Le Cercle Rouge

By Chris Hyde

June 30, 2003

I loved him on Kids in the Hall!

Sure, maybe there's still a remake of one of Jean-Pierre Melville's films in theaters even as we speak. But even better for film fans, there's also a stunning new print of one of his late gangster films making the art house rounds.

Melville's stylish films have wowed generations of audiences, film school students, and future directors with their expressive mien. Especially of note are his trademark gangster and crime films, for it is here that the man's artistic expression truly finds its greatest height. These films are done with a detached eye that allows the characters to operate within an almost mystical milieu, giving his stories a mythic dimension that helps them transcend their B-movie trappings. In Melville's hands, a crime film isn't just simply an excuse to show off slick technique with a daring robbery -- instead, it's an existential exercise that maintains an exciting narrative drive that doesn't sacrifice entertainment to philosophy.

Younger audiences with little sense of film history may wonder what all the fuss is about, but it's actually hard to imagine filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino and John Woo without the influence of the great French director (Woo's masterpiece--The Killer-undoubtedly owes a heavy debt to Melville). His shadow continues to be cast upon the film world today, as evidenced by the contemporary remake of his brilliant Bob le Flambeur that hit theaters just this past April, The Good Thief. But there's no substitute for the original in this case, as Melville's signature artificial style is leaps and bounds beyond anything that his imitators have managed to put on screen. A case in point is one of the last movies that the man ever directed, his 1970 film Le Cercle Rouge.

The plot of this seeming caper film revolves around a core group of hardened criminals and a police inspector. Just recently released from prison, Corey (played staunchly by Alain Delon) comes into contact with the escaped fugitive Vogel (Gian-Maria Volante) who is on the lam after a daring daylight escape from a train. The police officer (French comic actor Bourvil, brilliantly cast against type) that managed to lose his charge is still on the case, however, and scours the lowlife streets to try to recapture his lost prisoner. The criminal pair hit upon a scheme to knock over a high-class jewelry joint, and enlist the help of a sharpshooting ex-cop (Yves Montand) in the throes of the DT's to help them pick a lock that will make their theft possible.

While this plot would appear for the most part to be run-of-the-mill heist movie stuff, in the hands of a celluloid genius the material is elevated into the realm of the sublime. The characters exist in a peculiarly manufactured world bounded by strict moral codes that enforce their behavior, giving their actions a depth and dimension that many standard genre pictures lack. In the realm of Melville every deed is revealing, every seemingly innocent scene bursts with potential meaning, and each moment is important in its own right. Small touches that enhance the drama appear throughout, such as the pervasive stylishness of each character's actions and the decrepit modernity of many of the film's settings. At times the greatness of Melville's technique shines through in dazzling sections such as the lengthy robbery itself, a tension-filled extended set piece where the masked criminals operate in near silence. More often, however, Melville's genius is evidenced in delicate little throwaway moments that detail the tiny rituals that dominate his character's lives. The police inspector returns home to his empty apartment to feed his cats; the criminals go through the machinations of finding a fence for their goods; people in fashionable bars light up cigarettes as if offering obeisance to some forgotten god of smoke.

Melville's attention to detail allows his stories to play out in a hermetic environment that clearly follows its own simple rules. But it's really his stylistic flourish and distinct sense of pitch that gives the scenes life and makes the narrative engaging while still touching lightly on the meditative. Le Cercle Rouge does indeed play very much like a tone poem rumination on the gangster film itself, but Melville is never so formalistic that this approach becomes self conscious or off-putting. Instead, genre conventions are absorbed and reworked into a story governed both by its own logic and those that are dictated by the cinematic tradition of the crime film. In this way, the director steeps his movie in the lore of cinema, but given his immense talent and flawless eye, he mainly just utilizes the structure as a backdrop on which he builds a stunningly fresh take on the gangster film. In the hands of a lesser artist the material on display here might be little more than yet another pulp entry, but with a genius behind the camera the result is a fascinatingly complex and mannered exposition that is far more than another elemental caper picture.

While seeing Le Cercle Rouge as a film in any form would be a cinematic treat, special note must be made here of the amazing quality of the prints that have been struck for the film's return to American screens in its original format. First released domestically with a cut some forty minutes shorter than what's making the rounds these days, it's a triumph simply in that audiences are getting to see the movie with the version that the director intended. But topping even the restoration of the previously edited footage is the quality of the refurbished celluloid that's being projected with this release; the print that I saw was so unbelievably gorgeous as to be utterly jaw dropping. It seems that with each successive effort the folks at Rialto Pictures manage to outdo their previous work-I could never have imagined that they'd better the job they had done with Quai des Orfevres in the space of just a few short months, but that's exactly the case here. It's hard to conceive that this motion picture has ever looked better than it does today (even during its initial '70s Parisian debut), as the film is just staggeringly beautiful in this run.

When a film of this caliber is given the sort of delicate and loving attention that has been lavished on Le Cercle Rouge in this instance, the result is a rare pleasure that no self-respecting devotee of cinema should miss. As far as cinematic events go, to this writer's eyes this is the historic viewing of the year and is unlikely to be improved upon by any subsequent 2003 repertory release. Presented in a form that befits the film's stature as a true classic, this revisiting of one of Melville's great works affords a wonderful chance for filmgoers to see a cinematic grandmaster at his best. So if you happen to be fortunate enough to live in an area where this work should happen to grace one of your local screens, I've got a little advice for you: do not, under any circumstances, miss it. You can thank me later.