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The Criterion Collection presents
Le Cercle rouge (1970)

"I dream up this charade, and it turns out to be true."
- Captain Mattei (André Bourvil)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: December 03, 2003

Stars: Alain Delon, Gian Maria Volonté André Bourvil, Yves Montand
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 02h:20m:53s
Release Date: October 28, 2003
UPC: 037429184028
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A+ A-A-A A+

DVD Review

It may not have been by design, but Le Cercle rouge feels decidedly like an apotheosis of sorts—Jean-Pierre Melville spent the better part of his career making stylish police thrillers, and in this, his penultimate film, it's almost as if he's set out to show off his lifetime's worth of lessons. (In this respect, the movie has an affinity with North by Northwest, Hitchcock's attempt to make the ultimate Hitchcock thriller.) Melville hasn't become a closely guarded secret, exactly, but his renown isn't nearly as wide as, say, Truffaut's or Godard's; perhaps that's because he's more of a genre filmmaker, and one who works in a pulpy genre, at that. But this is as smart and fun a cop movie as you're going to find, and it's one that has influenced many more familiar, American films, from The French Connection to Reservoir Dogs to Heat.

The setup and story are familiar, but in a comfortable, not a numbing way. Corey (Alain Delon), a natty criminal of the highest order, is just getting out of jail when he gets a hot tip about a job from a prison guard; he'd pass on the proverbial big score, except that when he goes to see his former comrade in arms, he finds that his buddy is sleeping with his girl. Meanwhile, Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté), a member of Corey's fraternity, is riding the rail with a police escort, Captain Mattei (André Bourvil), but Vogel remains one step ahead of his guardian, and engineers a daring escape from a moving train. Vogel and Corey cross paths, enlist the help of Jansen (the incomparable Yves Montand), a first-rate marksman with a nasty case of the D.T.s, and plan their grand robbery.

All the classic, even overly familiar aspects of the genre are here: the existential heroes on the wrong side of the law, the honor among thieves, the intimations that the criminals and their pursuers are cut from the same bolt of cloth. Melville isn't forging new cinematic ground, and deliberately so—he knows that even the most trite clichés hold kernels of truth, and, as every good storyteller does, he finds a way to make it new. And he's an incredibly confident filmmaker, sure in his ability to tell a story visually. Vogel's escape from the train is a tour de force, and would probably be the highlight of the film if it weren't for the tension-filled heist that dominates the second half of the movie especially. It's almost entirely without music and dialogue, and it's a virtuoso bit of filmmaking of the highest order.

These set pieces are so accomplished, in fact, that the rest of the movie occasionally feels as if it's marking time between them, and you may start to think about all the things that Melville doesn't, won't or can't do. Women are basically absent from the film, for instance, but for the occasional cocktail waitress or chorus girl; and upon reflection, you may realize that we truly know almost nothing about any of the characters in the film. But that's in keeping with the noir ethos: these men are what they do, and we in fact get all the necessary information. The other questions are interesting, but peripheral, along the lines of wondering how many children Lady Macbeth had, or why we don't hear about the death of Charles Foster Kane's son after the opening newsreel announcing the newspaper publisher's death.

Also worth remarking on is the great work that Melville gets from his actors. With some, he got along famously—Delon was the Toshiro Mifune to Melville's Kurosawa—and others, like Montand and Bourvil, were rightly famous long before they were cast in a Melville picture; they find just the right tone, and feel completely a part of this world. Melville's on-set problems with Volonté are voluminously documented in the supplements (see below), but even the Italian actor's work feels as if it's of a piece of the Melvillean whole. Melville died three years after the release of Le Cercle rouge, and completed only one more film, Un Flic; in many respects, this is the unintentional if apt summing up of the career of the grandpère of the nouvelle vague.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Melville and his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Henri Decaë, achieve amazing depth of field, and Decaë's use of lighting is magnificent, almost sculptural. The colors can look a little dulled down and bland in this transfer, but that may well be due to the film stock used on the shoot, as it's a look that you'll find in many motion pictures of the period.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Melville uses sound as well as any filmmaker since Orson Welles, and his efforts can be appreciated fully with this clean and interference-free audio track. Criterion has done an admirable job transferring it to DVD, and resisting the notion of tarting it up as something it isn't—long live mono.

Audio Transfer Grade: A


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
2 Original Trailer(s)
3 Documentaries
4 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Double alpha
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet, with essays and interviews (see below)
  2. color bars
Extras Review: The second disc houses the raft of extras, which are particularly good at situating the film in its time and place, and many of the best bits here come from French television. A documentary (27m:16s) with Melville originally broadcast in 1971 as part of the series Cinéastes de notre temps (Filmmakers of Our Time) shows the director at leisure and at work, editing Le Cercle rouge; it's long enough to give us a good portrait of the man, and full of odd little details, such as when the narrator points out to us about the director: "Notice how comfortable his bathrobe is." Four briefer clips are housed under the menu title On-Set and Archival Interview Footage. First is Pour le cinéma (05m:25s), a 1970 piece on set with Melville, Delon, and Montand, the last discussing shooting On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, with Barbra Streisand. A Midi Magazine piece (04m:43s) from the same year was also shot on set, and in it Melville observes that "the police thriller is the only modern form of tragedy possible." A clip (03m:50s) from Vingt-quatre heures sur la deux shows Melville and Delon on the talk show circuit, fielding inane questions (e.g., "Why do you like loners?"), and a 1973 clip from Morceaux de bravoure (09m:53s) features Melville discussing his heist sequence versus the ones in The Asphalt Jungle and Rififi.

Assistant director Bernard Stora sat for an interview (30m:11s) in 2003, in which he relates stories of meeting and working for Melville, and the director's love of all things American. Stora is particularly entertaining on Melville's transformation of Bourvil from a music hall performer to a natty, knowing Paris cop. Also from 2003, Robert Fischer interviews writer Rui Nogueira (26m:11s), who befriended and published a book of interviews with Melville. Nogueira is candid in admitting that he doesn't think Le Cercle rouge rates especially highly in the director's canon ("It's the beginning of the end"), but he has enormous respect for Melville's attention to detail.

Also on hand are two trailers (one for the original French release, the other from the 2003 re-release), and a gallery of production and publicity stills, both in color and black and white, and posters for the film, in French, German, Italian and other languages. Finally, the accompanying booklet has a few tasty morsels as well: an introduction to the film from Melville fan John Woo; excerpts from one of the interviews from Nogueira's book; and essays on the film by Chris Fujiwara and Michael Sragow. The latter is especially winning in comparing Le Cercle rouge to the career capstone of the director's namesake: Moby-Dick.

Extras Grade: A+


Final Comments

Deliberately or not, with Le Cercle rouge Melville made the ultimate Melville film, a police story full of style, tension and respect for its genre. This handsome package from Criterion is especially helpful in situating the film in its cultural moment. A tip of the Stetson to all involved.


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