Criterion | 1970 | 141 mins, | PG

The heist flick has been around almost as long as moving pictures.  There so common, most directors follow a familiar formula: gather a group of thieves and give each one of them a special skill. A plan is formed, the plan is executed and everyone lives happily ever after.  French director Jean-Pierre Melville wasn’t interested in formulas. A curmudgeonly sort, Melville blazed his own path while making a film.

Le Cercle Rouge1970’s Le Cercle Rouge opens with a philosophical scroll; the words of the Buddha, yet it’s made up. From the start, Melville plays on the expectations of his audience to spin a yarn both ground in reality and informed by the art of cinema. The story revolves around three men: Corey (Alain Delon), an aristocratic thief who has been in prison for five years; Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte), a dangerous criminal recently captured by the police; and Jansen (Yves Montand), an ex-cop and sharpshooter, slowly killing himself.

Corey (Delon) is just out of prison but showing no signs of reforming. Having just robbed his previous mobster employer, Corey runs into a high profile escaped criminal named Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté), being hunted by the shrewd yet soft-spoken Captain Mattei (Bourvil). A happenstance meeting throws these two together and they immediately start planning a jewelry store heist in Paris. Needing to go underground and essentially disappear, the two men figure the profits from the heist will give them the financial resources they need. In order to be successful, they need one more specialized person. Jansen (Montand) is the last piece of the puzzle. He’s an expert marksman, but is haunted by a past in which he used to be a good cop. That is until alcohol took over his life. Now he sees visions of snakes, lizards, and spiders crawling out of the walls.

The story itself isn’t particularly complex or even original. What makes it so special is Melville’s writing style. Razor sharp, he doesn’t use a lot of extraneous dialogue. He understands that sometimes silence speaks louder than words ever could. Aided by a superb cast, Melville’s stark noir style makes Le Cercle Rouge engrossing from start to finish. While the films structure is somewhat familiar–the escape, the meeting, and the execution—under Melville’s direction there’s a fluidity and attention to detail that too few heist pictures achieve.

Le Circle Rouge looks wonderful in 1080p. Color balance is vivid, detail is surprisingly thorough and strong, and black levels are vibrant and robust. Best of all, though, is the lack of extensive damage to the telecine print. While there is a hint of inconsistency here and there, especially in the film’s sometimes blown-out interior segments, the print is solid. Grain is also handled evenly.

The monaural track is unassuming and somewhat limited in terms of fidelity, but that doesn’t detract from its overall impression on the film. Dialogue is tinny and scratchy and the film’s musical cues are overdone, but this is the best I’ve ever heard the film sound.

English subtitles are included.

We get the following special features:

Archival FootageCinéastes de notre temps – excerpts from “Jean-Pierre Melville (portrait en 9 poses)”, an episode of the French television series Cineastes de notre temps, directed by Andre S. Labarthe. In these excerpts, the French director discusses his fascination with America cinema (in particular the gangster films Warner Brothers produced), how he prepares his films, etc. In French, with optional English subtitles. (28 min, 1080i).

Pour le cinema – an episode of Pour le cinema first aired on French television on March 15, 1970, and was directed by Pierre Mignot. Director Jean-Pierre Melville, Alain Delon, Andre Bourvil, Yves Montand  discuss Le Cercle Rouge. In French, with optional English subtitles. (6 min, 1080i).

Midi magazine – an episode of the French television program Midi magazine, entitled “Jean-Pierre Melville: Le Cercle Rouge”, which aired on May 27, 1970. Director Jean-Pierre Melville answers a series of questions about his upcoming film, Le Cercle Rouge, while Alain Delon compares the film to Le Samourai. In French, with optional English subtitles. (5 min, 1080i).

Vingt-quatre heures sur la deux – an episode of Vingt-quatre heures sur la deux, on Le Cercle Rouge, first aired on October 21, 1970, and presented by France Roche. Director Jean-Pierre Melville and Alain Delon answer a series of provocative questions about Le Cercle Rouge. In French, with optional English subtitles. (4 min, 1080i).

Morceaux de bravoure – excerpts from “Les films policiers – Melville: L’ere partie”, taken from the May 7, 1973, episode of the French television series Morceaux de bravoure, directed by Jean-Paul Sassy. Once again, director Jean-Pierre Melville discusses his fascination with American cinema, the unique characters and atmospheres of his films, etc. In French, with optional English subtitles. (10 min, 1080i).

Bernard Stora – Mr. Stora, who has worked as an assistant director for Jean Eustache, Henri Verneuil, John Frankenheimer and Jean-Pierre Melville, and script-writer for Claude Miller and Georges Lautner amongst others, recalls his first encounter and consequent collaborations with Jean-Pierre Melville. In French, with optional English and German subtitles. In French, with optional English subtitles. (31 min, 1080p)

Rui Nogueira – a video interview with Rui Nogueira, author of Melville on Melville, produced for Criterion and conducted by Robert Fischer in Munich in 2003. In French, with optional English subtitles. (27 min, 1080p)

Trailers— Original French Trailer – in French, with optional English subtitles. (2 min, 1080i).

— Rialto Pictures 2003 Re-relase Trailer – in French, with embedded English subtitles. (3 min, 1080i).

Booklet – an illustrated booklet containing essays by film critics Michael Sragow and Chris Fujiwara, excerpts from Melville on Melville, a reprint interview with composer Eric Demarsan, and an appreciation from director John Woo.