Jean-Pierre Melville is a director that has probably been loved more by directors and filmmakers than general audiences. John Woo swears by him. Quentin Tarantino adores him. Walter Hill was hip to him in the 1970’s, and made The Driver partly as an homage to Le Samourai. When I talked to Roger Deakins, he said that he constantly returned to the master. Le Cercle Rouge (“The Red Circle”) has been bouncing around for a while as something that may be possibly remade. But who could give the modulated cool of Alain Delon or Yves Montand? Unknown. But thank god Criterion put out the original on Blu-ray. Check out our review after the jump.
Even if you don’t know Melville, you can generally spot a great filmmaker. Hell, even on a lesser project, one can usually spot a master director quickly. It’s got something to do with framing — after viewing more than enough bad overhead shots of cities and sequences that seem to be shot as if they are meant for television, it’s easy to be enraptured by a director who is an expert at revealing only what needs to be seen; a director who knows what, and most importantly why, he’s showing you what he is. It’s like when a master orator raises and lowers his voice, using tonalities to transfix his listeners to his tale.
Watching Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1970 film Le Cercle Rouge, one feels the hands of master pulling the strings of the characters, sharing a story that fascinates him as much as it does the audience. In Rouge, Melville is working in his favorite genre (noir), showcasing a story about both fate and interconnectedness, and he does so with his favorite actor Alain Delon (of whom the two had one of film history’s great actor/director relationships, comparable to Martin Scorsese’s work with Robert De Niro) to make what would become one of their great successes.
Corey (Delon) is about to be released from jail after a five-year stint when a guard tells him of a great jewelry score. Uninterested, he gets out of the slam only to find his girlfriend living with his old boss. In revenge, he pillages the man’s safe. At the same time Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte) escapes from a train while handcuffed to police inspector Mattei (Andre Bourvil), and a manhunt erupts. As Corey tries to avoid the conflict he created, Vogel hides himself in Corey’s trunk. But this subterfuge doesn’t escape Corey — he helps Vogel cross police lines. The favor is repaid shortly as Vogel helps get Corey out of a jam when his old boss sends men to take him out.
Quickly Vogel and Corey realize they should commit the jewelry heist together, but to do so they need the help of a sharpshooter, leading to the recruitment of ex-cop Jansen (Yves Montand), an alcoholic prone to hallucinations who’s also trying to clean up his act. As the boys plan and execute their crime — in a virtuoso 25-minute sequence as fascinating as the similar silent burglary in Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) — Mattei circles their efforts after receiving a missive from a superior who tells him that “all men are guilty.” Mattei then uses the info he has on a bar owner to force the man to track down Vogel. But Mattei knows if he waits patiently enough, the thieves eventually will come to him.
As Jean Pierre Melville’s penultimate film, Le Cercle Rouge culminates his obsession with noir. For Melville (born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, he changed his name to reflect his love and affinity with American author Herman Melville), having already shown his skill with the genre (Le Doulos, Le Samourai), Rouge bonds his cinematic interests with the “heist” genre. And during the bravado heist sequence — like the rest of the picture — Melville evinces his idiosyncratic talent for storytelling. Nothing feels rushed, and while some contemporary filmgoers might think the experience “slow,” this only reveals the steady hand of a filmmaker who knows how to get the most out of small looks and gestures.
One can see why Delon (a notoriously fickle talent) would feel so comfortable in Melville’s hands — his Corey is one of the ultimate cinema bad-asses, wasting no time with his ex, or with those who attempt to intimidate him. Melville is among the most “movie-smart” directors (ranking just short of Welles), and he understands a genre well enough to avoid its many pitfalls – in Rouge there are no femme fatales to disrupt the criminal enterprise.
Perhaps Melville saw the “heist” picture as a masculine genre that’s concerned with the partnerships men create in order to survive. But the picture’s main focus is fate, and how interconnected the world is. Melville connected noir fatalism and Eastern philosophy in Le Samourai; here, he invokes a Buddhist principle in the movie’s opening crawl. That karmic sense allows the plot machinations to feel unforced, and when the ending converges with Mattei, Vogel, Jansen, and Corey all drawn to one location, such seems as inevitable as their initial meetings.
Criterion’s Blu-ray edition of Le Cercle Rouge copies all the supplements from their previous DVD release. The film is presented in widescreen (1.85:1) in 2.0 mono audio and with optional English subtitles. Shot by Henri Decae, the blue-ish noir tone Melville favored looks stunning, and the blu-ray does nothing but enhance the films muted color palette.
The supplements start in “Archival Footage” which begins with an excerpt from a documentary on Melville called “Cineasts de notre temps: Jean-Pierre Melville (portrait en 9 poses),” (27 min.) which shows Melville at his home and his studios talking about the process of his filmmaking; it also offers a greater sense of the character Melville both was and portrayed himself to be, constantly adorned in a Stetson hat, sunglasses, and trench coat. This is paired with four television excerpts, with “Pour le cinema” (5 min.) featuring footage of Melville shooting the finale of Rouge as his stars list their upcoming projects, “Midi Magazine” (4 min.) an interview with Meville about the film, “Vingt-Quatre Heures Sur La Deux” (4 min.) a television interview with Melville and Delon, and “Morceaux de Braoure” (10 min.) with Melville solo. Assistant director Bernard Stora (30 min.) and Rui Nogueira (26 min.), author of Melville on Melville, offer their reflections on the filmmaker. Also included are two trailers. Missing from the DVD release is the film’s still gallery.