As far as heist films go, Jules Dassin’s Rififi has to be the gold standard. The 20 minute robbery sequence, executed in complete silence, is iconic, and Francois Truffaut called it “the greatest of all film noirs“.
Jean Pierre Melville was initially supposed to direct Rififi but stepped back after seeing John Huston’s heist noir The Asphalt Jungle, which he claimed was the best film ever-made. He got his chance again in the late 60s, by directing the impossibly cool Le Cercle Rouge, which features an equally impressive robbery (also conducted in silence) and an ending which is even more fatalistic than Dassin’s film.
Corey (Alain Delon) is released from prison, but before he leaves he learns of the perfect score. At the same time Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte) escapes his police escort. The two eventually cross paths and begin planning the robbery, eventually hiring alcoholic sharpshooter Jansen (Yves Montand). As with the best heist films, everything goes according to plan, but it’s the robbers who ensure their own downfall, due to personal grudges, inner demons, and fate.
Melville might be the most influential director you’ve never heard of. Without him there would almost certainly be no John Woo, no Takeshi Kitano, no Leon, no Drive. At least not as we know them. His laconic, mythic heroes occupy a strange kind of reality that is utterly distinct from real life, and entirely cinematic. Very obviously influenced by film noir, Melville’s style is nonetheless very different, with an emphasis on the strange, ephemeral bonds that form between his characters that would serve as a huge influence on Woo and Quentin Tarantino.
Most importantly though, this is the film that kicked off my man-crush / obsession with Alain Delon. Quite honestly the most beautiful man who has ever lived. He previously starred as the hitman in Le Samourai, Melville’s best and most influential film, that made even better use of his doleful blue eyes and impassive features. He gives an equally enigmatic performance here, sporting a very 60’s moustache, but it’s a very different role, more grounded and recognisably human. He’s a very understated actor; every movement is deliberate, and the slightest change in facial expression speaks volumes.
Joining Delon for the robbery is Gian Maria Volonte, fresh from his roles in spaghetti westerns – most notably as the villain in For A Few Dollars More – as the fugitive on the run, and Yves Montand giving a poignant performance as the alcoholic ex-cop, who retains his dignity even when going cold turkey. His big moment during the heist is understated but genuinely breathtaking, and while the ending is suitably bleak and abrupt, his character is at least afforded the personal closure he so desperately needs.
The most interesting casting however is Andre Bourvil as the dogged Superintendent Mattei. Almost exclusively known as a comic actor, here he is sombre and level headed, and it works surprisingly well. Bourvil clearly enjoyed sinking his teeth into more serious material and gives one of the best performances in the film. Sadly he died shortly after filming (never even seeing the finished film) but this is a great testament to his abilities as a serious dramatic actor.
Melville was always master of mise-en-scène, lighting and framing, and his films look incredible regardless of the format, but even so this 4k restoration looks stunning. It’s old-fashioned yet timeless, and the film quality means it could have been made yesterday. The only thing that gives it away is the back projections during driving scenes which are still terrible, but I’m not sure what anyone could do about that!
Le Cercle Rouge is one of the finest heist films ever made. It’s a meticulously constructed film, with deceptively simple plotting and some of Melville’s most stunning cinematography, and it’s a joy to watch in this format.
This Blu-ray is relatively light on extras, but these are still great. The 2016 documentary Codename: Melville provides really interesting insights into Melville’s childhood and personal life. There is also an informative making of documentary and numerous interviews.