Criterion // 1970 // 140 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // April 12th, 2011
"All men are guilty. They're born innocent, but it doesn't last."
The penultimate film of Jean-Pierre Melville -- master of the French gangster movie -- can finally be rediscovered thanks to a new Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.
Three men are brought together for a huge jewelry heist: the cool, fresh-out-of-prison Corey (Alain Delon, Le Samourai), trigger-happy and unpredictable escaped con Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté, A Fistful of Dollars) and an alcoholic ex-cop named Jansen (Yves Montand, The Wages of Fear). Their joining and subsequent collaboration is the result of similar desires but differing personal codes, leading to a heist that will put the notion of honor among thieves to the test.
As a laserdisc enthusiast in the early and mid-'90s, I came to appreciate and love the Criterion Collection -- the gold standard of home video. I have that studio to thank for turning me on to an endless number of movies and directors, whose films I would be willing to check out based solely on the fact that Criterion had deemed them worthy. There are plenty of filmmakers whose work I would have arrived at eventually with more reading and education, but Criterion gave me a head start; as a result, my love affair with the label continues today. One of the filmmakers that Criterion turned me on to is Jean-Pierre Melville, whose Bob le flambeur (which, to be fair, I tracked down based as much on a passing comment made on Paul Thomas Anderson's commentary for Hard Eight as by virtue of the fact that Criterion put it out) and Le Samourai are seminal works of the gangster genre.
Le Cercle Rouge, Melville's second-to-last film (he died at the age of only 55), doesn't stray too far from the formula that the director established for himself early on: it's a deliberately-paced, quiet and icy-cool movie featuring stone-faced, eerily composed criminals who live by their own strict code. Anyone familiar with Melville's previous efforts will be surprised by very little in Le Cercle Rouge, but that doesn't make it any less effective -- it's another crime classic from a filmmaker who's made more than his share. The movie, like so many of Melville's other works, exists somewhere between film noir, neo-noir and French New Wave, combining elements of all three while at the same time creating something new that feels like the logical extension of the genre(s). Le Cercle Rouge incorporates many of the familiar elements of film noir, for example, but scales back the heightened style and romanticism -- Melville's films are exercises in controlled minimalism.
Le Cercle Rouge is interesting -- and somewhat unique in Melville's canon -- because it opens up the director's usual, lone-antihero scope to follow three characters who help inform and reflect each of the others in quiet ways. Each of the men reveal very little about themselves, but that shouldn't suggest that they're shallow or thinly written (something about still waters?); it is, in fact, refreshing to see a film in which the characters don't simply give up everything about themselves for the sake of easy exposition. And then, of course, there is the heist, which plays out almost wordlessly (shades of the great Rififi, another great French gangster movie -- and which, incidentally, is also available from Criterion, in case you weren't sensing a pattern). Hitchcock was famous for saying that audiences love to watch a guy who is good at his job, and Melville consistently presents us in his films with criminals who are the best at what they do. The heist sequence in Le Cercle Rouge is thrilling on two levels (though "thrilling" might not be the most appropriate word, as no Melville film is ever directed with excitement in mind): first, because we're watching a plan executed with great precision by the film's characters, and secondly because we're watching the sequence constructed with cool, calculated effortlessness by Melville. Life is imitating art and vice versa.
Le Cercle Rouge makes its HD debut on Blu-ray (in Region 1, anyway) courtesy of the Criterion Collection with another of the studio's excellent efforts. The film gets an MPEG-4 AVC-encoded 1080p transfer that's bright and clean, particularly for a film that's now over 40 years old. Age doesn't appear to be an issue here, and there are no technical issues that plague the transfer. The only audio option a 1.0 LCMP mono track, presented in the original French (English subtitles have been included). Like Criterion's video presentation of the film, the audio track is faithful and perfectly serviceable, though it isn't going to be used as a reference point for anyone's HD equipment.
The most significant bonus feature included on the Blu-ray is a collection of archival footage (taken mostly from French television) that covers the production of Le Cercle Rouge and Melville's career at large. A half-hour episode of Cineastes de notre temps finds Melville sitting down to discuss his films, influences and working methods; it's also the best and most comprehensive inclusion on the disc. Three shorter TV excerpts (from Pour le cinema, Vingt-quatre heurs sur la deux and Midi magazine) consist of interviews with Melville and star Alain Delon on the making of Le Cercle Rouge. One final Melville interview, taken from Morceaux de bravoure, repeats much of what has already been said elsewhere in the supplemental section.
Two more extended interviews are also included, running about a half hour apiece. In the first, frequent Melville collaborator Bernard Stora discusses meeting and working with the French director; the second finds Melville on Melville author Rui Noguiera offering a more critical analysis of the director and his work. In lieu of a commentary track (this is one of those rare Criterion releases that doesn't include one), the Noguiera interview will have to do. Thankfully, he covers a good deal of ground and has some interesting insights into what makes Melville such a unique and important filmmaker. Two trailers for Le Cercle Rouge have been included (the original French trailer and one for the 2003 re-release), and the disc is also accompanied by the standard Criterion booklet of critical essays and interviews, including an "appreciation" from director John Woo. One need look no further than Le Samourai to discover where Woo's obsession with doves may come from.
Though Le Cercle Rouge probably isn't the Melville film with which the uninitiated should start -- that would be Bob le flambeur or Le Samourai -- it is another of the director's masterful crime movies and one of the all-time great heist films. It's the kind of movie that will make you feel like Hollywood has forgotten how to do right by the genre. Leave it to the French.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 140 Minutes
Release Year: 1970
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Archival Footage