niño representing the capitalist corruptor of Chuncho’s proletarian revolutionary – and emphasizing the cryptic nature of their bond. The film climaxes with Chuncho’s ecstasy at the recovery of his sexual and political conviction.

Quién sabe?’s shifting power dynamics between a pair of would-be lovers did not go unnoticed by the young Rainer Werner Fassbinder. His first feature film, Love is Colder than Death, begins with a dedication, albeit misspelt (before the era of home video), to Damiani’s film – “to Lino and Cuncho” – and the plot self-consciously mirrors that of the earlier film. The macho thief, Franz (Rainer Werner Fassbinder), develops an attachment to his younger fellow thief, Bruno (Ulli Lommel), after paternally taking him under his wing. Planning a job together, Franz is unaware that Bruno has ulterior motives for working with him, but once again it is the older man who ultimately survives the encounter to return to his former, reassuring preoccupations at the film’s dénouement. Like Quién sabe?, the film exhibits all the signs of the conventional buddy movie. Franz and Bruno are stoic characters, operating in a macho, violent milieu; firearms play a crucial role in their lives; they share a love interest; they are both the perpetrators and victims of betrayal; and they kill on behalf of one another. However, also like Quién sabe?, Fassbinder’s film subverts those generic designations in order to develop the buddy movie into something more abstract. Franz and Bruno’s stoicism is exaggerated almost to the point that they become caricatures of the taciturn professional criminal. This lends a certain weight to their occasional verbal communications, in which they unwillingly reveal themselves. The following exchange takes place on their first meeting:

Franz: “You got previous convictions? Hmm? Don’t like talking? It’s better that way. What you called?”

Bruno: “Bruno.”

Franz: “I’m called Franz. Where d’you come from?”

Bruno: “From a small town.”

Franz: “I’m from Munich. Got a girl there. I like her.”

This one-sided attempt at small talk follows the first of many extraordinarily long, striking close-ups from Franz’s POV of the fetching Ulli Lommel as Bruno, filmed to the intensely romantic strains of Peer Raben’s score. In this context, Franz’s “Got a girl there. I like her” represents an involuntary reflex against his instinctive attraction toward Bruno. So, whereas in the model buddy movie the protagonists’ taciturnity is emblematic of their decisive simplicity – the strong, silent type – in Fassbinder’s film that same verbal minimalism paradoxically expresses the characters’ irresolution. As Christian Braad Thomsen points out in his biography of Fassbinder, “the speechlessness becomes a new language – not between the characters, but between the film and its audience” (1).

That “speechlessness” also serves to concentrate the audience’s attention on the non-verbal interaction between the characters, which takes on greater significance in the face of the sparse dialogue; as in all buddy movies, Talk is Cheap, and actions speak louder than words. Thus, Bruno’s willingness to kill for Franz is at odds with his ostensible motivation for befriending him: he has been hired by the syndicate to kill him. Similarly, Franz’s willing encouragement of Bruno to seduce his girl, Johanna (Hanna Schygulla), is expressive of his regard for the younger man. Whereas, in the buddy movie template, the protagonists tend to fight over a woman, or to double-date, in a covert, authorially suppressed suggestion of homoerotic tension, Fassbinder here depicts the female component of the ménage as merely a conduit through which the two men can tentatively engage one another without acknowledging their sexual attraction. The crucial difference here is that the filmmaker does acknowledge it. When Johanna laughs at Bruno’s inept attempt to seduce her, Franz angrily slaps her. When she asks him why, he replies – in a conscious quote from Damiani’s film – “Because you laughed at Bruno, and Bruno is my friend.” Johanna’s rejection of Bruno is, for the two men, a frustration of their own circuitous attempt to formulate a relationship to one another through her.

Love is Colder than Death

The firearm is powerfully symbolic in Fassbinder’s film, but, as in Quién sabe?, its significance is at odds with the formulaic buddy movie. Usually expressive of virility, decisiveness and sexual confidence, the most prominent gun in this film indicates quite the opposite. The machine-gun in Love is Colder than Death is notably a replica, a dummy. The two men are unable to obtain a real, functioning machine-gun, just as they are unable to articulate their feelings for one another, or consummate their relationship. The dummy gun is especially representative of Bruno, who is sexually inept – at least with women – and who is eventually killed because he can’t fire his “gun”.

The rigorous professionalism of the gunslinger/gangster/cop/soldier plays an important role in the buddy movie, and it does so here. Franz’s maverick unwillingness to work for the syndicate is the reason Bruno is hired to kill him. But where in conventional examples of the sub-genre Franz’s obstinacy would be expressive of the stoic hero’s independence and mythic need of space, here it can rather be seen as suggestive of his ill-defined longing for something outside the system, something proscribed – it is no coincidence that it is while in the custody of the syndicate that Franz meets Bruno. Far from being indicative of a desire for self-sufficient solitude, Franz’s refusal to work for the syndicate is, in this film, revelatory of his aspiration to transgress, which he comes closest to realising through his friendship with Bruno.

So, in Damiani and Fassbinder’s films, the familiar tropes of the buddy movie are given an extra turn, becoming tokens of a frustrated longing that seeks its fulfilment in the terse, instinctive relationship between professional colleagues. The advances that Fassbinder makes on Damiani are, firstly, that in his film the two men do not have to kill each other: Bruno dies because of Johanna’s betrayal; it is the deposed female who cannot accept the relationship between the two men. Secondly, the attraction between the two men is made more overt, through the extraordinary, obsessive close-ups of Bruno from Franz’s POV, and by Raben’s romantic score, which seems more suitable to a narrative of tragic courtship than a conventional crime film. Finally, the dynamic of the film’s ménage à trois, with Franz and Bruno often doubling for each other, forms the beginnings of a kind of family, and thus begins to point the way to an achievable realization of the half-formulated love between Fassbinder’s characters. Nevertheless, the film still ends as Quién sabe? does with the violent death of one of the men, and with the other resuming, and even embracing, his former life, in a seeming renunciation of his recent feelings. Franz’s blasé acceptance of Bruno’s death – “Open the door and throw him out” – is an echo of Chuncho’s attitude to Guapo’s death: “Guapo is no more; don’t worry about him.” It would not be until the following year, with the release of Le Cercle rouge, that the buddy movie would be fully realised as romance, and in which the protagonists would be killed only in a final avowal, rather than a denial, of love.

Fassbinder said of the characters in his film that they “were poor souls […] who didn’t know what to do with themselves, who were simply set down, as they are, and who weren’t given a chance” (2). This sense of fatalism is reflected in the opening titles of Le Cercle rouge, where Jean-Pierre Melville places the following inscription from Ramakrishna:

Sakyamuni the recluse, also known as Siddhartha Gautama the Wise, the Buddha, took hold of a piece of red chalk, traced a circle and said:

“WHEN MEN, EVEN UNKNOWINGLY, ARE TO MEET AGAIN ONE DAY, WHATEVER MAY BEFALL EACH, WHATEVER THEIR DIVERGING PATHS, ON THE SAID DAY, INEVITABLY, THEY WILL COME TOGETHER IN THE RED CIRCLE.”

The circle is symbolic of union and completion – an appropriate motif for this film. Melville’s previous films obsessively delineated the emblems of the buddy movie: friendship and the sharing of women in Bob le flambeur (1956); loyalty and betrayal in Le Doulos (1962); stoic independence in Le Samouraï (1967); and professional codes of honour and self-sacrifice in L’Armée des ombres (1969). In Cercle, all these themes are interwoven, but the friendship of Bob (Roger Duchesne) and Paolo (Daniel Cauchy) in Bob le flambeur, the loyalty of Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) in Le Doulos, the stoicism of Jef Costello (Alain Delon) in Le Samouraï, and the professional pride and self sacrifice at issue in L’Armée, are here combined to produce something wilfully strange, determinedly abstract, that finally transcends the strictures of genre or sexuality.

The familiar conventions of the buddy movie, present in the Damiani and Fassbinder films, are found in Cercle, but here they are subordinated entirely to the curious bond between the central characters. Corey (Alain Delon) and Vogel (Gian Maria Volontè) are both criminals who find themselves operating in the same milieu and, as in the previous films, they are each a different species: Corey a professional criminal just out of prison, Vogel a possible terrorist – his crime is never made explicit – who operates out of idealism rather than professional acquisitiveness. But while in Quién sabe? and Love is Colder than Death the inherent difference between the central characters – in background, in motive, and appearance – is never quite overcome, the would-be lovers appearing incongruous together, both to other people and, more importantly, to themselves, in Cercle that difference is surmounted in a single exchange of glances on first meeting. From that moment on, the film essays the question not so much of how these two figures will remain together, as to how they could be split apart.

Le Cercle rouge

The traditional stoicism of the buddy-movie male, which was subverted in Quién sabe? and Love is Colder than Death to become expressive no longer of decisive independence, but rather of confusion, indecision and ultimately of repression, becomes in Melville’s film expressive of intuitive harmony. When Corey and Vogel first meet, after Corey has knowingly driven the escapee Vogel – a stowaway in the trunk of Corey’s car – through a police cordon, and thence to a secluded field in order to confront him, they exchange hardly any words. Vogel emerges from the boot at Corey’s invitation, holding Corey’s own gun that he points at his new protector, unsure of the man’s motivation. Corey produces his prison release papers by way of explanation, and Vogel expresses amazement that the other man has himself just “escaped” from prison that morning – as might the audience, were it not for Melville’s opening and entirely self-invented “quote” from the Buddha – but they say almost nothing beyond that. Vogel asks why Corey was afraid neither of a fugitive nor of being discovered harbouring one, at which point Corey simply tosses his cigarettes – which he has been perpetually smoking since his release – and lighter to Vogel, who catches them in a daze, as if he is almost overcome by the moment: that he should be saved by a complete stranger, himself just out of prison, who instinctively knows just how much he wants a cigarette. He slowly lights one gratefully, and the two men stare at one another and share an almost child-like smile – the audience’s POV first that of Corey, then of Vogel as the camera zooms into Corey’s face, then again that of Corey as the camera zooms into Vogel’s, in a peculiarly intense variation on the shot/reverse shot. All the while, Eric Demarsan’s hitherto minimalist score swells on the soundtrack, becoming overtly romantic, but no less mysterious. The intensity of the exchange is juxtaposed with the bleakness of the setting – a cold, wet winter field – and with the heightened ambient noise – an eerie, whistling wind. When the two men finally break eye contact, both sheepishly glance about them, as if anxious that some observer may have witnessed the moment. Then, as if some private resolution has been soundlessly struck between them, Corey says abruptly, “Let’s go. Paris is safer”, and they depart. It is an extraordinary scene, and one that would, were it to take place in a romantic drama, invite the description, “Love at first sight.”

Similarly, the film’s heist sequence serves as a demonstration of the two men’s unspoken harmony. Lasting just over twenty-five minutes, this sequence sees the two men park in a city street at night. They get out, each carrying a bag, and walk along the street, stopping to enter an apartment building, which they exit through the rear. Entering another building by its own rear, they proceed through the hall and ascend a staircase to the top floor, where they climb a ladder to the attic space. From there, they enter onto the roof through a skylight, and traverse the roof onto another building, to a recess, into which they lower their bags on a rope, before lowering a rope-ladder, down which they climb. At the bottom, they laboriously cut a hole through a window, which they then open and climb through into what transpires to be the jewellery store lavatory. Inside, they put on masks and enter the security guard’s station, where they surprise the guard, knocking him unconscious, then gagging and tying him up. They locate and turn on the lights to the display area, before negotiating the security system’s maze of infra-red laser beams. They then open the front door to admit their rendezvousing accomplice, Jansen (Yves Montand), and wait patiently while he assembles his rifle and tripod, prior to firing an alloy bullet into the security console keyhole, and thus opening the display cases. While Jansen exits out the front, they gather up and bag the jewellery, before also leaving that way. They descend the stairs, remove their masks and, as the recovered guard manages to trip the alarm, they exit the building and climb into Jansen’s waiting getaway car and make their escape. Throughout the entire twenty-five minute sequence, the two men exchange not a single word, even as the alarms are sounded. In this way, their lack of verbal communication emphasizes again the interpersonal harmony between the two. The spatial arrangement of the episode requires the men to confront a series of physical challenges, which see them interact in very close proximity, repeatedly lifting, lowering or holding one another – through windows, from roofs, between laser beams. There are some tasks that they could probably carry out without the need of such intimate contact, but Melville insists on the physical propinquity of the two figures in order to visually establish them as a single harmonious unit. While there are no words exchanged between them, the two men constantly look at, touch, feel and hold each other. This undeniably is what Jonathan Rosenbaum calls the “homoerotic side of Melville’s Cartesian stoicism” (3).

In the same way, the firearm – usually the buddy movie’s symbol of heterosexual masculinity – and its role within the heist – Jansen’s regained marksmanship, and fashioning of the alloy bullet required for the success of the robbery – serve not only as an assertion of Jansen’s recovered self-respect – also a common enough trope in the buddy movie – but more importantly as an enabler of the success of the heist, which, far from being an end in itself for any of them, is merely the conduit by which they achieve their curious union. Therefore, the gun is here no longer emblematic merely of oppositional heterosexuality – the hard gun versus the soft flesh. Nor is it only the means whereby the solitary ronin figure recovers a lost self-possession. It does serve the second of those roles admirably, but its greater function here is that it facilitates a conjoining of the three men in an act that both negates sexuality and eschews violence – the soft bullet is fired into an inanimate object – but nevertheless fulfils all three. This is in stark contrast to Quién sabe?, where both the firearm and its relevance to the narrative crux – the assassination of General Elias – is expressive of Niño’s desire for money alone, symbolized by the use of a golden bullet, and actually opposes Chuncho’s desires; and to Love is Colder than Death, where that film’s heist becomes the location where Bruno plans to kill Franz, and where Johanna betrays Bruno, who is killed due to the failure of his counterfeit weapon. Put simply, in the first two films the gun is symbolic of the failure of the central relationship through self-involvement and conflicted sexuality, while in Cercle it facilitates the success of that relationship – thereby enabling what is, in genre terms, transgressive behaviour – and stands instead for communal fidelity and harmoniously sublimated sexuality.

Similarly, while Corey initially avenges his emasculation by an old friend who has co-opted his girl during his incarceration (the familiar self-defeating triangle of the buddy movie) by taking his oh-so-symbolic gun – emphasising the fact by leaving a photo of the girl in its place – this same gun will eventually be found and used by Vogel to save Corey’s life. In this way, the gun also serves to establish a link between Corey’s renunciation of a faithless, heterosexual relationship and his discovery of the firm masculine friendship of Vogel. The only other female figure in the film is a waitress at the nightclub where Corey meets his fence. The young woman, obviously smitten by his looks, wordlessly hands him a single red rose. This rose, quite apart from being one of the many symbolic red circles of the film’s title, is traditionally given by a man to a desirable woman. Thus, the gift of it to Corey and the portentous significance with which Melville invests the moment – Corey and the girl sharing an intense, enigmatic, potentially hostile look – identifies the figure of Corey as love object. This has been suggested early in the film, when Corey, while being released from prison, turns to the wardens, his recent keepers, and, seeing them stare at him, pulls his coat around himself in a protective gesture. This process of recasting the tough guy as object of desire is applied later to Vogel also, when, just like the gun, Corey’s rose finds its way into his hands – he holds it and stares anxiously into the camera after Corey has left their apartment for his fateful meeting with a new fence. Thus is Vogel identified in his turn as love object and posited as the alternative figure, first to Corey’s faithless old flame, then to her potential successor, the nightclub siren.

In the Fassbinder and Damiani films, a female figure operates in the ménage, shared and ultimately ignored. In Cercle, the third party is Jansen, who, far from being an antagonistic, jealous figure like the betraying Johanna in Love is Colder than Death, is a nurturing influence on the central pair. He is neither resentful nor uncomprehending of their bond. Nor does he wish to intrude upon it. Instead, he does his best to facilitate its survival, even going so far as to give his share of the heist money to them. So, where in the first two films the observers, lovers and would-be confederates of the central pair actually serve to highlight the perceived incongruity and innate sickliness of that relationship, in Cercle the figure of Jansen helps to establish the unquestioned seemliness of Corey and Vogel as a partnership. He is not merely an unacknowledged transmitter through which the two hesitant would-be lovers engage one another. Corey and Vogel need no such vehicle: any sexual desire they might feel for one another has been effortlessly subsumed in their professional relationship. The aforementioned beginnings of a family that the ménage à trois of Love is Colder than Death initially points the way toward, before descending into jealousy and betrayal, is in the figures of Corey, Vogel and Jansen made manifest.

Le Cercle rouge

The question of loyalty and betrayal, so integral to the buddy movie, is central to Cercle as it is to the earlier films, but where in those films the narrative hinged on a deception by one of the central characters at the other’s expense, in Cercle, Corey, Vogel, and Jansen all remain loyal to one another, even unto death. It is only the betrayal by other characters that leads to the mortal dénouement. The fact that those betrayals are made under such testing circumstances only serves to emphasize how fervent is the unthinking loyalty between the chief protagonists. The unseemly lengths the police go to in order to obtain those betrayals counterpoints the serenity with which the three criminals go to their deaths. Tom Milne argues that the predominant theme of Melville’s œuvre is the “impossibility of love, of friendship, of communication, of self-respect, of life itself”, but Cercle details precisely the overcoming of that impossibility, at least where the first four of those commandments – “of love, of friendship, of communication, of self-respect” – are concerned, although the last one holds true: all three men are killed in the very confirmation of the first four. (4) Ultimately, Melville’s suggestion seems to be that it is better to die in love, friendship, communication and self-avowal than to live without them. The cop, Le Commissaire Mattei (Bourvil), is the embodiment of rigorous professionalism – so often the beau ideal of the buddy movie. He carries out his job well, and is the only one of the four principle characters still alive at the end, but what we have been shown of his life – a lonely apartment with three cats – and his own seeming desolation emphasizes the sterility of his particular professionalism, which seems synonymous with repression. The figure of Mattei, so often analogised with the three criminals, serves as a critique of rigorous, impersonal professionalism. The narrative repeatedly suggests the instinctive rapport of the officer with his criminal prey and emphasizes his conflicted attitude toward his superiors, but he denies his ideals and ensures the destruction of the men he holds so high. The world-weary cynicism of his boss, so familiar to genre pictures – “All men are guilty. They’re born innocent, but it doesn’t last” – is made hollow by the example of the dead criminals.

If cinéphilia teaches its sufferers one thing, it is that no film is ever the first of its kind. Undoubtedly there are buddy movies predating Quién sabe? that similarly foreground the homoerotic potentialities of the genre’s male partnerships. The significance of Damiani’s film is that it forms the vital first part of an unofficial trilogy of such films, released within four years of each other, in which that potential is ultimately not just observed, but realised. That Fassbinder was aware of, and responding to, Quién sabe? in his début film is made explicit by his opening credits dedication and by his self-conscious quoting of the earlier film. And, while Cercle has no such dedication, it does seem more than coincidence that Melville chose to cast Gian Maria Volontè – Damiani’s Chuncho – as one half of his own film’s “couple”. When A. H. Weiler wrote in his The New York Times review of Quién sabe? that it represented “the standard, unending explosive carnage of yore” (5), he overlooked the film’s self-conscious relationship to that yore. The film contained all the familiar motifs of the buddy movie in order to subvert and develop them. That it managed to do so without descending into parody is borne out by Weiler’s failure to recognise the picture as anything other than an ordinary genre movie. Fassbinder followed Damiani’s lead and developed the genre’s vernacular still further, featuring swooning close-ups and an unreservedly romantic score, also without straying into extra-generic territory. And in Cercle Melville takes the central relationship explored in the first two films and consummates both it and the genre itself. It is not that Cercle is literally a romantic drama about two gay men. As Linda Merelle has pointed out in Offscreen, “though Corey and Vogel stare at each other throughout the film like fated lovers, Melville takes pains to show that they are straight.” (6) Like the characters in the first two films, Corey and Vogel are straight; there would be nothing very remarkable about two gay men falling in love, after all. What makes Cercle so extraordinary, and what makes it the apotheosis of the buddy movie, is that Melville takes the familiar conventions and signs of the genre – already enlarged upon by Damiani and Fassbinder – and eulogizes them, all the while reworking them into something strange and generically inconceivable: a romantic drama about two straight men. Melville’s achievement is that while Cercle should be generically destructive – it is a film so vulnerable to parody the viewer wants to wrap it in swaddling clothes – it succeeds instead as the ultimate consummation of its genre, somehow expanding its limits to the utmost, without exploding them altogether.

Endnotes

  1. Christian Braad Thomsen, Fassbinder: The Life and Work of a Provocative Genius (London: Faber and Faber, 1997), p. 67.
  2. Ibid, p. 66.
  3. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Filling in the Blanks”, Chicago Reader, 6 June, 1997.
  4. Tom Milne, “Jean-Pierre Melville”, Richard Roud (Ed.), Cinema, A Critical Dictionary: The Major Filmmakers (New York: The Viking Press, 1980), p. 686.
  5. A. H. Weiler, The New York Times, 1 May 1969.
  6. Linda Merelle, “Kieslowski and Besson Meet in Le Cercle Rouge”, Offscreen, Volume 10, Issue 12 (31 December 2006).

About The Author

Jason Mark Scott is a bookseller and cinéphile from the UK, with a particular interest in the 1960s New Wave cinema of France, Italy, and England. Previous writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal and Offscreen.