Le Cercle Rouge (1970)

Genres - Crime, Thriller  |   Sub-Genres - Caper, Crime Thriller, Post-Noir (Modern Noir), Police Detective Film  |   Run Time - 150 min.  |   Countries - France , Italy   |   MPAA Rating - R
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Review by Mark Deming

Part of the genius of Jean-Pierre Melville was that he was able to take the formal elements of the crime film and put a thoroughly individual stamp on them -- his best films take the stuff of a thousand grade-B thrillers and invest them with a singular intelligence and quiet cool. On the surface, Le Cercle Rouge concerns two criminals thrown into a slightly uneasy alliance with a corrupt and alcoholic ex-cop to pull off a heist, but in Melville's hands this becomes a story about kindred spirits brought together through chance and unforeseen circumstance; their lives on the other side of the law have as much to do with their own personal sense of ethics and honor as those of the lawmen who struggle to track them down. Melville's clean, elegant framing of shots and his appreciation of the value of silence gives this picture a spare but satisfying feel quite different from most European crime films, and the subtle but sharply etched performances of Alain Delon, Gian Maria Volonté, and Yves Montand are the ideal embodiment of Melville's notion that less is more. In 1970, Le Cercle Rouge received a spotty release in the United States in a version cut by some 40 minutes; the uncut print finally received a belated American release in 2002, and in its pristine form, Le Cercle Rouge reveals itself as a film whose subtle touch only adds to the tension and suspense it generates -- a valuable lesson for filmmakers who believe that the function of genre filmmaking is to slap the viewer about the face and neck.