Although it’s been largely agreed on by critics that Le Cercle Rouge was an artistic high-water mark for Jean-Pierre Melville, grandmaster of the coolly desaturated gangster epic, it’s of greater note that the French filmmaker’s 12th film was his greatest commercial success. Starring three of Europe’s most unassailably suave leading men, it was the apex of Melville’s style, a leisurely yet unerringly precise and enveloping masculine tragedy that took on the guise of a cat-and-mouse procedural. Its success promised everything for the 53-year-old Melville, including one of his dream projects: an action film based on Maurice Leblanc’s series of books concerning Arsene Lupin, a gentleman thief whose adventures were as admired in France as much as Sherlock Holmes’s.
The success, however, turned out to be a curse that Melville could never really live down and his subsequent and final film, Un Flic, despite some extraordinary movements, has largely been written off as a minor work, leaving Le Cercle Rouge to be heralded as the master’s swan song. That the film in question detailed a no less tragic and incalculable fall is likely pure coincidence, but it’s nevertheless eerie to revisit the film now, years after first encountering it, spurred by the long-overdue stateside release of Army of Shadows, the film that actually precedes Le Cercle Rouge in Melville’s oeuvre. Indeed, the filmmaker, who also penned the script, might very well have seen himself in any of the three brilliant criminals who decide to knock over the famous Place Vendôme jewelry store in France.
Then again, he might have empathized just as much with Mattei (Andre Bourvil), the police commissioner who seeks redemption after allowing one of the criminals, Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte), to escape his custody while aboard a moving train in an early, breathless sequence. (The ambiguity of who exactly Melville felt more akin to is mirrored in the film’s opening, wherein Vogel and Mattei are speeded along to make said train in what initially looks to be a getaway car.) As Vogel is escaping his certain fate, parolee Corey (the great Alain Delon) seals his own by mere gesture, taking the gun and money out of his erstwhile boss’s safe before tossing in a collection of personal snapshots of the woman who lies naked in the mafia boss’s bed. As this near-wordless exchange insinuates an entire narrative in miniature, so does a great deal of the subtle action taken by these four figures keeps an air of woozy suspense throughout Melville’s 140-minute series of muzzled revelations.
Happenstance is indeed a large key to the film’s success in that it ultimately causes the downfall of Vogel, Corey, and their cohort, Jansen (Yves Montand, a hypnotic presence as always), an ex-cop and expert marksmen in the throes of detox after a tumultuous love affair with the bottle. A slip of the tongue from their fence; a ploy gone wrong at the police station; a resilient security guard who awakes early from a blow to the head: This confluence of events that proceeds after the show-stopping 20-minute-plus heist sequence would seem preposterous under nearly any other director, but Melville orchestrates these moments with an understated B-movie classicism. Having changed his name in honor of the Moby Dick author, Melville was unrivaled in his ability to frame minor details in such a way that they transcended their seeming inconsequentiality and became visual alarms as negligible as police sirens.
“All men are guilty.” So says Mattei’s superior while he grills the commissioner about Vogel’s escape, and indeed, Melville’s world is one where the woman serves only minor roles, such as the comely waitress who offers Corey an ominous red rose before he meets with a second fence. Despite what Eric Demarsan’s jazzy score might have you think, Le Cercle Rouge is all gray skies, doom, and gloom, replete with tripteral visual cues (three cats, three billiard balls). As compared to Army of Shadows, a rival peak in Melville’s career, it also lacks for direct political “meaning” following two years after May ‘68. In place of such modern touches, Melville loads the film with existential space and minor expressive flourishes—appropriate steps for Melville, who saw the crime film as France’s answer to the moral and philosophical battlefields of the western.
Three years later, the director would succumb to a heart attack, leaving us with that image of the Stetson, the raincoat, and those sunglasses that hid his deep, sleepless eyes, and he would go to his grave considering Le Cercle Rouge his final film. (During an interview he gave shortly before his death, he would jokingly deny that he ever directed Un Flic.) As it stands now, he accomplished nothing short of popularizing, if not outright creating the stylized crime film in Europe and America, not to mention directly influencing Michael Mann, John Woo, Wong Kar-wai, Quentin Tarantino, and countless others. No less popular than Christopher Nolan or David Fincher in his day, he would secure his legendary status in death, but he will perhaps forever seem lesser than direct disciples Godard and Truffaut; his films, like Ford’s and Mann’s, are largely absent from film-school curriculum, whereas Breathless and The 400 Blows will always (not unjustly) have a spot.
Even Melville’s actors couldn’t fully comprehend his ability: As the story goes, Volonte erupted at the director after he continuously fidgeted with his wardrobe between takes of a single scene. Over a decade later, Volonte would admit his naïveté before accepting an acting prize at Cannes for his role in Claude Goretta’s The Death of Maria Ricci. Who could blame his slight? One could not be expected to see what Melville saw, just as one could not be expected to understand the placement of a measure from the outset of A Love Supreme.
Jean-Pierre Melville's love for desaturated colors, best used and most noticeable in this film and his equally masterful Le Samouraï, makes for some ambiguities in where color stresses should be in transfers but Criterion's 1080p transfer is inarguably stunning, regardless. Clarity is optimum with warmer colors pushed to the front, rather than the aqua colors of past releases. Compression looks great and detailing is exceptional throughout. Similarly, the monaural soundtrack sounds impeccable, beautifully mixing dialogue, atmosphere, and Eric Demarsan's excellent jazz score. It's all well-balanced and there are no signs of disturbances or dropouts.
As per usual, Criterion has afforded its latest release with a bevy of insightful extras for the die-hard Melville fan. Of the most notable are both an excerpt from the French television show Cinéastes de Notre Temps, in which we see Melville's work habits and the remnants of his first studio, and a video interview with Rui Nogueira, who turned a set of interviews with Melville into a book, Melville on Melville. Both lend immense insight into the artist and offer a great deal of anecdotes involving the director, his contemporaries, and his colleagues. There's also a great video interview with his assistant director, Bernard Stora, and a slew of excerpts and episodes of television programs centered on Melville. Trailers, essays by The New Yorker's Michael Sragow and Chris Fujiwara, an excerpt from Melville on Melville, and an appreciation by John Woo are also included.
A seminal work in the advancement of the crime film, the cool, solemn tragedy of Le Cercle Rouge rightly still makes most gangster films look like unfocused male fantasies and boyish temper tantrums.