The Film (5/5)
I don't like tossing around the word often, but Jean Pierre Melville was an absolute film genius. He crafted films like no other, and his gangster films tower above all other gangster films ever made. His influence can be seen in films as far reaching as Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather Triumvirate, Scorsese's gangster films such as Mean Streets and Goodfellas, and most notably in the mid-period bullet ballets of John Woo pretty much encompassing everything from A Better Tomorrow to Hard Boiled. If all he did was create some good films, that just so happened to influence other filmmakers, that would be one thing. However, films like Le Samourai, Bob Le Flambeur, and the film I am reviewing today Le Cercle Rouge simply ooze greatness out of every single frame.
Melville's gangster films hold a near hypnotic effect over me from the first frame to the last. The rest of the world just disappears as I find myself engaged in the elaborate setups of his films, and the setup of Le Cercle Rouge is pure crime film gold. The film stars the immortal Alain Delon (Le Samourai, The Leopard) as Corey who as the film begins is serving the final night of a 5 year prison term. He plans to get out, and stay on the straight and narrow. However, a prison guard has other plans. He sneaks into Corey's cell, and offers Corey one last job, a job so big, that Corey can retire, and the guard can walk away from his job.
Corey tells the guard he will think about it, and the next day gets out of jail. Upon release he visits the home of one of his prior crime bosses whom he promptly steals money and a gun from. He uses the money to buy a car, and then gets out of town. While out on the lamb, a criminal named Vogel escapes from Commissar Mattei, a cop that is escorting him on a train in one of the films most thrilling sequences. The next day Vogel ends up in the parking lot of a highway diner, and jumps in the trunk of Corey's new car. Corey, of course, notices and drives the car into an out of the way field, where he opens the trunk and confronts Vogel. They talk, and Vogel agrees to come back with Corey to Paris, where he will most likely be safe. Before they can get there, Corey is tracked down by a couple of his old bosses henchmen, luckily Vogel emerges from the trunk in time to take the two of them out, leaving their corpses in the winter snow.
Upon arriving in Paris Vogel and Corey being to discuss the guards proposition, which turns out to be a heist involving a large jewelry store. They agree to it, but realize that they need a third man, a real marksman. Vogel recalls a former police officer he knew years before by the name of Jansen, they contact him, and they agree to meet at the night club of a reluctant police informer Santi. Jansen agrees to help, but not for the money, because doing this will help keep his beasts (alcoholism) at bay. The trio arrange a meeting with a dealer who will help them sell whatever is it they manage to steal from the store.
There are quite a number of thrilling sequences throughout the film, and the entire film has a huge air of suspense to it, however, the heist itself is roughly 30 minutes in length, and is the absolutely centerpiece sequence to what is already a fantastic film. This one sequence had me on the edge of my seat during it's entire running time, more so than any section of the film. One thing that Melville has always excelled in with every film of his I have seen is the balance between plot and characters. His films weave intricate plot threads, that usually begin the very moment the film does, and every second of the film ties into the overall story. He balances this out with fully fleshed out characters, not caricatures, but fully realized 3 dimensional characters. These are characters performing criminal acts, and yet, they compel us to share their journey to hope for a better outcome for them, even though we know that outcome is not likely going to come. This is truly the stamp of a great film, and a great filmmaker.
Criterion has presented Jean Pierre Melville's Le Cercle Rouge in an absolutely mind blowing 1:85:1 1080p HD transfer preserving the films original theatrical aspect ratio. This is an absolutely fantastic transfer, and of course maintains Criterions quality standard. It has what I can describe as a great warm quality to it, especially in scenes heavy in darker scenes involving more red and brown hues. The only comparable blu-ray transfer I can think is the recent Coppola restoration of the Godfather, although this is a much darker film. There is a decent amount of grain here, which only helps the film look of the transfer. The flesh tones are accurate, and black levels are solid. There is no obvious edge-enhancement, and really no complaints to speak of.
There is only one audio option an LPCM 1.0 track in the films native French, the audio track is just as fantastic as the video. The audio, music, and effects are mixed together well, and are entirely audible throughout. No distortion, pops, hissing, or any other audio defects can be heard anywhere on the track. Overall, another excellent remastering from Criterion.
Criterion has put together a slate of extras that can only be described as epic for Le Cercle Rouge. The disc kicks off with an episode of the French TV show Cineastes de notre temps that runs 28 minutes in length, and interviews Melville about his influences (most notably Warner gangster films), and how he shoots his films. This is followed up with a 6 minute piece called Pour Le Cinema with Melville, Alain Delon, Andre Bourvil, and Yves Montand, next up is Midi Magazine a 5 minute TV Q and A with Melville about Le Cercle Rouge. We then come to Vingt-quatre heures sur la deux a very short Q and A with Alain Delon and Melville focusing on Le Cercle Rouge, and then Morceaux de bravoure, which another interview with Melville.
We then come to the stuff Criterion put together for their 2003 DVD release of Le Cercle Rouge. It kicks off with a 31 minute interview with Bernard Stora who worked as the A.D. on many of Melville's film including Le Cercle Rouge. This is followed by an interview with Rui Nogueira the writer of Melville on Melville, and runs roughly 27 minutes long. The disc is wrapped up with 2 trailers for the film, the original French trailer, and the trailer for it's internal re-release in 2003. Criterion has also included a booklet of liner notes including excerpts from Melville on Melville essays from film critics Michael Sragow and Chris Fujiwara, an interview with the films composer Eric Demarsan, and a short essay by director John Woo.
A fantastic film, gets a fantastic upgraded release from Criterion. The film is one of the finest the gangster genre has to offer, and it has never (and may never) look better than it does here. The extras are elaborate, interesting, and informative. Highly recommended.