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Le Cercle Rouge: The Criterion Collection

Even on a lesser project, one can always spot a master director quickly. It's got something to do with framing — after viewing more than enough bad overhead shots of cities and sequences that seem to be shot as if they are meant for television, it's easy to be enraptured by a director who is an expert at revealing only what needs to be seen; a director who knows what, and most importantly why, he's showing you what he is. It's like when a master orator raises and lowers his voice, using tonalities to transfix his listeners to his tale. Watching Jean-Pierre Melville's 1970 Le Cercle Rouge ("The Red Circle"), one feels the hands of master pulling the strings of the characters, sharing a story that fascinates him as much as it does the audience. In Rouge, Melville is working in his favorite genre (noir), showcasing a story about both fate and interconnectedness, and he does so with his favorite actor Alain Delon (of whom the two had one of film history's great actor/director relationships, comparable to Martin Scorsese's work with Robert De Niro) to make what would become one of their great successes. It's a triumph that has been hard to find since its release — in fact, outside of gray-market videos, many of Melville's best works have been unavailable for years in the U.S. This didn't stop some directors from becoming fans, including John Woo (who made an homage to Rouge in Hard Boiled), Walter Hill (whose The Driver is derived from Melville's Le Samourai), and Quentin Tarantino. With Criterion's DVD release of Le Cercle Rouge, those unwilling to collect bootlegs can play catch-up. Corey (Delon) is about to be released from jail after a five-year stint when a guard tells him of a great jewelry score. Uninterested, he gets out of the slam only to find his girlfriend living with his old boss. In revenge, he pillages the man's safe. At the same time Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte) escapes from a train while handcuffed to police inspector Mattei (Andre Bourvil), and a manhunt erupts. As Corey tries to avoid the conflict he created, Vogel hides himself in Corey's trunk. But this subterfuge doesn't escape Corey — he helps Vogel cross police lines. The favor is repaid shortly as Vogel helps get Corey out of a jam when his old boss sends men to take him out. Quickly Vogel and Corey realize they should commit the jewelry heist together, but to do so they need the help of a sharpshooter, leading to the recruitment of ex-cop Jansen (Yves Montand), an alcoholic prone to hallucinations who's also trying to clean up his act. As the boys plan and execute their crime — in a virtuoso 25-minute sequence as fascinating as the similar silent burglary in Jules Dassin's Rififi (1955) — Mattei circles their efforts after receiving a missive from a superior who tells him that "all men are guilty." Mattei then uses the info he has on a bar owner to force the man to track down Vogel. But Mattei knows if he waits patiently enough, the thieves eventually will come to him.

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As Jean Pierre Melville's penultimate film, Le Cercle Rouge culminates his obsession with noir. For Melville (born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, he changed his name to reflect his love and affinity with American author Herman Melville), having already shown his skill with the genre (Le Doulos, Le Samourai), Rouge bonds his cinematic interests with the "heist" genre. And during the bravado heist sequence — like the rest of the picture — Melville evinces his idiosyncratic talent for storytelling. Nothing feels rushed, and while some contemporary filmgoers might think the experience "slow," this only reveals the steady hand of a filmmaker who knows how to get the most out of small looks and gestures. One can see why Delon (a notoriously fickle talent) would feel so comfortable in Melville's hands — his Corey is one of the ultimate cinema bad-asses, wasting no time with his ex, or with those who attempt to intimidate him. Melville is among the most "movie-smart" directors (ranking just short of Welles), and he understands a genre well enough to avoid its many pitfalls; to wit, in Rouge there are no femme fatales to disrupt the criminal enterprise. Perhaps Melville saw the "heist" picture as a masculine genre that's concerned with the partnerships men create in order to survive. But the picture's main focus is fate, and how interconnected the world is. Melville connected noir fatalism and Eastern philosophy in Le Samourai; here, he invokes a Buddhist principle in the movie's opening crawl. That karmic sense allows the plot machinations to feel unforced, and when the ending converges with Mattei, Vogel, Jansen, and Corey all drawn to one location, such seems as inevitable as their initial meetings. Criterion's DVD edition of Le Cercle Rouge rectifies the injustices of sub-par bootlegs with a simply marvelous two-disc set. The film is presented in stunning anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) with French DD 1.0 audio and optional English subtitles. Shot by Henri Decae, the blue-ish noir tone Melville favored looks stunning. The second disc contains all the supplements, starting with a 27-minute excerpt from a documentary on Melville called "Cineasts de notre temps: Jean-Pierre Melville (portrait en 9 poses)," which shows Melville at his home and his studios talking about the process of his filmmaking; it also offers a greater sense of the character Melville both was and portrayed himself to be, constantly adorned in a Stetson hat, sunglasses, and trench coat. This is paired with four television excerpts, with "Pour le cinema" featuring footage of Melville shooting the finale of Rouge as his stars list their upcoming projects. Two 30-minute interviews are on hand, one with Rui Nogueira, author of Melville on Melville, the second with his assistant director Bernard Stora. Also included are two trailers and stills galleries featuring a poster collection. And, as with all Criterion releases, an excellent booklet includes excerpts from Melville on Melville, an intro by John Woo, and essays by Michael Sragow, Chris Fugiwara, and composer Eric Demarsan. Dual-DVD keep-case.

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