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American Cinematographer Magazine

Le Cercle Rouge (1970)
1.85:1 (16x9 Enhanced)
Dolby Digital Mono
The Criterion Collection, $39.95

"In Le Cercle Rouge, I tried to take conventional [movie] situations and then transcend them," director Jean-Pierre Melville reveals on this new DVD of his suave 1970 heist thriller. He certainly succeeded on that count, transforming what could have been a typical police drama into operatic tragedy (an appropriate achievement for a man whose self-styled surname was inspired by the author of Moby Dick). The picture also fulfilled Melville's ambition to bring the cinematic tropes of the Western genre to an urban setting, which allowed him to "take American themes and make them palatable for French viewers." These aims were accomplished with consummate artistry and an emphasis on visual storytelling rather than dialogue.

The film's narrative will sound familiar to anyone who enjoys crime thrillers. On the eve of his release from prison, professional thief Corey (Alain Delon) gets a tip from a corrupt prison guard on how to rob the posh Boucheron jewelry showroom in Paris. He eventually hooks up with a fellow criminal, Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté), who has staged a daring escape from a moving train while being escorted to jail by a veteran police inspector (André Bourvil). In planning their heist, Corey and Vogel enlist the aid of an alcoholic ex-cop and sharpshooter (Yves Montand), but they underestimate the proud inspector's dogged determination to restore his reputation by tracking down Vogel.

Prior to filming Le Cercle Rouge (a.k.a. The Red Circle), Melville had already established himself as a Zen master of the thriller genre with Le Samourai, a super-cool exercise in cinematic minimalism that also starred his friend and muse Delon. Samourai and Rouge were shot with exceptional elegance by renowned cinematographer Henri Decae, whom Melville called his "number-one collaborator." Decae's tasteful compositions and lighting helped Melville frame his complex character studies with deceptive simplicity; there's a lot going on in both of these films, but their underlying themes are fermented as subtly as the flavors of a fine French wine.

On Le Cercle Rouge, Melville asked Decae to help him achieve his goal of creating "a black-and-white film in color." The picture's images are rendered in severely muted tones, with only occasional splashes of color lending emphasis to particular elements of a scene, such as the rose that a showgirl hands to Corey in a nightclub. These subtleties of tone are faithfully rendered on this DVD, which offers a full restoration created on a Spirit Datacine from a new 35mm interpositive. (The disc's monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the 35mm magnetic soundtrack, but it may sound a bit thin to those accustomed to the glories of full 5.1 surround sound.)

In an interview on this disc, Melville's assistant director on Rouge, Bernard Stora, says he was amazed by the director's ability to discover the details that made the project's seemingly "banal" script come to life onscreen. Le Cercle Rouge, he contends, is "real cinema," in that it "exists only by the strength of the mise en scene: the camera angles, the lighting, the sets, the way the actors move." In a separate interview, journalist Rui Nogueira, author of Melville on Melville, describes his subject's motivation for the film as "a desire, carried to an extreme, for perfectionism, for classicism." This perfectionism is realized in the film's intricate robbery sequence, a "showstopper" that Melville had always longed to shoot after seeing John Huston's 1950 burglar saga The Asphalt Jungle. (Melville reveals that he nearly directed the 1955 heist classic Rififi before ceding the job to Jules Dassin, who promptly exploited the opportunity by crafting a silent, 25-minute theft sequence that set a new gold standard for onscreen larceny.)

Although many critics have categorized Melville's films as cynical or amoral, Le Cercle Rouge celebrates the notion of "honor among thieves." After Corey helps Vogel to escape his pursuers, the two men form a bond that transcends their criminal natures, and their efforts are only undone because they have the bad luck to cross an inspector whose passion for professionalism matches their own. These characters reflect Melville's own obsessively meticulous nature, which he indulged by casing the real Boucheron jewelry boutique himself. (He got as far as a skylight on the roof.)

In addition to the insightful interviews with Stora and Nogueria (who both note that Melville, like Hitchcock, hated the actual shooting of his films but adored the editing process), this disc also offers excerpts from French television programs about the legendary director. These range from the sublime (an episode of the show Cineastes de notre temps explores Melville's carefully constructed self-image and nocturnal work habits) to the ridiculous (such as the moment when an existentially inquisitive chat-show hostess inquires of Melville and Delon, "What is the greatest sin a person can be guilty of?"). Other extras include a 24-page booklet of essays and interviews (with an introduction from hard-boiled Melville fan John Woo), a pair of trailers, production and publicity stills and a poster gallery.

- Stephen Pizzello

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.