Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Alain Delon, André Bourvil, Gian-Maria Volonté, Yves Montand, François Périer
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Audio: French mono
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: television interview excerpts, new interviews, archival footage, trailers, gallery, booklet
Length: 140 minutes
Release Date: October 14, 2003

"All men are guilty.  They are born innocent, but it doesn't last."

Film ****

Jean-Pierre 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.

A 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. 

By 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.

As 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."

The 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! 

Corey's 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.

Of 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.

And 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.

Le 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.

Mattei 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.

Interspersed 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?"

He 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.

Corey 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.

When 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.

Thereafter, 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.

But, 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 whereabouts. 

Le Cercle Rouge 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.

I 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.

Video ****

Le Cercle Rouge 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.

I 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.

Le Cercle Rouge 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!

Audio ***

Le Cercle Rouge 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.

The 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.

Features ****

Le Cercle Rouge 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 plot. 

That 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.

There 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.

Included 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.

Next, 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.

Thirdly, 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 guilty."

The 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.

The 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!

Moving 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.

The 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."

Finally, 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 well).


Fantastic.  Who says the French can't make great crime caper films?  As one of Melville's final films, Le Cercle Rouge is a supreme example of the gritty, realistic style of 70's-era suspense thrillers.  If you enjoy the likes of The Day of the Jackal or The French Connection films, this is definitely the film for you!