LE CERCLE ROUGE
Review by Ed Nguyen
Alain Delon, André Bourvil, Gian-Maria Volonté, Yves Montand, François Périer
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Audio: French mono
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Features: television interview excerpts, new interviews, archival footage, trailers, gallery, booklet
Length: 140 minutes
Release Date: October 14, 2003
men are guilty. They are born
innocent, but it doesn't last."
Grumbach was born in the midst of the First World War.
He must have taken it personally to heart, for his future destiny would
lie in the creation of many classic films all about modern-day warriors and
anti-heroes. As a youth, Grumbach
was an avid film buff and was especially fond of the Hollywood crime films of
the 1930's. He even tried his hand
at a few amateur films, but it was not until after military service in the
Second World War (naturally, he was also a member of the French Resistance) that
he began an earnest career as a film director.
maverick from the start, Grumbach renamed himself Jean-Pierre Melville, after
his favorite novelist, Herman Melville. He
created his own production studio at a time when few other directors dared.
In a sense, he was instrumental in helping to establish the independent
scene in French cinema. Melville's
early films drew from the lessons of Italian neorealism and were shot on
location with a minimal crew and budget and no stars.
Reflecting Melville's favorite themes, these early films invariably
revolved around war and crime.
the 1960's, Melville had become a well-established director.
He had also become a source of inspiration for the younger directors at
this time, particularly those of the New Wave.
During this latter, more commercial phase of his career, Melville also
began to experiment with larger budgets and even a few name stars.
His twelfth film, Le Cercle Rouge
(The Red Circle), was released in 1970 and starred several popular
French actors of the day. But, then
and now, it is classic Melville all the way, featuring a host of crooks and cops
and crooked cops.
with many crime capers, Le Cercle Rouge
is predominately a film about men, their egos, and their downfalls.
The women in this film are nothing more than objects or background
decorations and have collectively in the vicinity of, oh, one line for the
entire film. Yes, this film is all
about cops and robbers. Featuring
taut drama and methodical direction, it is also a vintage 70's-style suspense
thriller. The film's cryptic title
is actually a reference to a quote by Siddharta Guatama, the Buddha.
An excerpt of his quote is presented at the very start of the film:
"When men, even unknowingly, are to meet one day, whatever may befall each,
whatever their diverging paths, on the said day, they will inevitably come
together in the red circle."
film's cast is quite impeccable, as one might imagine.
The lead character of Corey, a tough-guy hoodlum just released from
prison, is portrayed by Alain Delon, an actor known for his outcast roles.
Delon's image was undoubtedly enhanced by a real-life 1968 scandal in
which the body of his own bodyguard was found in a garbage dump.
The investigations into this scandal dug up many politicians and
entertainers and was the big story in France at the time.
Delon himself even admitted to having had associations with the
underworld, although he was cleared of any wrong-doing in the matter of his
bodyguard's demise. Nonetheless, in
the case of life imitating art (or vice versa), Delon became the natural choice
for the role of Corey!
band is comprised of two other men of dubious nature. Playing Vogel, Corey's partner-in-crime, is Gian-Maria Volonté,
a young Italian stage actor who would later win several acting awards, including
one at the Cannes Film Festival. And
then, there is the eagle-eyed sharpshooter in this trio, Jansen (Yves Montand,
one of France's most renowned actors). Montand
was formerly a popular singer but in the latter stages of his career had
established himself as a fine dramatic actor, too.
In Le Cercle Rouge, he portrays
a burnt-out, weary marksman, plagued by personal demons, who sees possible
redemption in his unlikely association with Corey.
course, where there are gangsters, there will be coppers.
Opposing the criminals is Mattei, a determined police commissaire played
by André Bourvil (himself another former song-and-dance man).
Embarrassed by Vogel's escape from his clutches early in the film, Mattei
has vowed not to rest until Vogel is either re-captured or killed.
so, there you have the ingredients for a solid police thriller.
Le Cercle Rouge, then, is a
film about individuals on both sides of the law, strangers to each other, who
are destined to converge together upon a common ground.
It plays to the psychology of men and the honor that they find even in
the most amoral of deeds. Under
Melville's precise direction, the film chronicles the downward spiral that
brings these men together into the film's fateful shoot-out.
Cercle Rouge starts
quickly in mid-action, with the police rushing a mysterious, handcuffed prisoner
onto a train. That prisoner is
Vogel, and he is being escorted by policeman Mattei.
Vogel realizes that this transfer may be his only opportunity for escape.
Waiting until Mattei dozes off, Vogel frees himself of his bonds and
makes a daring escape out the window of the moving train.
Consequently, chaos ensues.
brings the train to a screeching halt. A
chase transpires, but Vogel is too evasive. Mattei then calls headquarters for a massive dragnet operation, setting up police check points on
all the major roadways in the area. There
are even helicopters and police dogs involved.
And still, Vogel evades Mattei. Perhaps,
it is Vogel's fatal mistake; in wounding the pride of this otherwise exceptional
police officer, Vogel has only solidified Mattei's resolve to re-capture him.
The two men are surely destined to meet again before the film concludes.
into this exciting opening sequence, however, are scenes from another, seemingly
unrelated storyline. Another
prisoner, this time in his jail cell, receives a visit from the night guardsman.
The prisoner is Corey, and the guard brings good news - Corey is
scheduled to be released for good behavior in the morning.
But, the guard has a seedy proposal - with his background, Corey may find
little honest employment in the outside world after his release from prison.
Perhaps, would he be interested in doing a little "job?"
might. But upon his release, Corey
has old business to finish. He
immediately visits Rico, the old crime boss for whom he used to work.
There is bad blood between them, and invariably as is often the case in
this sort of film, it involves a dame. Yeah.
Corey robs his boss blind, tosses a few old photos of his former mistress
into the safe, and even takes the old man's gun, too.
That, then, is Corey's fatal mistake.
By angering this powerful gangster, he sets into motion the wheels of
retribution, the repercussions of which will plague him throughout the film.
and Vogel, then, are imperfect anti-heroes.
Intelligent yet flawed, they are hardened, morally ambiguous men cut from
the same fabric. The film may
initially follow their separate actions, but sooner or later, the paths of these
two men must inevitably cross.
Corey and Vogel do meet face to face, it is an initial encounter fraught with
distrust. Only after they compare
stories do they realize that perhaps they are similar in many ways.
A reluctant friendship gradually develops between the men, one which is
cemented into a close bond when they each save the other's life, Corey by
harboring Vogel from the police enforcers and Vogel in return by killing hit men
sent after Corey by Rico.
the focus of the film becomes Corey's "job" - the preparations leading
up to it, the act itself, and ultimately the consequences.
The "job" is an attempted heist, and it will be a task for five
men. Corey and Vogel will perform
the heavy-duty dirty work, a third man will serve as the sharpshooter and
getaway man, and Corey's police informant will provide the particulars of the
job. The last man will be the
fence, who will supply the monetary reimbursement for the successfully acquired
spoils of the heist.
life and crime are never so easy as planned.
In a deadly, tactical game of cat-and-cat-and-mouse, Corey's band is
being hunted by both Rico and Mattei, alike.
Rico has dispersed gangs of hit men to recover his stolen loot.
Meanwhile, Mattei has descended upon the elements of the underworld,
dragging out informants or former colleagues of Vogel's to ascertain his
has many of the elements one might expect in a suspense thriller.
There are gun fights and car chases.
There are robberies and daring escapes.
But, the highlight of the film is undoubtedly the heist itself.
For almost thirty minutes, in nearly dead silence, Melville masterly
orchestrates the execution of this heist. The
heist is a purely professional job, shown in a grim, realistic manner.
Melville doesn't mess around with music or fancy angles, either; through
carefully devised mise-en-scène, he has transformed this dialogue-free sequence
into a gripping half-hour of unadulterated stress and tension.
It is pure movie magic.
will not reveal any more of the plot, but mark my words - suspense thrillers
rarely get any better than this. Le
Cercle Rouge is gritty and taut. The
direction is methodical, unerring, and extremely confident.
Melville is absolutely at the top of his game for this film, and Le Cercle Rouge may very well be his most accomplished thriller.
How good is it? Well, The
Day of the Jackal is generally acknowledged as the best suspense-thriller
ever. Le Cercle Rouge is every bit its equal. That's how good it
is shown in its original 1.85:1 widescreen format.
The high-definition transfer was created from a new 35mm interpositive,
and quite frankly, is excellent. There
are no discernable compression defects. Furthermore,
the film has been recently restored and is in wonderful condition.
I do not recall seeing any significant dust marks or scratch marks; in
short, Le Cercle Rouge looks almost as good as new.
should point out that the film does exhibit a certain degree of softness and
graininess to its picture. However,
these qualities are inherent to the film stock and not reflective of the
transfer itself. Also, some scenes
have decidedly greenish tint to them, as if to emphasize the film's glum and
desperation. The color green in
films of this nature often denotes illness or disease; perhaps Melville was
suggesting something about the nature of criminals with his color scheme.
The skies are a dismal, cloudy grey as well, adding a further touch of
dreariness to the environs. The bar Santi's, on
the other hand, is outfitted with decadent hues and tones.
In short, the film is actually quite colorful but only in ways which
serve to enhance the film's ambience.
was given a 2003 re-release by Rialto Pictures.
Criterion has done a superb job in presenting that restoration here. Fans of the film will undoubtedly be very pleased!
is presented with its original French monaural soundtrack.
It sounds perfectly fine and is free of any glaring hisses or pops.
While obviously not as dynamic as a stereo or 5.1 track, the audio here
is still well suited to the film and should not detract in any way from the
film. In any regard, the film has
relatively little dialogue anyways, concentrating more on editing and technique
to narrate the story.
score is also used only sparingly. Most
often, if it is present at all, it is incidental music, a jazzy tune from car
radio, a background jingle at the local bar.
But, on the rare occasions when the music comes to the forefront, it is
quite effective and adds immeasurably to the tension of the moment.
receives the double-disc special edition treatment from Criterion.
The first disc holds the entire film, clocking in at well over two hours.
The second disc contains the extra features assembled for this DVD
release. I wish to caution viewers
to watch the film first before looking over the extras, including the booklet.
Some key plot developments are revealed (or implied) in these features,
and this film is better enjoyed without possessing too much foreknowledge of the
being said, first up on the second disc are a couple of trailers.
The original one is the very definition of a 70's suspense-thriller
trailer. It's great stuff!
The 2003 re-release trailer is nearly identical, save for a few critical
review blurbs. Strangely enough, it
is in much worse condition than the original trailer.
is an art gallery which is sub-divided into two sections.
The publicity and production stills section has 62 entries over which to
peruse. The poster section has 14
international promotional posters from various countries around the world.
on the second disc is a series of short excerpts from various interviews.
They range from four to ten minutes in length.
First is the March 15, 1970 broadcast of Pour
le cinéma. This
behind-the-scenes look at the shooting of several scenes also gives some of the
lead actors a chance to mention their then-upcoming projects.
Melville, for his part, confirms that, yes, there are no roles for women
in this film and yes, that was his intent from the start.
there is an excerpt from the May 27, 1970 broadcast of Midi Magazine. Melville
discusses his affinity for the police thriller and why he feels it works so well
as a genre in France.
there is an excerpt from the November 21, 1970 broadcast of vingt-quatre
heures sur la deux. This is an
interview session with Alain Delon and Jean-Pierre Melville, and it sheds some
light upon the film's assertion that "no one is innocent; all men are
final excerpt comes from the May 7, 1973 broadcast of morceaux de bravoure. It
is an interview session with Melville. One
of the most interesting tidbits to arise from this interview is that the initial
conception of Le Cercle Rouge dates
back to 1950, when Melville first worked out the scene for the heist that
appears in the film. Melville also
discusses some of his American film influences, such as Asphalt Jungle.
heart of this second disc lies in its extended interviews.
Each one is approximately thirty minutes in length.
There are two new ones and an archival interview from the French TV
programme Cinéastes de notre temps.
For people not aware of this programme, it was co-produced by Janine
Bazin, widow of the renowned French critic Andre Bazin.
Its purpose was to serve as a showcase for the brightest French directors
of the day and to offer them a forum for intellectual discussion about their
films or anything else. For this
DVD, the July 16, 1971 segment of the programme (portrait
en neuf poses) is reprised. It
focuses on Melville and his approach to the cinema.
Melville himself narrates portions of his history, dating back to the
creation of his studio just after the end of the Second World War and leading up
to Le Cercle Rouge.
Melville looks quite a bit like a French Alfred Hitchcock, and appearing
in his trademark Stetson cowboy hat, pitch-black Rayban sunglasses, and trench
coat, he is the epitome of cool. In
other words, he appears just as one might imagine a director who specializes in
police thrillers should look like!
on, the first of the two new interviews is conducted with Bernard Stora, a
former assistant to the director. Stora
recalls his initial interview with Melville for a job as the director's
assistant and offers many anecdotes describing Melville's directorial style,
including his hands-on approach with his actors. Stora clearly admires Melville's uncanny ability to take a
seemingly ordinary script (such as the original script to Le Cercle Rouge) and to transform it into something truly
extraordinary. Such is the
distinction that separates a merely competent director from a true master.
second of the two new interviews is conducted with Rui Noguiera, author of a
series of interviews with Melville, collected in Melville on Melville. Noguiera
is positively bubbly with excitement as he recounts one amusing story after
another, from his first meetings with Melville to Melville's desire to make a
"black & white color film" to his recollections of the
difficulties of Le Cercle Rouge's
production. Noguiera also compares
Melville to Hitchcock (in his latter career in America) and contends that
Melville was "a great American director lost in France."
as is frequently the case, Criterion has included an extensive booklet for this
DVD release. The 24-page booklet is
provided to supplement the material on the second disc.
It offers a wealth of information about the director, who may not be
familiar to many Western audiences. The
booklet starts off with a critical analysis of the film by Michael Sragow, a
film critic for the Baltimore Sun. Following that is an extended segment from Rui Noguiera's
book Melville on Melville, focusing an
interview with Melville about his film. The
next section offers words from composer Eric Demarsan about his experiences
creating the minimalist but effective and jazzy score for Le
Cercle Rouge. After that, Chris
Fujiwara gives an analysis of the meaning of the film's title for his article
"What is the Red Circle?" Lastly,
even action director John Woo joins in, stating how much he admired the films of
Melville for their portrayals of the bonds of honor and loyalty between
criminals and anti-heroes (a fairly common theme in Woo's Hong Kong films as