Le cercle rouge
Alain Delon plays a master thief, fresh out of prison, who crosses paths with a notorious escapee (Gian Maria Volonté) and an alcoholic ex-cop (Yves Montand). The unlikely trio plot a heist, against impossible odds, until a relentless inspector and their own pasts seal their fates. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le cercle rouge combines honorable antiheroes, coolly atmospheric cinematography, and breathtaking set pieces to create a masterpiece of crime cinema.
Criterion’s Blu-ray edition of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le cercle rouge comes with a new 1080p/24hz transfer in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on this dual-layer disc.
This looks to be an entirely new transfer and looks quite different from Criterion’s original DVD edition. The DVD suffered from heavy compression artifacts and also had a yellow tinge to it. The yellow tinge is gone, the image now having a cooler tone, and those problematic compression artifacts are nowhere to be seen leaving us with a clean, very smooth looking image. Fine details are sharp and clear and the image remains crisp through its entire running time.
Film grain is obvious and looks natural, and the print is in stellar shape. As I mentioned before the yellow tinge is gone and though it has a cooler tone now colours still come off looking fairly natural and clean. Like the DVD edition, though, the blues don’t reach the extremes of other releases, with the greens in the film still looking green; DVDs/Blu-rays from other regions presented bluer greens. I’m not sure what is right, having never seen the film screened, but I still think the presentation here is good, and the film still has the dank, cold feel I suspect was intended, moreso than Criterion’s DVD.
The disappointing aspect would have to be the blacks, which appear crushed here and there, losing all details within them. Unfortunately since a good chunk of the film is in darker settings, specifically in the latter section of the film, this does create some issues. But when it shines it does and is still a substantial and very noticeable improvement over the DVD’s presentation.
I can’t say I noticed too much of an improvement in the audio here in comparison to the DVD but the linear PCM mono track still sounds great for the film’s age. Music can sound a little tinny and hollow, but dialogue sounds sharp and sound effects can have a certain punch. Not going to truly impress I’m sure but it’s still a better track than I expected.
Criterion carries over everything from their two-disc DVD starting with a 27-minute set of excerpts from the French program Cinéaste de notre temps and its episode entitled “Jean-Pierre Melville: Portrait en 9 poses”. The episode attempts to present Melville’s daily routine and how he works, concentrating on nine aspects, though only six are presented here. Throughout he discusses various topics about his filmmaking from the topic of his own studio, the process of writing his films (which he does at night, and even has an interesting set-up to block off all light when he does anything during the day,) editing, and he expresses his love for American films and his desire to translate those films to a French/European audience. It’s a good presentation though I’m disappointed the whole segment isn’t included here and am not entirely sure why this is the case.
The remaining archival segments are all short blips. A segment from Pour le cinema shows some behind-the-scenes footage from the filming of Le cercle rouge’s ending. The 5-minute clip presents a little bit of conversation about the lack of women in Melville’s film along with quick interviews with the director, Delon, Montand, and Bourvil, the last three talking about their work during that period and this film. Following this is a 4-minute segment from Midi Magazine with Melville talking about the police thriller and the restrictions of the urban landscape, and then another 4-minute clip from Vingt-quatre heures sur la deux presents an interview with Melville and Delon talking a little about the film and their general work. The final segment, running 10-minutes, are excerpts from Morceaux de bravoureLe cercle rouge and why it took so long for him to get around to making it.
We then get two newer interviews, first with assistant director Bernard Stora who chats for 30-minutes about first meeting Melville, Melville’s love for just about all things American, and how he worked, whether it be his writing at night or how he generally worked on set. He talks a little about the troubled working relationship between Melville and actor Gian Maria Volonté while filming Le cercle rouge and gets into some more personal aspects of Melville, like his love for animals (apparently he was a cat guy, which I never would have figured.) Decent reflective interview.
The final interview is then with Rui Nogueira, who wrote the book Melville on Melville. He starts by talking about the initiation of the novel, which started out as a book of interviews with François Truffaut, but after Nogueira found he had no chemistry with Truffaut, making for an awkward interview, he moved on to Melville. He was on the set of Le cercle rouge but admits he unfortunately can’t recall much since he was more focused on the book, but he does share a little more about the director’s issues with Volonté. He also shares Melville’s original ideas for the cast, which included Lino Ventura and Jean-Paul Belmondo. It’s probably the more interesting interview of the two.
The disc then closes with two theatrical trailers, starting with the original trailer and then followed by the 2003 re-release trailer, which is basically the same but uses “John Woo presents…” titles to sell the film, and adds in critic blurbs.
The included booklet then features an excellent essay on the film by Michael Sragow followed by a reprint of an interview with Melville on the film. There’s then another reprint of an interview, this one with composer Eric Demarsan who talks about composing music for Melville. Chris Fujiwara offers an explanation for the title and then finally John Woo provides a short note about his admiration for Melville and this film. Another great Criterion booklet.
Generally it’s a fairly skimpy release and the DVD was always a bit of a disappointment in this regard. But the archival material is its strongest aspect and all of it is at least worth viewing.
I’m happy Criterion decided to get this one out on Blu-ray before they lose the rights to it (it’s one of the last Studio Canal titles they have, and like the others I’m sure they will lose this one as well.) Though the supplements are still the same and maybe a little lacking, despite some of the great archival material, the transfer is a vast improvement over Criterion’s rather blotchy DVD and despite a couple of short comings it’s worth picking up just for this alone.