It's altogether fitting that the American Film Institute should christen its new home in Silver Spring with a revival screening of "Le Cercle Rouge." Jean-Pierre Melville's lean, elegant 1970 police thriller was restored last year, just as the art deco Silver Theatre was undergoing its own long-awaited facelift.
Both arrive looking sleek, invigorated and refreshed after their big sleeps. And both, being classics, prove that good bones and an innate sense of style will win the day every time over the cheap bombast and super-size merchandising that too often define the moviegoing experience these days. (It's also oddly coincidental that "Le Cercle Rouge" is opening the very day that "The Good Thief," a loose remake of Melville's "Bob le Flambeur," arrives in theaters.)
"Le Cercle Rouge" translates as "The Red Circle," and Melville took the title from a Buddhist proverb about fate. And indeed an air of inexorability suffuses the film, which the French director executed with his usual steady and unerring hand. There's the inexorability of the destinies of its main players, a group of thieves and detectives engaged in a quiet game of chance and skill. And there's the inexorability of the cinema itself, wherein the medium's narrative conventions and set pieces are deployed methodically, but with so much panache and smarts that they look brand-new. With its cigarettes and guns, its fedoras and trench coats, "Le Cercle Rouge" pays homage to every trope of the film noirs so cherished by Melville and his compatriots. But rather than a throwback to a bygone age, the film is a crucial link between the 1940s and its own time. Like Don Siegel's films of the 1970s, "Le Cercle Rouge" preserves and resuscitates the hard-boiled genre, making the streets safe for world-weary amorality and existential detachment for generations to come.
The movie opens with Paris police captain Mattei (Andre Bourvil) escorting a criminal named Vogel (Gian Maria Volonte) to prison. The two are handcuffed together until they board a train; once they're secured in their berth, Mattei catches a few moments of sleep while Vogel is cuffed to the bunk frame.
The ramifications of that catnap coincide with another man's release from jail: While Vogel should be on his way in, a man named Corey (Alain Delon) is on his way out, having been tipped off by a guard to a hot heist prospect. Vogel and Corey's respective journeys will eventually intersect, with Mattei in pursuit of Vogel all the while. When "Le Cercle Rouge" is considered from a distance, there is nothing remarkable or surprising about its logistics or carefully choreographed double-crosses. We've seen them before. Instead, its impact lies in its expert pacing, its close attention to visual detail and subtleties of rhythm. There's no memorable dialogue in "Le Cercle Rouge"; rather, there are unforgettable tableaux of movement, meticulously executed with wordless cool.
The best instance of this is a scene that is the film's centerpiece, a jewel heist that takes place in total silence, capped by the arrival of a marksman played by Yves Montand. Earlier we've seen Montand's character, Jansen, battle the demons of alcohol withdrawal in a nightmarish Paris apartment whose walls and doors are covered entirely with a sickly green-striped wallpaper. It's a disturbing scene; the viewer's heart sinks to see Montand reduced to batting away rats and spiders and lizards. The suavest film actor of his generation here looks haggard and spent, and it seems as if Melville is having some sadistic fun with a star on his way out. But after Corey enlists Jansen to help with his scheme, both the character and the actor are revitalized: When Jansen shows up at the scene of the crime, he is impeccably turned out in a tuxedo, his handmade bullets safely ensconced with his gun in a guitar case. He embodies elegance and unruffled bravado, and the coup de grace with which he concludes his participation in the crime might be the most stylish hit ever recorded on film.
That's the climactic scene of "Le Cercle Rouge," which ends, if not predictably, at least without much of a twist. Still, the world the film has created -- with its jazz soundtrack, its air of seedy sophistication, its lack of emotional entanglements, its ruthlessness -- is one that audience members won't necessarily be eager to leave. It's a venal universe, but an uncluttered one, free of meaningless talk and noise, reduced to pure gesture. Come to think of it, perhaps it's telling that the Hong Kong filmmaker John Woo is overseeing the re-release of "Le Cercle Rouge." Widely recognized as the master of balletic gunplay and stylized, self-conscious noir references, Woo has spawned legions of young imitators who now assault viewers almost weekly with empty exercises in flash editing, overheated blood feuds and ever-louder ballistics. With luck, that generation will heed Woo's implied admonition: All the guns and special-effects gewgaws in the world can't substitute for class.
Le Cercle Rouge (140 minutes, in French with subtitles, at the AFI Silver Theatre through May 1) is not rated but contains gun violence and some nudity.