The funny thing about existentialism is that, despite its focus on the individual's isolationism and negative relations with his environment, it's also a philosophy that yields palpable connections between works of art and admirers of art. You see, a school of thought that requires esoteric thinking tends to alienate most casual observers, but people can relate to existentialism because, let's face it, we've all felt quite alone at one point in time or another.
French director Jean-Pierre Melville made existential crime dramas that examined the loneliness that most criminals feel. There's a certain criminal code, of course, but when the hammer falls, it's every man for himself. Therefore, only a finite amount of trust could exist between guys preparing for a job. However, since existentialism states that humans are completely independent and completely responsible for their own decisions, then we shouldn't feel too sorry for the bad guys.
Yet, how could we not love the bad guys when they're Melville's protagonists? The filmmaker's reputation rests primarily on "Le Samourai", "Bob le flambeur" (recently re-made by Neil Jordan as "The Good Thief"), and "Un Flic", but the lesser-known "Le Cercle Rouge" is as good and thought-provoking as its more famous siblings. "Le Cercle Rouge" offers three thieves and a cop who is willing to give criminal suspects the benefit of the doubt. After all, to believe in hope for the worst of us is to believe in hope for all of us. Also, given how people shun the police nearly as much as they do criminals, the cop knows that only the thieves understand what it's like to be him.
Corey (Alain Delon) begins planning a heist before he even gets out of prison; one of the guards shares with him a daring plot to steal jewelry worth millions of francs. While on the road from Marseilles to Paris, Corey meets Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte), a suspect who escapes from his handler, Mattei (Andre Bourvil). Vogel is friends with an ex-cop named Jansen (Yves Montand) who can be the sharpshooter in the jewel heist. While Corey doesn't meet Mattei until late in the movie, he subconsciously understands the link between cops and robbers. At one point, he chuckles at Vogel, "My prison guard and your ex-cop...aren't we overdoing it?"
While Melville does a great job of creating character studies, he's also quite accomplished at squeezing every bit of tension from his movie using delays. For example, Vogel hides in Corey's car's trunk, and at roadblocks, Melville cuts the action to prolong various policemen's attempts to open the trunk. These delays cause the viewer to sit at the edge of his seat, wondering if Corey will be arrested for transporting someone of whom he has no knowledge.
Melville's filmmaking is so noteworthy because of his use of gangster romanticism. All the men wear vests under their suit jackets, and they wear stylish overcoats, too. After all, when you have to be on the move all the time, the only things that you can take with you are your guns and your clothes. Gangster romanticism also imparts a seductive sense of doom. While they don't quite have death wishes, the film's characters accept the fact that they might die at any minute. Rather than throwing their lives into the gutter doing stupid stunts, Corey, Vogel, and Jansen proceed with their criminal activities with the calm of men who know that, in the face of death, it's better to stare right back at your enemy rather than to blink--after all, death might end up looking the other way.
Alain Delon was the Robert DeNiro to Melville's Scorsese. In "Le Cercle Rouge", Delon slightly disguises and partially hides his extraordinarily handsome face with a mustache. However, since Delon acted with his eyes anyway, the mustache only emphasizes the steely soulfulness that dwells in his pupils. Much like the existential philosophy that he came to represent on screen, Delon's film persona was a bundle of contradictions. Delon's blue eyes dance with determination and weariness, fire and ice in every one of his movies.
It's funny how filmmaking "tough guys" stick together. Melville had Delon, and Scorsese has DeNiro. The Asian dream team that also made quite a number of existential crime flicks was the duo of John Woo and Chow Yun Fat. Melville was a huge influence on Woo, and the latter has been very vocal about bringing the former's works to American audiences (in fact, he even "presented" "Le Cercle Rouge" during the theatrical re-release of the director's cut). Now, if only Woo and Chow were to work together again, then the world could breathe a sigh of relief.
While the film print looks very clean and clear and is generally sharp, its colors are a bit dull. This could be intentional, of course, but the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image does not look as "fresh" as something made during the past ten years. I mean, even a movie as "dark" as "Road to Perdition" (2002) has strong colors.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 French audio track is the kind of track that either makes you nostalgic for the past or makes you thank the stars that we now have dynamic digital sound that approximates real-world sonics. While dialogue is always audible and clear, just about every sound effect sounds too thin or too hollow. Screeching tires resemble growling stomachs since they're not piercing enough to register as high-pitched squeaks, and gunshots don't have any "boom" or "oomph". On the other hand, the film's lively jazz music score sounds great, and the drums that are used in a Parisian nightclub have the bass that the foley artists seemed to lack during post-production.
Optional English subtitles support the audio.
The Criterion Collection presents "Le Cercle Rouge" on DVD as a two-disc set. The only extra that you'll find on Disc 1 is a set of color bars (useful for calibrating your viewing monitor) encoded as Chapter 21. The other bonuses are all on Disc 2.
"Cineastes de notre temps" ("Filmmakers of Our Time") was a French TV show that was broadcasted during the 1960s and 1970s. "Cineastes..." provided viewers with in-depth interviews with and examinations of notable filmmakers. The DVD has excerpts from the episode that discussed Jean-Pierre Melville.
Next up are four video clips that feature on-set and archival interview footage. There are two extended interviews that were conducted recently, one with assistant director Bernard Stora and one with Rui Nogueira, the author of the book "Melville on Melville". Finally, there are two trailers and a stills gallery. In terms of quantity, the two-disc set does not seem to offer much, but the old(er) footage has historical importance, and all of the interviews offer substantive glimpses into Melville's approach to filmmaking.
The Alpha (thick) double keepcase also houses a twenty-two-page mini-booklet that provides chapter listings, film credits, essays and interviews about the film, an introductory letter by John Woo, and DVD production credits. As with the best of Criterion's inserts, the mini-booklet actually contributes to the high "Extras" rating that I'm giving to the set.
"Le Cercle Rouge" is a gangster movie, but unlike its American counterparts, it isn't simply a string of action sequences. Rather, it patiently observes the quiet discipline that dominates the underworld. The film also offers a realistic heist sequence that is filled with tension because it does not barrage viewers with deafening sound effects or headache-inducing edits; the filmmakers knew that absolute silence is much more threatening than a load of sound and fury. Because it tells a fairly straightforward story, I can't quite give the movie a "9" or a "10". Nonetheless, it is extremely well-made, and I give "Le Cercle Rouge" an unqualified recommendation.