Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 05, 2005 10:14 pm 
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Too long but too good to cut? Nostalgia for the perfect noir

Recent American commentators have raised this once little-known filmmaker to sainthood and his every work to pure platinum. "A dazzling epic of love, guns, gangsters and cigarettes," Manohla Dargis rhapsodized in the NY Times when the expanded re-release of Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Cercle rouge came out two years ago. "Epic"?? Ah… I see. Okay…I guess so... If it's that kind of epic... Melville is great, no doubt about it, and everybody's realized it, so when this reissue arrived, it was greeted ecstatically. And that's fine. But coming along a couple years later to comment on the lengthier version on DVD, one is forced to offer correctives.

"For some of us, this constitutes a religious event" wrote Ty Burr of the Boston Globe.

Well, no. Le Cercle rouge came out in 1970. The Sixties were putrefying into the Seventies, with (from the noir point of view) a bad effect on raincoats, shapes of trousers, hair grooming, even cigarettes (the switch to sissy filters) -- in short, on style in general. Melville was holding out, and the attire in Rouge is elegant and traditional, particularly Yve Montand's, but the slippage shows in the use of color film. If you want the true Melville Zen minimalism, stick with Le Samouraï. Nonetheless Delon's still on board, and even looking a bit puffy and wearing a sleazy moustache he's still Delon. I'm not sure it was altogether good to bring in Yves Montand. He's part of a great cast, but he's a bit too soulful: it was Delon's very blankness that gave him the ultimate film-noir cool. One look at Montand's expressive face and you're catapulted into another whole different world.

One really has mixed feelings about this movie which seems to recap and combine some of the great polars noirs of the past, Melville's included. And notably Jules Dassin's 1955 Rififi (Du Rififi chez les hommes), whose jewel robbery and long wordless sequence this in its action climax closely mimics. But Rififi is much more elaborate and exciting, and has the virtue of having been original at the time. The Cercle rouge robbery sequence is beautifully simple and elegant. It could be a bit more suspenseful, as Rififi's certainly is. An excellent later example of both technical complexity and suspense in a long robbery sequence -- flawlessly executed by James Caan -- is Michael Mann's bank robbery in his 1981 Thief. All this stuff usually requires suspension of disbelief, but really, the idea that the employees' bathroom window of the Cercle rouge robbery wouldn't be part of the alarm system is pretty preposterous. The nightclub scenes, the cop scenes, the betrayals and such, are all more atmospheric elsewhere. The paradox here is that this is an artist "at the peak of his art" who's already a bit over the hill, sinking into decadence, his art losing its freshness and its economy. His color is unbeautiful, black and white gone green and sickly. His scenes are composed with great sureness, but lack the dash and atmosphere of his earlier films (color is generally less atmospheric, and of course, needless to say, less "noir").

What is good? All the acting (including the soulful Montand). Interesting details in Le Cercle rouge: Melville likes to begin with a little motto or explanation, and one opens with a fake quotation from the Buddha. When Corey and Vogel (Delon and Gian-Maria Volonté) get out of the car to do the heist, you hear the beep and click of the jewelry store gates instead of the car door sound -- signalling that the hypnotic ritual has already begun. Lately recovered from the DT's (an elegant piece of surrealism) for this job, during the robbery Jansen (Montand) takes out a silver flask -- but only sniffs the alcohol, doesn't drink. Other classic performances: François Perrier, with his French standard issue dark circled black eyes, as the morally suspect nightclub boss; the comic Bourvil as the ice-cold Commissioner Mattei.

Sometimes admittedly the longeurs do make the scenes more hypnotic and grand. But since nobody's talking in so much of this movie (and silence makes film time expand), do we need so much footage? Minimalism means economy of means; the length goes against Melville's own stylistic principles. I'd argue he feels something is going wrong and is trying too hard to compensate. Jack Mathews of Daily News Movies suggested the added-back forty minutes "must be follow footage. We follow people up flights of stairs, down streets, through fields, among woods, up walls, over roofs and into beds. Don't get me started on the car rides." Without knowing what the restored footage actually is, one can definitely conclude that this version could be cut back by at least 20 or 30 minutes with good results.

"If you've got the patience," Jack Matthews continues, being just as ambivalent as I am now, "this is still one of the all-time exercises in cinematic cool. At the core is a relatively banal caper story, in which a pair of ex-cons (Alain Delon, Gian-Maria Volonté) team up with an alcoholic ex-cop (Yves Montand) to knock over a Harry Winston-like jewelry store in Paris. But it's really about wearing raincoats and lighting up Gitanes and saying very little while being very loyal."

And as this implies, fans of polar noir have got to see this extended version of Melville's Le Cercle rouge, longeurs or not. If you're more just a fan of Woo, Tarantino, Jarmusch or Wong looking for background, you'll need to begin with Bob le flambeur, Le Doulos, and Le Samouraï -- and then see if you're so hooked you've got to go on to see this and Un flic besides. Woo himself is planning a remake to come out next year. The Red Circle, he's calling it. That's Hollywood, I guess. Woo's been prolific since he left HongKong, but the magic is gone.

When it summarized the 2003 Le Cercle rouge re-issue reviews, Metacritic came up with a rating of 91.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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