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Le Cercle rouge

Le Cercle rouge
Criterion 218
1970 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 140 min. / The Red Circle / Street Date October 28, 2003 / 39.95
Starring Alain Delon, Bourvil, Gian Maria Volonté, Yves Montand, Francois Périer, Ana Douking
Cinematography Henri Decaë
Production Designer Théo Meurisse
Film Editor Marie-Sophie Dubus, Jean-Pierre Melville
Original Music Éric Demarsan
Produced by Robert Dorfmann
Written and Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Criterion has already put out an early Melville crime film, Bob le Flambeur, and this is his second-to-last picture from the other end of his career. Le Cercle rouge is another ascetic, stylized police-vs-crooks story as was his avowed masterpiece, Le Samourai from a few seasons earlier. Like other later Melville films, it's a ritualized, unemotional and deliberately-paced caper story that builds on familiar but absorbing characters.


Criminal hotshot Corey (Alain Delon) leaves prison and embarks immediately on a new crime. He just happens to link up with Vogel (Gian-Maria Volonté), a fugitive who escaped right after sentencing. Their plan is to knock over a jewelry showroom equipped with half a dozen state of the art burglar alarms, and to to the job they bring in Jansen (Yves Montand), an alcoholic ex-cop who prides himself on his marksmanship. Opposing them is the pragmatic Captain Mattei (André Bourvil), a plodder who knows he'll catch them in the end - he's not above blackmail to secure the information he needs.

Melville's last film is the very uneven Un Flic. It has some atmospheric action scenes but gets very sloppy in some departments, especially special effects. Worse, it miscasts Alain Delon as a terse inspector and American Richard Crenna as an impassive criminal, instead of the other way around. Le Cercle rouge plays it straight and fairly predictable all the way through. It was written in the early 50s in response to Melville's favorite film, The Asphalt Jungle, but put off for twenty years by the success of caper pictures like Du rififi chez le hommes.

In the extras Melville characterizes himself as an action director, but Le Cercle rouge hasn't much action. It's more of a meditation on the caper picture, with stylized characters we have to study to understand. They turn out to be exactly as advertised; the crooks played by Delon and Volonté convey their pasts through their eyes, but other than a couple of details, we know almost nothing about them. A possible plot thread is suggested when Delon seems embittered by a girl he left behind (Ana Douking), who turns out to be sleeping with the mob boss he protected with silence while in prison. The tangent really doesn't go anywhere - she has an early nude scene but then disappears.

The fallen cop played by Yves Montand is shown a bit more deeply. We witness his D.T.s as colorful snakes, spiders and lizards crawl into his room while he sleeps, but the lighting of this scene defuses any threatening feeling it might have. Yet his specific problem with the police force - why he's willing to pull off the crime - is never explained except as therapy for his alcoholism. His obsession with marksmanship and the special bullets he uses to 'pick a lock' are nicely-observed, as is his simply sniffing a liquor flask to steady his nerves during the crime.

Equally interesting is the cop on the case played by André Bourvil. Bourvil is mainly known as a comedian but is especially good in this serious role as a deadpan inspector who uses crooked means when necessary. He pampers his cats and nurses his snitches out on the street, but he's no more lovable than the crooks, as seen when he frames nightclub owner Francois Périer's son on a narcotics rap to extort the man's cooperation.

These classic French crime films seem even more in love with fate and doom than their American noir inspirations. Le Cercle rouge surprises us by being downright pedestrian when it comes to spelling out its theme; a grim Police Comissioner tells Bourvil that all men are wicked, and that includes cops and robbers. It's proven out, but not before several more verbal repetitions of the same idea. Some plot contrivances are fun (Delon, free from prison, hooks up with Volonté, an escapee on his way to prison) and others a bit clunky. Melville omits any female presence in the story except for a brief and unrewarding glimpse of Delon's ex-moll at the beginning, a stage-ful of joyless cabaret dancers, and a young waitress who presents Delon with a red rose before the final chapter. Action fans waiting for something to happen will smell symbolism and become resentful.

I liked the look of the film, which always has a cool and dark feel of realism to it. The lighting is almost too restrained (as in the aforementioned D.T.'s sequence) but the cold and comfortless streets are a nice switch from glitz and hype - this caper is the anti-Ocean's Eleven. Some of the cutting is questionable, with some jerky continuity here and there where it looks like Melville was going for something smoother. When Montand decides to bypass the fancy gun tripod and make his all-important rifle shot by hand, there are rapid cuts to his comrades doing double-takes at each other, and it looks too much like filmmaking 101 ... Melville's framing and shot choice, at least in this film, aren't all that distinctive.

After some fairly interesting caper action disarming a jewelry store's many security devices (with the robbers wearing The Green Hornet look-alike masks), the wrap-up is appropriately muted. The crooks' dedication to their own professionalism causes them to be loyal unto the bitter end, in a Wild Bunch-like gesture toward male fidelity. Melville may see himself as a man's man of directors, but here the style and ritual don't quite overcome the familiarity of events, so to speak - there's little emotional charge with these men. We enjoy Le Cercle rouge and admire many scenes and character details, but it's no Asphalt Jungle, just a French echo.

Criterion's double disc DVD of Le Cercle rouge is their first offering where I've felt there's too much of a good thing. The second disc has several 1970s television shows on the director that present long interview segments with the Stetson-hatted Frenchman. The average Melville addict will flip, but after a while I had to ask myself what was so interesting about him to merit all the attention. Likewise, the extended interviews with his assistant director and biographer were too long and adulatory, without really convincing me that Melville was a major talent (not that he isn't). The assistant director's interview just dragged on with mundane stuff about life on a Melville set that could have been reject material from an EPK for a new film. I love the writing of Rui Nogueira, but the history he relates of his relationship with Melville needed to be prefaced with a reason why I should care ...

Better at selling the art of Melville were the text extras in the paper insert. The posters and still section were interesting as well. I realize that John Woo worships Melville, but since I've yet to see a Woo film that impressed me in any but a technical way, it doesn't mean much. Perhaps it's my failing, and I need to see more of Melville's earlier, obviously worshipped work. Both Le Cercle rouge and the extras on this DVD make him seem a commercial director with an exaggerated reputation.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Le Cercle rouge rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Theatrical trailer, Excerpts from a 1970 documentary on Jean-Pierre Melville's career, video interview with Melville friend and editor of Melville on Melville, Rui Nogueira, video interview with Le Cercle Rouge assistant director Bernard Stora, 30 minutes of on-set footage featuring interviews with director Jean-Pierre Melville, and stars Alain Delon, Yves Montand, and Andre Bourvil, Poster gallery, behind-the-scenes photos, publicity photos. 24-page booklet with an introduction from filmmaker John Woo, new essays by film critics Michael Sragow and Chris Fujiwara, and excerpts from Rui Noguera's book Melville on Melville regarding Le Cercle Rouge
Packaging: Double Keep case
Reviewed: November 5, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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