Move review: 'Le Cercle Rouge'

Crime, Law and JusticeCrimeEntertainmentMoviesTheftCrime (genre)Alain Delon

4 stars (out of 4)

Jean-Pierre Melville was a reigning master of French noir and the heist movie, the proprietor of a tight-lipped, dangerous world of deadly men in raincoats, multiple betrayals and Paris by night. Yet while Melville's austere crime thrillers, like "Bob le Flambeur" and "Le Samourai," are legends among crime movie cognoscenti, he's relatively little known in the U.S. What's more, his most popular thriller with French audiences, 1970's "Le Cercle Rouge," opening at the Music Box, has never had much of a U.S. release until now.

Perhaps it's better that way. In 1970, "Cercle Rouge" might have been dismissed here as yet another "Rififi" knockoff; now we can see more clearly its classic stature, its simmering charge of pity and terror. Written and directed by Melville in the era of "Z" and "The French Connection," it's a thriller with amazingly little violence, a movie composed of long pregnant silences and tense confrontations, in which doom always lies beneath the surface, waiting to erupt.

It also has an amazing cast. Alain Delon, the French superstar of "Purple Noon" and Melville's "Le Samourai," plays Corey, a recently released thief who immediately becomes embroiled in the complex robbery of a Parisian jewelry store. Gian Maria Volonte (the surly psycho of "For a Few Dollars More" and "Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion") plays Vogel, an escaped convict whose path improbably intersects with Corey's and whom he enlists in the heist.

Yves Montand ("The Wages of Fear," "Z"), then at the height of his career, plays Jansen, an alcoholic ex-cop and sharpshooter who is the third member of their team. Francois Perier ("Nights of Cabiria" and "Le Samourai"), one of film's most memorable weasels, is a sleazy club owner with underworld ties; André Ekyan is Rico, Corey's ex-confederate and betrayer; and surveying them all is Andre Bourvil of ("Four Bags Full"), one of the French cinema's greatest comic actors, playing Captain Mattei, the world -wise cop who is chasing the escaped Vogel.

By 1970, the rules of the movie heist game had been well established--laid out for all time in Jules Dassin's 1955 "Rififi," a film to which Melville had been originally assigned and to which he referred throughout his later career. The crime team would include an old pro and a younger acolyte, they would be watched closely by police and treacherously by fellow crooks and, though the heists usually went off like clockwork, they were usually doomed to final betrayal and death. That's pretty much the case with "Le Cercle Rouge," which delights us not so much for its surprise as for its absolute perfection of form, its iconic performances and its remarkable visual style: the somber, deep colors caught by cinematographer Henri Decae, the tableaus of anguish and betrayal crafted by Melville.

From the moment that Vogel escapes from Captain Mattei despite being manacled to his sleeper bunk, the movie presents a series of maneuvers that are as inevitable as the fated climax of a Greek tragedy. For Melville indeed, some of these criminals do have tragic stature and their own unshakable code, and he admires and them and suffers for them just as he does for the strangely similar protagonists in his other film dramas of the French World War II occupation and resistance ("Le Silence de la Mer," "Leon Morin, Priest," "Army of Shadows").

Watching "Le Cercle Rouge," we're caught up in a world that, however improbable some of its twists and turns seem, strikes us as a perfect, imaginative creation. "Le Cercle Rouge," now restored by Rialto Pictures and presented by one of its major cineaste-admirers, Hong Kong and Hollywood's John Woo, is a classic of the clenched-fist, dark-skied, doom-laden world of noir.

L'Auberge Espagnole'
Directed and written by Jean-Pierre Melville; photographed by Henri Decae; edited by Marie-Sophie Dubus; sets by Theo Meurisse; music by Eric de Marsen; produced by Robert Dorfmann. In French, with English subtitles. A Rialto Pictures release; opens Friday at the Music Box. Running time: 2:20. No MPAA rating. Adult (Parents cautioned for violence and brief nudity.)
Corey -- Alain Delon
Jansen --Yves Montand
Captain Mattei -- Andre Bourvil
Vogel --Gian Maria Volonte
Santi -- Francois Perier
Rico -- Andre Ekyan

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Crime, Law and JusticeCrimeEntertainmentMoviesTheftCrime (genre)Alain Delon
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