Le Cercle Rouge: Noir Classic Gets Longer and Better

JEAN-PIERRE MELVILLE'S 1970 Le Cercle Rouge is a breath of bitingly crisp air, even in an atmosphere thick with smoke from too many Gauloises. Running Friday, June 20 through Thursday, June 26 at the Varsity, the newly restored film makes its American gangster predecessors and every faux Melville to comeseem slightly coarse and obvious compared to these elegant, trench-coated men with their inviolate codes of behavior and predestined fates. A Melville film never hurries, never raises its voice. Why would anything this cool need to? In the 12th of his 13 films, Melville serves up three loners: Corey (Alain Delon, the Melville Man after Le SamouraOI>), just released after a five-year prison stint; high-risk criminal Vogel (Gian Maria Volunt马 who escapes while being transported by train; and alcoholic Jansen (Yves Montand), a marksman ex-cop. (We meet him writhing with DTsan all-too-real menagerie of snakes, rats, and reptilesthat will cause us to sweat later when his marksmanship is put to the test.) Their lives will later intersect for a heist, all the while pursued by the film's linchpin, Capt. Mattei (Andr頂ourvil), on whose watch Vogel escaped. Yet the silent, silken robbery is almost a throwaway; watching the codes by which all the characters behave, within and above the law, is the real fascination. But Cercle also expands Melville's usual sense of place. Opening with a night train speeding through the countryside, lit by one compartment's yellow glow, the film's initial chases and bravura escapes take place outdoors or in cars crisscrossing broad landscapes. This is open-air noir (made seductive by Melville's great cinematographer Henri Deca멬 until the circle tightens and the action movesof courseto Paris. There, in a chess game of loyalty and betrayal, Corey claims payback, literally, from the mob boss who appropriated his girlfriend. Corey is simply incapable of being surprised, and Delon underplays him dazzlingly. Mattei might have been a by-the-numbers detective if Melville hadn't cast the former comic actor Bourvil. On the train, Mattei's smallest actions toward handcuffed Vogel tell us that this is a humane man, the kind of policeman who would come home to talk over the day with his family of three fluffy cats. Melville's delicately woven details go behind the masks of these supposedly opaque, hard men. These glimpses may have been the reason Cercle was the greatest commercial success in his relatively short career. (Cercle has only previously been available here in a butchered version that ripped 40 minutes from the writer-director's meticulous construction.) It's also a degree or two warmer, with a touch more throwaway humor. The mobbed-up nightclub's dancerssame steps, different costumesbecome funnier with each appearance. Predictably, noir's unspoken rules hold, even though Melville's singular band of brothers puts no foot wrong. The director's only mistake was in his predictions about his work: "I don't know what will be left of me 50 years from now," he said in a 1971 interview. "I suspect that all films will have aged terribly." Gratifyingly, Le Cercle Rouge proves him wrong. info@seattleweekly.com

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