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Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle) (NR)
Rialto Pictures
Official Site
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Producer: Robert Dorfman
Written by: Jean-Pierre Melville
Cast: Yves Montand, Alain Delon, Gian Maria Volonté, Mattei André Bourvil

Rating: out of 5

Ah, France and America, there does seem to be more than just an ocean between us. Nonetheless, as the two countries boasting the richest traditions in film, we have learned from each other over the years, and Jean-Pierre Melville represents perhaps the finest of this trans-Atlantic rapport.

France’s own master of film noir, a term invented by French critics to describe American crime films of the ’50s, was Jew who was forced to take a nom de plume during WWII. He choose Melville out of love for America’s own Herman. Beyond him, Melville was clearly influenced by some American contemporaries like Hawks and Ford, but of course like all great artists he was more than just his influences. He synthesized this American form with a decidedly post-war Gallic sensibility, to create some very solemn, haunting crime films, and Le Cercle rouge is fine example of his genius.

It has a fairly simple setup, Corey (Delon) is released from prison and plans a jewel heist for which he enlists Vogel (Volonte), a recent prison escapee on the run, and alcoholic ex-policeman Jansen (Montand) to help him. The center piece of the film, the heist, takes place over 20 minutes of silence. An homage to Rififi, another French heist film that was re-released a few years ago. Unlike American directors who have handled similar material, Melville is not interested in the colorful vernacular of criminals. Indeed his thieves may seem positively alien to some Americans, as they are as laconic and self contained as any characters you’d find in Bresson’s work.

Naturally, like most heist stories, certain fatalism marks the film, but what makes Melville’s films so remarkable is his ability to sustain a mood, a kind of existential melancholy by handling each set piece with such poise and grace. Unlike most crime films, his have a tranquil charm. He’s greatly aided in achieving this effect by the perfectly composed camera work of master cinematographer Henri Decaë.

All that said though, Le Cercle rouge is neither Melville’s masterpiece, nor an ideal introduction to his work. It lacks the character development of his earlier Bob le flambeurand it’s not as hypnotic as the recently reissued Le Samurai. Plus, at two and half hours it may seem an endurance test for the uninitiated.

Still the re-release of Le Cercle rouge (1970) offers a rare chance to see the work of one of the world’s most important filmmakers, a man who profoundly influenced the French new wave, and whose imprint is currently visible in the works of directors like Michael Mann and John Woo. For truly devoted lovers of film, it’s not to be missed.

—Edward Rholes


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