Film Review: Le Cercle Rouge *** (now showing at the Cosford)

To the many themes of Le Cercle Rouge, add irony, because there’s nothing more ironic than seeing John Woo get a “presented by” credit in the re-release of this film. Woo’s domestic resume includes Broken Arrow and Face/Off, two decent action movies, but nothing that would draw in an art house crowd. Le Cercle Rouge, on the other hand, is a 140-minute sprawling action/drama from revered French director Jean-Pierre Melville. It’s exactly the type of film accessory that goes right along with black turtlenecks, goatees, lattes, and The New Yorker intelligentsia.

To most Americans, the name Melville brings to mind a big whale book and Cs in high school English. But Jean-Pierre Melville probably impacted film even more than that whale guy impacted literature. Le Cercle Rouge was released in 1970, the second to last in a string of Melville films that are oft-credited with sparking cinema’s French New Wave.

Unsurprisingly, Le Cercle Rouge is a very intelligent film, the ultimate viewer payoff being a nice enlightenment. Perhaps also unsurprising, is that Melville’s methods are, at times, a tad self-indulgent. Clearly, he aspires to set a distinct mood in his work before he gets around to structuring a plot. But hey, he’s a French artist.

Thus we find a film about four people. Corey has just been released from prison, with a tip from a guard about a job robbing a jewelry store. On his first day back to freedom, he meets Vogel, a criminal who was being transported on a train and managed to escape. The cop who let him get away is Mattei, and Vogel’s escape seems to be the first blemish on his record. He is a calm and collected man who firmly believes in the law, unlike Jansen, an ex-cop who Corey and Vogel enlist to help them land the score.

Over two hours long, the only direct purpose of Rouge is to build up to the climatic jewel heist, which is admittedly brilliant. Before the aforementioned scene, plot is almost non-existent, though Melville does a fine job of unearthing the minds of each of character sans dialogue. Mattei is shown feeding his cats in his apartment, while Jansen, consumed by alcoholism, has bracing nightmares about rats and snakes crawling into his bed.

Sure, Le Cercle Rouge will bore the typical American looking to escape into explosions and Jennifer Lopez. But it set the stage for an infinite platter of American heist films of differing quality and importance. Melville’s work is said to have influenced championed filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Michael Mann, and Martin Scorsese. Most recently, Neil Jordan remade an early Melville hit into The Good Thief, starring Nick Nolte sans hangover.

Such romantic style can be seen in the films of several of those directors, but Le Cercle Rouge’s influence on Woo and Tarantino is tougher to spot. Using music sparingly, Melville also has very little dialogue in this film, contrasting sharply with Tarantino – whose comic and dramatic eruptions of profanity are, perhaps, the one signature that he didn’t brilliantly pillage from Woo or Scorsese or the Shaw brothers or many others – which is ironic.

Despite the lack of momentum, Melville’s staging of the final robbery scene is classic – a dreamy accomplishment of courage and originality. There is scant sound – dialogue, music, anything – for huge portions of the scene. The camera stands relatively still in wide shots, a welcome relief from the modern 20-something indie director, whose cameras fly around the room like balloons running out of air. These methods help Melville express stunning realism and build crucial intensity.

Up until now, Le Cercle Rouge was tough to find in video stores stateside, but with Woo’s name attached it’s gotten a lauded re-release and is currently being shown at the Bill Cosford Cinema on campus. A few people get shot, and there’s some minor nudity to help non-film geeks bear it, but other than that, it takes a serious interest in French New Wave and film history to be entertained by the majority of this film. Ignore the current ad campaign, because this is not Pulp Fiction. Fans of indie and foreign cinema looking to exercise the brain while relaxing in the dark should seek it out.

Le Cercle Rouge is being shown at the Bill Cosford Cinema from September 5-14. For more info and show times visit

Shawn Wines can be reached at