A gritty and gripping French crime thriller from Jean-Pierre Melville
Alain Delon plays a master thief, fresh out of prison, who crosses paths with a notorious escapee (Gian Maria Volontè) and an alcoholic ex-cop (Yves Montand). The unlikely trio plot a heist, against impossible odds, until a relentless inspector and their own pasts seal their fates. With its honorable antiheroes, coolly atmospheric cinematography, and breathtaking set pieces, Le cercle rouge is the quintessential film by Jean-Pierre Melville — the master of ambiguous, introspective crime cinema.
There’s a palpable gravitas to Le Cercle Rouge. A feeling that you’re observing not just a collective of legendary actors on screen, but a directorial heavyweight at the helm. A gripping and gritty, heist thriller, that pulls off its action sequences with aplomb, but never loses focus on the main characters, played by French icons Alain Delon, Yves Montand, and Gian Maria Volonte, and their existential angst. Corey (Delon), an upper-class thief freshly released from prison. He leaves armed with a tip off from a prison guard, knowledge of a big payday awaiting him at a jewelry shop in Paris. A big heist, and moving the loot, calls for some help and Corey brings on board Jansen (Montand), an ex-cop (and ace marksman) with a drinking problem, and Vogel (Volonte), a prisoner undergoing transfer, his timely escape crucial to Corey’s scheme. Their plan is carefully calibrated, the risk matching the reward, as dangers from their past, and their own inner demons, threaten their success.
Melville builds a film embedded in a gritty realism. Not just in this criminal enterprise, but in highlighting the skills and mindset of these men, put to the test to pull off this job. The meticulousness of their planning is heightened by the precision of Melville’s direction, while his sense of style. Tightly paced, with short takes, and swift movements, combining for a series of taut and stylish sequences, most notably the big, and largely dialogue free heist itself. The quieter moments, where things are inferred or subtly revealed for a later payoff, are impeccably woven into the film, adding to it’s compelling nature. The darker, grittier tone is underscored by an ominous feeling that permeates the film. You always suspect these men are on a collision course with fate, not just as they embark on this scheme, but as a result of the path their lives have taken. Each of these men on a mission, while also being pursued, by the mob, the law, or personal demons. A fascinating shift between hunter and hunted that adds to the psychological weigh these men are under. In a sense the heist takes a bit of a backseat at times, tilting from a thrilling exploration of crime, to a darker plunge into the ensuing punishment. Critiquing the state, the strong arm and surveillance efforts of the law, as well as the lingering effects of incarceration.
Criterion’s release features a new 4K scan from an original 35mm negative. It presents a fine range of colors in a palette that tends to the warmer side (which seems a counter to the previous, blue leaning presentation). Detail is superb, as is contrast, in both light and dark sequences. Detail is the standout quality here, with facial textures, clothing, background details and more, all notably clear. The included Blu-ray version of the film also offers a stirling presentation (albeit less defined than the 4K), along with all the extra features:
- Archival Footage — Segments from a 1971 episode of Cinéastes de notre temps featuring director Jean-Pierre Melville: From a French TV show, where the director delves into the inspirations behind some of his productions (notably American gangster films), how he approaches filming, and more
- Archival Footage — Pour le cinema: A short segment with Melville, Alain Delon, Andre Bourvil, Yves Montand discussing Le Cercle Rouge
- Archival Footage — Midi magazine: Another short segment, with Melville answering a few questions in anticipation of the release of Le Cercle Rouge
- Archival Footage — Vingt-quatre heures sur la deux: Melville and Delon respond to some smart questions about the film, with answers that are even more interesting. Shamefully only 4 minutes in length.
- Archival Footage — Morceaux de bravoure: Perhaps the biggest dive into the more technical side of Melville’s approach, as he spends 10 min talking about the approach, atmosphere, and inspirations that go into his movies
- Interviews with assistant director Bernard Stora: Stora — Mr. Stora, who has worked primarily as an assistant director for Jean Eustache, Henri Verneuil, John Frankenheimer and Jean-Pierre Melville, and script-writer for Claude Miller and Georges Lautner amongst others, recalls his first encounter and consequent collaborations with Jean-Pierre Melville. In French, with optional English subtitles. In French, with optional English subtitles. (31 min, 1080p)
- Interview Rui Nogueira, author of Melville on Melville: A quality dive into the director’s career and output
- On-set and archival footage, featuring interviews with Melville and actors Alain Delon, Yves Montand, and André Bourvil:
- Trailer: The original French trailer
- PLUS: Essays by film critics Michael Sragow and Chris Fujiwara, excerpts from Melville on Melville, a 2000 interview with composer Eric Demarsan, and an appreciation by filmmaker John Woo: Contained within the liner notes, that also contain info on the restoration/transfer of the film
- New cover by Art Chantry Design Co.
The Bottom Line
Le Cercle Rouge is undoubtedly one of the cornerstones of the heist genre. Inspiring many that followed in its wake, but it remains fresh and thrilling. Cool, collected, with impeccable style, palpable tension, and a gripping philosophical streak. Melville’s mastery is evident, as are the talents of Delon, Montand, and Volonte. Criterion’s release highlights the immense craft on display, through a stunning transfer and notable extra features, that deepen appreciation for the film.
Le Cercle Rouge is available via Criterion now