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Philip Galkin
Philip Galkin

Le Cercle Rouge(1970) ((BETTER))

Criterion continues to double back on its impressive list of Jean-Pierre Melville thrillers with this stunning Blu-ray of his penultimate feature film. Le cercle rouge is another ascetic, stylized police-vs-crooks story in the same vein as his avowed masterpiece Le Samouraï 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.

Le Cercle Rouge(1970)

Melville's last film is the very uneven Un Flic. It has some atmospheric action scenes but is 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 predictable all the way through. It was written in the early 50s in response to Melville's favorite film The Asphalt Jungle, but was put off for twenty years by the success of caper pictures like Du rififi chez le hommes.

Interviewed 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 must 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 is now 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.

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. Before this is proven we hear 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. 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.

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 to 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 -- these men generate little emotional charge. We enjoy Le cercle rouge and admire many scenes and character details, but it's no Asphalt Jungle, just a French echo.

Criterion's Blu-ray of Le cercle rouge improves on their DVD from 2003 with a transfer that makes what seemed rather flat cinematography much more dynamic. Many scenes take place at night or just before dawn, with gray-garbed men running against dank backgrounds of crowded buildings, or dark meadows and trees. HD's higher contrast ratio keeps these backgrounds from turning into visual mush, essentially reviving the film's special look.

The essays in the insert booklet are much more focused on this very special French filmmaker. An 'appreciation' from John Woo is present as well. Le cercle rouge is not my favorite Jean-Pierre Melville picture, but now that Criterion has released so much of his output, the director's vaunted reputation now seems well deserved.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Le cercle rouge Blu-ray rates: Movie: Very GoodVideo: ExcellentSound: 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 assistant director Bernard Stora, 30 minutes of on-set footage with interviews with Jean-Pierre Melville, Alain Delon, Yves Montand and Andre Bourvil; trailers, 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.Packaging: Keep caseReviewed: April 13, 2011

Dark Matter Emma Fuller (bio) Jean-Pierre Melville's films ricochet between the city and the country, extracting the austere looming character of each setting to its utmost visual potential. The barren landscapes of Le cercle rouge (Jean-Pierre Melville, FR/IT, 1970) and the stormy coastline of Un fl ic's (Jean-Pierre Melville, FR/IT, 1972) introductory sequence are evoked in the same language used to describe their urban counterparts, shown as vast networks of streets emptied within their hardened, built environments.

Within these fields of operation, Melville off sets his characters, crystallized, fully formed, and indifferent. The dialectic of psychological isolation with a profound delineation of setting allows his actors to slide in and out of a variety of landscapes, untouched by their environs. Dedicated to an endeavor, the settings change while the actor remains the stalwart fixation of his own pursuits and the cinematic frame (see the opening Le Samouraï (Jean-Pierre Melville, FR/ IT, 1967)). The go-to in Melville's crime oeuvre, Alain Delon, the epitome of detachment and a cool eye, moves through the French city and countryside on a sequence of singular missions for the honorable criminal. There is no potential affect in the setting; the spatial qualities within the cinematography are subservient to a description of the character and, subsequently, the storyline. Moments of unorthodox Melville, when the director subverts his own framework, are uniquely memorable. In Le cercle rouge, the surrealist imagery of reptilian creatures emerging and stalking a recumbent man in a gregariously striped wallpaper room exert a visceral pressure, employed to describe the mind closing in on itself and draw out the spatial compression wrought by the cinematography. [End Page 108] 041b061a72


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