The heist movie is a tale as old as cinema itself. It's hard to find an original heist flick nowadays, as most follow as strict a formula as romantic comedies. A group of thieves is assembled, each one having their own special skills. A plan is formed, a montage is used to show the plan moving forward, then the plan is executed and everyone lives happily ever after. Unless, of course, you're talking about Jean-Pierre Melville's wonderful 1970 French noir 'Le Cercle Rouge'.
Corey (Alain Delon) just got out of prison, but he's showing no signs of reforming. As a matter of fact, a corrupt prison guard filled him in on a huge score at a jewelry shop he can rob. Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté) has just escaped police custody and is now on the run. A happenstance meeting throws these two together, and they immediately start planning the jewelry store heist. They need one more specialized person however. Jansen (Yves Montand) is the last piece of the puzzle. He's an expert marksman, but is haunted by a past in which he used to be a good cop. That is until alcohol took ahold of him. Now he sees visions of snakes, lizards, and spiders crawling out from his walls. Vogel is being chased by police detective Mattei (Bourvil) who is determined to catch the escaped convict.
With that explanation there's nothing here that really separates 'Le Cercle Rouge' from the herd of the rest of the world's heist films. That is until you factor in Melville's masterful direction. Here's a movie that revels in silence. Not too many movies out there are brave enough to have long stretches devoid of dialogue or even a musical soundtrack. In 'Le Cercle Rouge' I would wager that there is more dead silence than there is actual talking. The way Melville directs these silences is the best part of the movie.
He builds suspense as his characters work without speaking. As Vogel prepares his escape from the train he's being transported on he slowly removes a safety pin from his pocket and bends it so he can pick the handcuff lock. He carefully swings his legs around on the top bunk so as not to disturb Detective Mattei who's lying on the bunk beneath him. As you watch this entire sequence take place you realize that's exactly how you'd have to do it in real-life. There's no soundtrack playing to make the scene more suspenseful, it's already intense enough as it is.
The same goes for the big heist, which plays out in almost absolute silence. No music, no talking, just simple sound effects, and the efficiency of a well oiled burglary team at work.
The film has such a simple plot, but the complexities lie in its hushed scenes. We get to observe Millville's characters working out what's happening in their own heads. We get to be voyeurs of sorts. These people aren't putting on an act. They act like real criminals would have to act. There's no witty banter, or clever one-liners here. It's just three men trying to pull off one of the biggest heists they've ever attempted. Therein lies the excitement of 'Le Cercle Rouge'. Its silence speaks volumes.
Blu-ray Vital Statistics
'Le Cercle Rouge' comes packaged in the normal clear Criterion keepcase with a spine number of 218. Inside you'll find a 26-page booklet that contains essays from numerous film specialists. Film Critic Michael Sragow (The Baltimore Sun and the New Yorker) provides an essay entitled "Great Blasphemies". An excerpt from the book "Melville on Melville" is included. An interview with composer Eric Demarsan comes next, followed by "What is the Red Circle?" by film critic Chris Fujiwara. Finally, director John Woo offers a few words for Melville and the movie in a tribute called "Honor, Loyalty, and Friendship".
Studio Canal released 'Le Cercle Rouge' on Blu-ray already, but that transfer was covered in a teal sheen that quite frankly never looked all that great. Criterion's 1080p Blu-ray release of 'Le Cercle Rouge', however, has stripped away the teal and gone with a much warmer, more atmospheric color scheme. According to the Criterion booklet, this presentation comes from a brand new remaster of the 35mm source material.
Compared to the teal tinged Studio Canal transfer, I personally think it's no contest which one looks better. Criterion's remastering of Melville's classic gives it a more natural look. Browns are finally present, the teal all but ran them out of the Studio Canal release. Here colors are much more rich and lifelike. With the lighter, warmer color palette comes better delineated shadows, and more fine detail to be had. The film still retains a thick layer of cinematic grain, which only serves to add to its art house feel. Scratches, dust, and other foreign objects seem to have been completely removed. There were a few instances where maybe a speck or two pop up, but the large distractions have been dealt with perfectly. Criterion has done it again. Restoring an older classic, and bringing it to Blu-ray with as close to a perfect transfer as they could get.
Note: I've heard that some people think the teal tint on the Studio Canal version is actually what was intended. I'm not going to pretend to know what was on the director's mind or what his original intentions were. All I know is the Criterion version looks more natural and lends it self to a more eye pleasing presentation (and so far, Criterion has the far better reputation when it comes to film presentation).
The Studio Canal release offered a French DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, while this new Criterion release only offers French LPCM 1.0 track.
The center channel gets all the work here, but the sound is mix rather nicely. Dialogue is never lost. Nuanced sound effects like the locks on the jewelry cases clicking open one by one, are clear and concise. Some of the more high-end sounds, like gun shots, sound a bit hollow, but that's to be expected. Purists will love the fact that Criterion decided to go with the Monaural sound. They've done a great job with it too. The track is mostly free of high-end screeches or hissing. It's a track that will delight any Criterion enthusiast.
Criterion collectors, along with French noir fans, will indeed love this newly remastered release of Melville's classic. Whether or not you like the warmer look of the transfer, compared to the cool teal of the Studio Canal transfer is up to you to decide. It may help you to decide since the Studio Canal transfer is region B locked, so this may be the only choice you have for owning such a fine heist film on Blu-ray. The audio stays true to its source, but I was a bit disappointed by the thin collection of extras provided. Many of them seemed rather promo driven than film driven. Still, this one comes recommended.