Le Cercle Rouge
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Film historians may put Jean-Pierre Melville in the New Wave, but the only thing that he has in common with Godard and Truffaut is his admiration for American tough-guy movies. He was a dedicated craftsman and a pragmatic director/producer who believed in doing his own thing, which was making thrillers as noir as the times would allow. Since the times did not allow graphic violence, he was forced to express the blackness via character and dialogue; since technology was comparatively primitive, his marksman has to manufacture the magic bullet from scratch, rather than shell out a million clams on the kind of gear that would put him in competition with Al Qaeda. Whether by design or default, he made films about people, rather than a Sharper Image catalogue.

Take, for example, Melville's Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle), which has been released on DVD by The Criterion Collection in a two-disc set. A stripped-down plot description of this movie may produce little more than a yawn. Judge for yourself: a jail warden arranges for a con's early release on the condition that the latter pull a "no-risk" heist. Another con escapes from a train while being escorted to Paris by an elderly police inspector. The two cons meet cute, fall together, drag in a retired alcoholic cop as a marksman, and proceed to execute the robbery. Meanwhile, the elderly police inspector hounds their trail.

The film boasts a star-studded cast: Alain Delon, Yves Montand, Gian Maria Volonte, Francois Perrier, and Bourvil (listed as Andre Bourvil in the credits, as if to separate this role from his usual comedic persona). Melville's Men drive big American cars, wear snazzy hats and trenchcoats (everybody goes to great pains to look proper), and you can only imagine Gian Maria Volonte's expression if Alain Delon tried to hug him -- a handshake is enough to make you believe that the other guy will be there when your back is to the wall. Melville's dialogue is all business, no double-entendres, no wisecracks (try to make a Hollywood movie without those!); instead, we have a two-part Philosophy, with a Buddhist quote opening the film and a pessimist quote from Inspector General closing it.

The Criterion Collection's DVD presentation of Le Cercle Rouge contains many extras, including a documentary of Melville's career, video interviews, rare on-set footage, theatrical trailers, and a photo galley. The DVD set's notes contain some intriguing observations regarding the casting: Jean-Paul Belmondo was originally cast in Volonte's part. Needless to say, Belmondo's flamboyance in lieu of Volonte's seething intensity would have made the film completely different. In addition, Lino Ventura had been originally slated to play the inspector, which is a more predictable choice that would have resulted in a more predictable film. Ventura's jaw alone indicates this is a guy not to be messed with, while Bourvil seems like a milksop as he feeds his obese cats ("mes enfants").

The cats seem the only "humanizing" touch in the film. Modern Hollywood writers go out of their way to overburden their characters with Freudian emotional entanglements and hobbies as bizarre as they can think of (surely even if the inspector were allowed to have cats, they would have to be tied to the plot -- poisoned by Volonte, for example). But Melville has enough confidence in himself and his material to dismiss this nonsense. His characters exist in the here and now, forcing the viewer to imagine the background stories. There are minimal winks: Delon disposes of his old flame's pictures as he senses she had gone over to the mobster who set him up; and Bourvil refers to Gian Maria Volonte's character as "not a terrorist," so we know there's a possibility he's being framed for political reasons (one could speculate this bit of dialogue was added as a concession to get this ultra-political actor involved). But for the most part they're just hard men, Men being a key word here -- there is a deliberate absence of women in the film, and the thirty-second appearances of Delon's ex in the mobster's bedroom and a flower girl in the mob hangout (she gives Delon a rose) underscore this absence.

If Le Cercle Rouge were to be remade in Hollywood, it would be along the lines of The Italian Job. In other words, the stuntmen would outnumber actors 10:1. We'd see the latest toys from The Sharper Image and revel in the gravity-defying driving. But Melville's film is already pitch-perfect.

Le Cercle Rouge is now available on DVD in a double-disc set from The Criterion Collection. The disc features several extras, including excerpts from a 1970 documentary on director Jean-Pierre Melville's career; a new video interview with Melville friend and editor of Melville on Melville Rui Nogueira; new video interview with Le Cercle Rouge assistant director Bernard Stora; 30 minutes of rare on-set footage featuring interviews with Melville and stars Alain Delon, Yves Montand, and Andre Bourvil; French television interviews with Melville and Delon; an original theatrical trailer; 2002 theatrical re-releaves trailer; and poster galley, behind-the-scenes photos, and publicity photos. Suggested retail price: $39.95. For more information, check out The Criterion Collection Web site.