Le Cercle Rouge (1970) reviewed

❉ A triumphant last hurrah of the French crime drama cycle, starring Alain Delon, makes its 4K UHD debut.

From Jules Dassin’s Rififi to Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped and Pickpocket, in the 1950s and 1960s there was a cycle of lean, precise dramas that meticulously but pleasingly dissected the processes of criminal acts. In these films (as in many French new wave movies), the criminals became antiheroic professionals, driven by the challenge and the prospective reward, and operating within the romantic, gun-happy culture of American cinema clichés. In the hands of Jean-Pierre Melville, director of Bob le flambeur, Le Samouraï and Army of Shadows, this minimal approach takes on an ironically epic proportion.

Le Cercle rouge, Melville’s second to last film, tells the story of three criminals as they plan an audacious jewel robbery. Alain Delon, star of Le Samouraï, plays Corey, a gangster freshly released from jail who is determined to have his revenge on his previous associates. Gian Maria Volonté plays Vogel, a prisoner who escapes and, by chance, ends up in Corey’s orbit. Yves Montand plays Jansen, an alcoholic ex-cop who, despite suffering from the DTs has the marksman skills needed for the burglary. Finally, André Bourvil, a traditionally comic actor, plays the disconcertingly straight role of the policeman hunting Vogel and ultimately unravelling the complex crime.

The crime dramas of this cycle often fall into two camps: The heist movie, notably Rififi and Bob le flambeur, and the prison-break movie, for example A Man Escaped and Jacques Becker’s Le Trou. Le Cercle rouge combines the best of both worlds beginning as a prison-break film, turning briefly into a road movie and then transforming into a spectacular heist movie. The usual beats of the two crime genres are present: the improvising use of materials (in this case a safety pin) to aid escape, the gathering of the criminal gang, the plotting of the crime and recceing of the target, the heist itself and the comeuppance of the criminals. As with both Rififi and Le Trou, Le Cercle rouge builds towards an extended climactic sequence played out in near silence. Melville uses this to expertly ratchet up the tension whilst playing on the vicarious pleasure of watching experts at work.

A lot of what Melville is doing here has been done before, and there is something indulgently sprawling about Le Cercle, a slightly distracting feeling that you are somehow watching a ‘best hits’ compilation of previous crime films. From an Anglophone perspective, it’s also almost impossible to ignore the fact that much of the structure and style of this is later adopted by Fred Zinnemann in The Day of the Jackal three years later. However, Melville’s seasoned visual sense, the dour, washed-out cinematography and the charismatically underplayed lead performances all combine to prevent the movie from becoming a cliché. Le Cercle rouge, therefore seems familiar, but I suspect that watched at the end of the run of films from the cycle, the ultimate feeling would be of watching a triumphant, last hurrah or a victory lap.  

Released in 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, the picture quality is pristine and what there is of the sparse, minimal soundtrack is crisp. It comes with a host of extras including interviews with Assistant Director Bernard Stora and Le Trou writer (and ex-criminal) José Giovanni, a presentation by film historian Ginette Vincendeau and clutch of documentary features.

DVD/Blu-Ray Extras

New The Perfect Circle
Under The Name Of Melville
Interview With Bernard Stora
Interview With José Giovanni
Ginette Vincendeau Presents Le Cercle Rouge


‘Le Cercle Rouge’ (1970). Written & Directed By: Jean-Pierre Melville. Starring: Alain Delon, Gian Maria Volontè, Yves Montand & Andre Bourvil. Available to own on 4K UHD, Blu-Ray, DVD & Digital, from 23 November 2020 via STUDIOCANAL. Cert: PG. Total Running Time: 140 mins. PREORDER LINK: https://amzn.to/3nykUpV

❉ A longstanding contributor to We Are Cult, Matt Barber runs the Film Ark blog and tweets as @mattbarberuk

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