Jean-Pierre Melville’s ‘Le Cercle Rouge’ on Criterion Channel

Crime cinema has never been so meticulously and coolly executed as in Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1970 heist classic Le Cercle Rouge (France, 1970).

Alain Delon, intense and dapper in trenchcoat and fedora, is taciturn thief Corey and Gian Maria Volonte is escaped felon Vogel. They cross paths as if by fate, bound by saving each other’s life, and plot a daring jewel robbery. They need a third, however, and they recruit Jansen (Yves Montand), a disgraced ex-cop and sharpshooter roused from his alcoholic stupor with the mission.

This is Melville’s world of romantic doom, an irresistible cinema fantasy of loyalty, professionalism, sacrifice, and codes of honor in a rarefied world of classy, uncompromising crooks. Le Cercle Rouge is the ultimate expression of the romantic doom that he established in such French noir masterpieces as Bob Le Flambeur and Le Samourai. The centerpiece heist, a wordless twenty minute sequence with masked men communicating in codified gestures, is a tour de force of cinematic efficiency that tops even Rififi in its celebration of criminal skill and nerve.

Melville’s most austere work strips even the characters down to the essence of their professionalism and their integrity. But if the film lacks the emotional connection of Bob Le Flambeur or the tantalizing irony of Le Samourai, its doomed underworld perfection is, well, perfect, a world of men without women where cops and criminals are locked in a symbiotic co-existence.

Andre Bouvril costars as the unrelenting cop on their trail.

In French with English subtitles

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Le Cercle Rouge (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Le Cercle Rouge (The Criterion Collection) [4K UHD + Blu-ray]
Le Cercle Rouge (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]

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The Criterion Collection releases feature excerpts from the 1970 documentary “Cinéastes de notres temps: Jean-Pierre Melville (portrait en 9 poses),” video interviews with Melville friend and editor of “Melville on Melville” Rui Nogueira and with “Le Cercle Rouge” assistant director Bernard Stora, rare on-set footage featuring interviews with director Melville and stars Alain Delon, Yves Montand, and André Bourvil, archival French television interview footage with Jean-Pierre Melville and Alain Delon, original and 2002 rerelease trailers, and a booklet.

Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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