The French gangster classic Le Cercle Rouge was first released in the United States in a dubbed and scissored form with 40 minutes snipped from director Jean-Pierre Melville's existential, slow-burn masterpiece.
Now the director's cut of the 1970 gangster tragedy is being released, a restoration presented by Hong Kong director John Woo.
Woo's reverence for Le Cercle Rouge is understandable. The same holy sacraments of brotherhood and honor that bind his strong, silent cops and killers are revered by Melville's weary gangsters. And in turn, Melville owes his own debt to Akira Kurosawa. Like Kurosawa's honor-bound, doomed samurai, Melville's crooks are slow-moving dinosaurs wandering lonely across the land who, when they strike, strike hard and swift.
An almost absurdly handsome Alain Delon plays recently sprung jailbird, Corey, whose path crosses with another con, Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte), who has just managed a miraculous escape from a moving train while shackled to a police officer. The pair meets when fugitive Vogel emerges from Corey's trunk on the road from Marseilles to Paris. In a marvelously terse exchange of wordless glances -- the homoerotic, criminal version of love at first sight -- the pair embark on a shared course for Paris.
The silent, knowing glance that binds Vogel and Corey in some criminal fraternity defines the entire glacial drift of Cercle -- undoubtedly the most sober gangster picture in film history. Remarkably quiet and meditative, Cercle defies every tenet of the showy, combustive modern crime picture built on gunfire and pop music favored by Melville acolytes like Scorsese and Tarantino. That pervasive sobriety gives Cercle its mood of absolute, soul-crushing malaise.
While still in the stir, Corey had learned of a potential jewel heist from a corrupt prison guard. He and Vogel decide to undertake the high-stakes knock-off with the help of former police marksman Jansen (Yves Montand). In an unbelievable sequence with some of the Grand Guignol excess of Hammer horror, Jansen -- who's quit the police in disgust over its insidious corruption -- watches a parade of tarantulas, rats and lizards invade his bedroom in a Noah's Ark of alcoholic DTs. But with a mission and a purpose, Jansen is suddenly as sober as a monk, melting his own bullets like a priest preparing communion as he prepares for the climactic heist.
As Melville demonstrated in his other gangster classics, Bob le Flambeur and Le Doulos, heists are more than heists in his pictures. They are distillations of life's essential cruelty, in which all expectations and hopes quickly crash on the jagged rocks of ruinous fate. Women are mostly nowhere to be found in Mel-ville, save the cheating lovers and the Playboy bunny-outfitted cocktail waitresses who provide little distraction from all of this male love and angst.
Melville makes gangster films, but like Kurosawa's samurai films or Anthony Mann's Westerns, he uses the genre to tackle issues of honor and integrity and fate. The gangsters in Cercle could just as well be insurance salesmen with their sober professionalism, blue suits and cinched trench coats. Their bottom line is the heist. The cool, wordless way Corey, Vogel and Jansen undertake a multimillion-dollar jewelry store robbery on a tomb-quiet Paris night reveals a businesslike cooperation that puts to shame the corrupt, divided cops who dog them. Despite such lean, economical scenes, Melville is able to create a phenomenal degree of knife-edge tension.
Viewers have the additional pleasure in Cercle of a noirish sensibility rendered in a smudged color palette of dusty blues and glossy blacks. Melville's way with haute '70s decor is reason enough to see the film. From Corey's Paris apartment, done up in a bachelor pad luxe of nude drawings, black curtains and fur bedspreads, to the neo-Deco gangster nightclub, Cercle is as much a visual jaw-dropper as it is an emotional knock-out. A captivating pleasure from beginning to end, Le Cercle Rouge is the kind of rediscovered treasure to reassure film lovers that there are still masterpieces awaiting revival.