Le Cercle Rouge Review

Enormously influential, with both John Woo and Johnnie To having been attached to a proposed remake at different times, but still respectfully in tune to the elegance of the films that came before it, Jean-Pierre Melville's 1970 masterpiece Le cercle rouge is the ultimate depiction of cool masculinity among criminals. Several filmmakers tried before and after Le cercle rouge to explore the themes of loneliness and isolation within the very specific world of men who perform tasks outside of the law but none have ever captured it the way Melville could. He was a master of making criminals seem like tragic heroes undone by the inevitability of fate and nonetheless somehow accepting of this as just another point along the time line. The professionalism and adherence to an unwritten code shown by Melville's characters seems to extend even to their own deaths.

Le cercle rouge proved to be Melville's penultimate film but the disappointment of Un Flic and the culmination of so much that had come before in the director's filmography easily make this feel like a summit the director finally ascended to after numerous brilliant and great pictures. Quite a few of these are contained within that large genre of crime movies that conceivably stretches all the way back to American silents, snaking through to the Hollywood gangster pictures Melville famously loved and also including much of what is now known as film noir. Le cercle rouge is as good as or better than all of these. It's cold and brimming with things unspoken that masterfully underline the collection of main characters. It has a nakedly tense heist sequence that often gets debated against the one in Jules Dassin's Rififi for all sorts of superlatives. The cigarettes and trench coats and signature white gloves transcend any hint of self-parody to achieve the sort of coolness that's earned rather than ascribed. There are the steely Melville blues and greys that filter the image through a feeling of unworried foreshadowing, where the existential must at some point merge with the inevitable.

Melville had an almost burdensome ability to stylistically convey feeling and mood, but, beneath this, he establishes his plot and surrounding characters with the consummate skill of the very men he loved to dissect on film. This undeterred professionalism and commitment to the job at hand informs virtually every one of Melville's great protagonists. What happens after the task seems almost tangential in some way, making the resulting fate of the participants beside the point. All that matters, and all that ever matters in Melville's signature works, is a strict adherence to accepting a professional responsibility that typically relates to the world of crime, impeccably preparing for those moments that will follow, and carrying out the necessary task without complaint. Success or failure defines these characters less than simple completion.

So it is with the collection of main characters found in Le cercle rouge. The job starts with a prison guard telling Corey (a flawless Alain Delon), who's about to be released, about a potential heist of a jewelry store. Corey gets out, finds the woman he once loved with an unindicted co-conspirator who flourished while he was rotting away in jail for five years, and unaffectedly moves on to establish his necessary colleagues. Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté) is an accidental find, a criminal on the run who hides in Corey's trunk. He suggests Jansen (Yves Montand), an ex-cop whose personal demons have ruined him and who is seen hallucinating a frightening array of creatures that crawl all over him while he lies in bed. This job has the potential to get Jansen's life back on track and he knows it. It's not the money but the shaking of his addictions that Jansen needs. When Vogel fled, it was Mattei (André Bourvil, cast against type) who had been in charge of transporting him and all subsequent events that the escapee becomes involved in are, with the reluctant help of informants like Santi (François Perier), of vital interest to him.

That's pretty much the set-up, where disparate men come together for a jewelry store heist with each playing an essential role and the lonely cop, a man who comes home to a collection of cats interested only in food, must redeem himself by bringing in the dangerous criminal he lost. Who's the hero and who's the villain? Melville shifts his sympathies, unavoidably it seems, to the men who operate outside the law but he hardly stacks the deck. Mattei is a similarly fascinating figure whose loneliness equals his opponents'. He seems defined by those cats. The lawman has quite a few, and can't even entirely win their affection or regularly feed them due to his job. At work, he takes a questionable step in bringing in Santi's son as a means of getting the elder to talk, but Mattei is clearly quite clever even in his moments of poor judgment. He becomes a sympathetic figure, humanized by Melville in those brief scenes at home with his cats.

These men, deeply Melvillian figures who live for work and struggle to establish or maintain outside relationships, eventually come together in the promised red circle of the title. The opening quote purportedly originating with Rama Krishna, but instead fashioned by Melville himself, describes men whose fates are meant to intertwine as eventually coming together in a red circle. This is one of the overarching themes of the film, and serves as an instruction of sorts into the fatalistic sense of Melville's filmmaking. His characters act as they do because they must. Free will plays little if any role in the matter.

The other major, recurring point established in Le cercle rouge comes from something said by the French equivalent of an internal affairs boss in the police squad. He tells Mattei that, despite being born innocent, all men are guilty. What a very Christian attitude to have. This pessimistic, universal sinner approach informs the attitude of the film. It's yet another return to the idea that men have little control over their own lives, that they're all guilty and doomed to the whims of fate as necessary. Mattei, of course, balks at this notion initially but time perhaps sways his thinking. He succumbs to the theory, though certainly not based on Corey and Vogel. Maybe it's Jansen but maybe it's Mattei himself who recognizes his own actions as having been less than honorable.

As stirring and brilliantly executed as the ending to Le cercle rouge is, the primary focus instead often seems to fall on the wordless, almost silent heist sequence that eats away a good chunk of time in the film's second half. It's a bravura accomplishment on Melville's part, and one appreciated even better in a cinema than at home with the option of the pause button as an ever-lingering distraction. Part of what makes the heist such a great piece of filmmaking is that the viewer already knows how much is at stake for all three men. They need this. The tension is clearly there from the moment the men put on their white editor's gloves and go to work. Each man has much at stake, particularly their freedom, and mistakes cannot be afforded. The pièce de résistance is Jansen's magic bullet. Soon after, with his mission accomplished, Jansen takes a deep whiff of his flask before quickly discarding it. He knows the alcohol is no longer a necessity. In Melville's world it might not seem like such a thing really matters but it certainly does. Everything, from a look to a decision to the larger acts of accomplishment, are part of the whole. Part of the red circle where men who are supposed to find each other do.

The Disc

The Studio Canal Collection Blu-ray being reviewed here is locked to Region B and will only play in machines capable of handling such discs. Upon loading, the disc prompts you to choose between three countries (Deutschland, France and the United Kingdom), indicating that it's likely also being used for the separate releases in those other areas. Optimum handles distribution in the UK while Studio Canal puts out its own product in France and Kinowelt is the German distributor. In the U.S., Lionsgate is the designated home of the Studio Canal Collection, a deal that has caused many Studio Canal titles previously released by the Criterion Collection to go out of print. Criterion continues to have its DVD edition of Le cercle rouge available, which, given the region-locking of this Blu-ray, seems to suggest that either the label's rights to the film have not yet lapsed or perhaps something else is afoot.

For the most part, Studio Canal has done everything right with its Blu-ray release of Le cercle rouge. The distinct look of the film, which had been blundered by the Criterion Collection years ago and wasn't perfect even in the comparatively better edition put out by the BFI, finally seems true to Melville's intentions. He famously preferred cold tones that favor blues and greys, as evidenced by Army of Shadows before and the even more extreme case of Un Flic afterward. Criterion's transfer didn't respect this deviation from natural colors and essentially used a wrong color palette. A recent, informal blog posting on that label's website even finally admitted as much. The BFI's version, now out of print, was more faithful to the intended look of the film but still had an unnatural brightness that didn't seem accurate. The dual-layered disc has the film in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1.

Studio Canal's transfer is clearly an improvement all around. Colors and tones retain the cool appearance Melville wanted, a stark contrast against Criterion's mistake, and the blown out look of the BFI effort has been resisted in favor of a darker, more subdued image. You can really see the difference in the latter by looking at the end of the picture when Delon's Corey is frantically running off into the distance and he's shadowed far more than in either of the DVD transfers I've mentioned. Grain is certainly more visible here also, giving the picture a nice filmlike, and dark, appearance. The level of detail has increased dramatically from the earlier DVD versions. Everything is noticeably sharper as a result. There aren't any instances of damage causing problems or serving as distractions. I also didn't see any excessive manipulation to the print. What's here looks impressively natural and a huge victory for these Studio Canal Collection Blu-rays, which have previously been more disappointing than not. (Images in this review are press stills and not screen captures from the Blu-ray.)

The audio is likewise quite good. The French DTS-HD track is spread across two channels and sounds wonderfully moody while also accentuating the important musical cues found in the film. The firing of bullets is nicely spare but crisp. Dialogue maintains a consistent volume and can be heard cleanly, without interference. This too is an improvement, if not quite so obvious, over what can be found on the standard definition releases. Also included on the disc, probably with the Kinowelt release in mind, is a German DTS-HD dub. Subtitles are optional and available in English, French and German.

It's tough to complain about the supplementary materials that Studio Canal has provided, but I think I've nonetheless found a legitimate point of contention. The commentary provided by Ginette Vincendeau that was on both the BFI disc and Optimum's later DVD that was released after the BFI's license apparently expired hasn't been included here. Another BFI-produced supplement, an introduction (21:30) by Vincendeau, pops up on the Blu-ray but the commentary is missing. Vincendeau's introduction is indeed just that, a short primer on Melville that scratches a lot of surface for those only marginally familiar with the director.

The star attraction of the bonus features is easily the feature-length documentary portrait Code Name: Melville (76:37). This 2008 film is a fascinating account of not just Melville's films, which have been discussed across several Criterion DVD editions at this point, but also his earlier life. If there's a tipping point for those wondering about upgrading their edition of Le cercle rouge to Blu-ray, it's this documentary. It's extremely enlightening and gives a more rounded impression of the director than other complementary pieces that focus largely on just his work. The presence of several people who knew him outside of his films, including two of his nephews and several other friends, helps to make this a more personal look at the former Jean-Pierre Grumbach. There's also a good amount of audio featuring Melville, plus clips from video interviews, that proves invaluable. His admission of how much he enjoyed the war due to the camaraderie of men becomes a highly instructive insight into his work. The only niggling point to make is that the subtitles are imperfect, with a few spelling mistakes and also the insistence on using English language titles of Melville's films even though almost all of them are commonly known by their original French names.

The section of the extras labeled "About Le cercle rouge" consists of three interviews, none of which were done specifically for this release, and the film's trailer. A long session with assistant director Bernard Stora (30:12) recorded in 2003 begins with a series of basic observations and recollections but turns more interesting at points like the discussion of Bourvil's casting in the picture. An interview (14:37) with writer Jose Giovanni, whose books were the basis for films like Le Trou and Le deuxième souffle, follows. The Criterion Collection's sit-down (26:17) with Rui Nogueira, author of the interview book Melville on Melville, has been brought over to this edition. A trailer (1:54) finishes up the disc supplements.

Additionally, there's a booklet included with this release but I've not had the opportunity to see it.

Final Thoughts

Thus far, the Studio Canal Collection hasn't instilled a great deal of confidence in buyers looking to own definitive editions of the films that have been released. Frankly, I would've preferred to see the planned Criterion Collection releases of Ran and Contempt, as well as keeping in print The Third Man and Pierrot le fou, instead of having Studio Canal muck up the marketplace. No such complaints here, though, as this Blu-ray for Le cercle rouge should be classified as a bona fide success that actually corrects the errors of earlier DVD transfers and provides a solid array of supplements.

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