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Tag Archives: The Red Circle

Top Ten Home Video Releases of 2010

Below is a list of my fifty favorite home video releases of 2010 – the top ten in preferential order and a 40-way tie(!) for number eleven. The only titles below that I didn’t actually purchase were the Von Sternberg, Costa and Gaumont box sets, which I rented instead, and that was mainly due to my fear that they will become available in better quality Blu-ray editions in the near future. In making the list, I arrived at my rankings by averaging my estimation of the quality of the movie as a whole, the image/sound transfer and the supplemental material. I also decided to spread the love around a little by including only one film per distributor in my top ten. Criterion and Masters of Cinema would have otherwise locked up most of those slots and I believe that a lot of other distribution companies deserve recognition for the brilliant work they’ve done. As this list should make clear, we are living in a true golden age of home video where the history of world cinema is readily available in breathtaking quality as it never has been before (at least for anyone with a multi-region Blu-ray player).

The Top Ten (preferential order):

10. Dust in the Wind (Hou, Taiwan, 1987) – Central Pictures / Sony Music Blu-ray

This disc isn’t perfect. For one thing, the image is interlaced instead of progressive scan. But this is such a quantum leap over the old non-anamorphic DVDs in every other area (clarity, color, depth and contrast), that I was still ecstatic to see it. The film itself, a delicate love story about teenage country bumpkins who move to Taipei in search of greater opportunity in the 1960s, remains one of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s best early works, paving the way for the opening segment of his masterpiece Three Times. I had previously thought of the cinematography in this movie as merely functional. Sony’s Blu-ray proves that it’s actually very beautiful. I can’t wait for more HHH in HD!

9. Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960) – Universal Blu-ray

Universal haven’t gotten things 100% right when it comes to Blu-ray. They haven’t been as meticulous about image quality as, say, Warner Brothers (see last year’s perfect North By Northwest disc for comparison), and I find their generic menus especially annoying. But I did enjoy Psycho‘s subtle but effective new 5.1 surround sound mix, which did not require the recording of new music/effects tracks like the blasphemous 1990s “restoration” of Vertigo. Bottom line: this version is the best that Alfred Hitchcock’s most disturbing film has ever looked and sounded on home video and is an essential addition to any serious movie library. More here.

8. Le Cercle Rouge (Melville, France, 1970) – Studio Canal Blu-ray

Jolly am I made by what I consider the greatest of all heist pictures, a crime subgenre of which I am quite fond! Studio Canal deserves kudos for being the first to marry Jean-Pierre Melville, the undisputed king of French film noir, with the Blu-ray format. The end result is a thing of beauty, more than making up for their botched job of Godard’s Le Mepris from last year. Now bring on the Criterion Army of Shadows. Full review here.

7. A Star Is Born (Cukor, USA, 1954) – Warner Brothers Blu-ray

Warner Brothers has consistently bested the other Hollywood studios when it comes to putting out lovingly restored, high-quality Blu-ray discs of their “catalogue titles.” For me, their best 2010 offering was this new high-def transfer of Ron Haver’s 1983 labor-of-love restoration of George Cukor’s epic musical/melodrama. Judy Garland’s force of nature performance as rising star Vicki Lester has caused many to regard this as the greatest “one woman show” in film history but I think it’s James Mason’s quietly devastating performance as fading movie star Norman Maine that gives A Star is Born its soul. The Blu-ray format is particularly well-suited to Cukor’s mise-en-scene, which alternates between brilliantly vibrant Technicolor sequences and unusually dark images with diffused shadows dominating.

6. A Man Escaped (Bresson, France, 1956) – Gaumont Blu-ray

French distributor Gaumont made my dreams come true by releasing one of my favorite movies ever in a region-free edition with English subtitles. The image quality may not provide as eye-poppingly drastic of an upgrade over previous editions as did their immaculate restoration of Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (also available region-free with English subs). But A Man Escaped, an exciting prison escape drama made in Robert Bresson’s inimitable “essentialist” style, is simply the better movie and, indeed, one of the towering achievements of the film medium. Hopefully, the rest of his catalogue will soon follow. Full review here.

5. Lucky Star (Borzage, USA, 1929) – Carlotta Blu-ray

The still-underrated Frank Borzage is the most romantic filmmaker of all time and Lucky Star from 1929 may be his finest hour: a luminous melodrama concerning the love that blossoms between a farm girl (the always superb Janet Gaynor) and a disabled WWI vet (a never better Charles Farrell). Incredibly, this was a “lost” film until a print turned up in the Netherlands in 1990. That print serves as the source for this transfer and appears to be in remarkably good shape — better than any prints Fox had in their vaults of Borzage’s other silents. Strange that a Hollywood masterpiece like this would only be available on Blu-ray from a distributor in France, but this is an essential purchase for lovers of silent film.

4. Metropolis (Lang, Germany, 1927) – Kino Blu-ray

Fritz Lang’s sci-fi masterpiece looks more prescient than ever in this “complete” cut, in which 25 minutes have been restored for the first time since the film’s 1927 premiere. The missing footage was long considered one of cinema’s holy grails (alongside the missing footage from Greed and The Magnificent Ambersons), so this release is cause for celebration. Kino’s Blu-ray is perfect. More here.

3. Late Spring / The Only Son (Ozu, Japan, 1949) – BFI Blu-ray

Last summer, the British Film Institute did the world of cinephilia a massive favor by releasing four of Yasujiro Ozu’s best films on Blu-ray (with more on the way in 2011). Two of his most sublime domestic dramas about intergenerational family conflict, The Only Son from 1936 and Late Spring from 1949, appeared on a single disc, automatically vaulting it to the top of my list of the year’s best releases. This is how all high-definition transfers should look — as faithful as possible to the experience of seeing the films as they would look projected in a theater, including whatever damage is inherent to the original film elements. Very film-like and very beautiful. Full review here.

2. Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy (Rossellini, Italy/Germany, 1945-1948) – The Criterion Collection DVD

If this had been a Blu-ray release, it would have unquestionably been number one on my list. But since good transfers of Roberto Rossellini’s monumental World War II trilogy have never truly existed on home video in any format, I can only be grateful to Criterion for the hard work that must have gone into restoring these films and presenting them on standard DVD in the impressive shape in which they appear here. (Paisan in particular seems to have been rescued from oblivion.) The movies themselves are definitive neo-realism, using a mix of professional and non-professional actors, location shooting with studio sets, and relaying ambiguous, loosely constructed narratives concerning the Italian resistance to the German occupation (Rome Open City) and the aftermath of the war in both Italy (Paisan) and Germany (Germany Year Zero). But it’s the copious supplemental material, including feature-length documentaries, interviews with Rossellini and an enlightening “visual essay” by Tag Gallagher, that pushes this to the front ranks of Criterion’s most important releases ever.

1. City Girl (F.W. Murnau, USA, 1930) – Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray

F.W. Murnau’s romantic masterpiece, without which Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven would be unthinkable, finally gets the treatment it deserves from the good folks at Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label. The story is the flip-side of Sunrise, where the good-hearted title character from Chicago moves with her new husband to a Minnesota farm only to find her existence made a living hell by her live-in father-in-law. This contains some of the most visually ecstatic and transcendental moments in all of cinema, such as the swooping, swooning camera movement that follows Charles Farrell and Mary Duncan as they run through a wheat field before collapsing to the ground in newlywed bliss. The image quality of this Blu-ray is so clean and so pristine that it sets the bar impossibly high for all future HD transfers of silent-era films.

Runners Up (alphabetical order):

11. 3 Silent Classics by Joseph Von Sternberg (Von Sternberg, Criterion DVD)
12. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, Kino Blu-ray)
13. Bigger Than Life (Ray, Criterion Blu-ray)
14. Black Narcissus (Powell/Pressburger, Criterion Blu-ray)
15. Breathless (Godard, Criterion Blu-ray) Full review here.
16. Close-Up (Kiarostami Criterion Blur-ray)
17. Cronos (Del Toro, Criterion Blu-ray)
18. Days of Heaven (Malick, Criterion Blu-ray)
19. Early Summer / What Did the Lady Forget? (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
20. The Exorcist (Friedkin, Warner Brothers Blu-ray)
21. Fallen Angels (Wong, Kino Blu-ray)
22. Fantomas (Feuillade, Kino DVD)
23. French Can Can (Renoir, Gaumont Blu-ray)
24. Gaumont Treasures 1897 – 1913 (Feuillade/Guy/Perret, Kino DVD)
25. Happy Together (Wong, Kino Blu-ray)
26. The Hurt Locker (Bigelow, Summit Blu-ray)
27. The Leopard (Visconti, Criterion Blu-ray)
28. Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films By Pedro Costa (Costa, Criterion DVD)
29. Lola Montes (Ophuls, Criterion Blu-ray)
30. M (Lang, Criterion Blu-ray)
31. Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
32. Modern Times (Chaplin, Criterion Blu-ray)
33. Mulholland Drive (Lynch, Studio Canal Blu-ray)
34. Night of the Hunter (Laughton, Criterion Blu-ray)
35. Peeping Tom (Powell, Optimum Blu-ray)
36. Profound Desires of the Gods (Imamura, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
37. Red Desert (Antonioni, Criterion Blu-ray)
38. The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, Criterion Blu-ray)
39. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, Criterion Blu-ray)
40. Sherlock Jr. / The Three Ages (Keaton, Kino Blu-ray)
41. Shutter Island (Scorsese, Paramount Blu-ray)
42. Stagecoach (Ford, Criterion Blu-ray)
43. Steamboat Bill Jr. (Keaton, Kino Blu-ray)
44. The Thin Red Line (Malick, Criterion Blu-ray)
45. Tokyo Story / Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (Ozu BFI Blu-ray)
46. Une Femme Mariee (Godard, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
47. Vengeance is Mine (Imamura, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
48. Vengeance Trilogy (Park, Palisades Tartan Blu-ray)
49. Vivre sa Vie (Godard, Criterion Blu-ray)
50. The Young Girls of Rochefort (Demy, Arte Video Blu-ray)

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A Blu Red Circle

“The Buddha took a piece of red chalk and drew a circle, saying: ‘When men, though unaware of it, must meet again someday, they may follow diverging paths to the given day when, ineluctably, they will be reunited within the red circle.'” — Rama Krishna

“All men are guilty.” — L’inspecteur général de la police

While watching Studio Canal’s newly released Blu-ray of Le Cercle Rouge, it struck me that Jean-Pierre Melville is to the French crime film what Sergio Leone is to the Spaghetti western: Melville, like Leone, made outrageously entertaining films that reflected a punch-drunk love for American genre fare, the conventions of which he inflated to a near-operatic scale after refracting them through his own unique cultural sensibility. And there is evidence that Melville wanted Le Cercle Rouge to be his magnum opus, as Once Upon a Time in the West was for Leone; it was his penultimate film and is permeated by a mood of fatalism even more pronounced than usual for this master of film noir. At times it feels like an epic, self-conscious attempt to outdo every heist picture ever made, including The Asphalt Jungle, Rififi and Melville’s own Le Doulos. As a series of bravura set pieces and a statement of existential despair, it just might succeed.

The quote that begins Le Cercle Rouge is a bit of nonsense attributed to Rama Krishna but apparently invented by Melville himself to justify the chief narrative contrivance of his plot: Vogel (Gian Maria Volante), a murderer who has just escaped police custody, seeks refuge in the car trunk of Corey (Alain Delon – to Melville what Clint Eastwood was to Leone), a man he has never met but who happens to be a master criminal just released from prison. The two form a fast friendship and immediately conspire to rob a jewelry store with the aid of one of Vogel’s acquaintances, an alcoholic ex-cop named Jansen (French icon Yves Montand).

Vogel and Corey aren’t the only two characters fated to meet within the “red circle.” Joining them is Mattei (Bourvil), a police detective hot on the trail of Vogel who appears to be the opposite number of our criminal protagonists while being simultaneously cut from the same cloth as them. Mattei describes himself as a “hunter” and Vogel as “intelligent prey”; in other words, while on opposite sides of the law, he considers Vogel a worthy adversary. (Mattei is also visually linked to Corey through his steely blue eyes, trench coat and fedora.) At first, Mattei balks at his superior’s claim that men are born innocent but, without exception, become guilty during the course of their lives. By the end of the film, however, he seems to recognize the tragic kinship he has with the men he is hunting. They are all “guilty”; it’s just a question of to what degree.

The highlight of Le Cercle Rouge is the film’s climactic heist sequence, which is sustained for an exhilarating twenty five minutes (about 20% of the film’s two hour and twenty minute running time) and contains no dialogue. We watch, hypnotized, as the trio of robbers break into the building, take a security guard hostage, disable a series of alarms and clear the joint out of $20 million dollars worth of merchandise. The surgical precision with which they pull off the operation is mirrored by the rigorousness of Melville’s elegant camera movements and deft cutting. This sequence, from the muted colors to the balletic choreography of the performers, is the epitome of cool. How cool is it? It’s so cool that you can’t help but feel cool just by watching it.

Because the film’s drama has its origins in Melville’s movie memories, it is arguable that the most prominent quality of Le Cercle Rouge is its cinephilia. In the age of Quentin Tarantino (who has repeatedly cited Melville as someone who proved you could make a movie if you simply loved movies enough), this may not sound like a big deal. But Melville was the prototypical cinephile-filmmaker, pre-dating the Nouvelle Vague by more than a decade and always examining genre conventions in a way that was both critical and playful. For instance, in Le Cercle Rouge you know who the characters are not because of what they say but because of their trench coats, fedoras and the fact that they smoke a lot. This iconic “costume,” based on the look of American movie gangsters, had been employed by Melville since the mid-1950s but by 1970, the sense of disconnect between the “real” France and Melville’s iconographic images was pronounced to the point of abstraction. The Paris of Le Cercle Rouge is a Paris that only existed in Melville’s imagination: a jazz-inflected, nocturnal world populated by professional, well-dressed and taciturn criminals, all of whom drive classic American cars. This is a Paris in which rock and roll and the Nouvelle Vague do not exist and the events of May 1968 never happened.

I hasten to add that Melville’s lack of engagement with contemporary society does not mean Le Cercle Rouge lacks a moral dimension. On the contrary, Melville’s morality is precisely the difference between him and most of his imitators and I would argue that the film’s theological inquiry into the nature of evil is its raison d’etre. Melville was deeply concerned with the concepts of right and wrong and there’s a sense in each of his films that he believed in the importance of conducting oneself the “right” way, especially in the face of certain death. Melville’s concept of the right way to live (and die) has to do with old fashioned values such as honor, loyalty to one’s friends and chivalry, all of which are exemplified by Delon’s Corey. Melville may even have had Corey in mind when he delivered one of my favorite of his many memorable quotes: “Classical cinema, basically, had to do with heroes, so-called modern cinema is to do with grubs. I have always refused to go along with this regression… I always arrange my characters – my ‘heroes’ – to conduct themselves within their environment, whatever it might be, the way I would conduct myself […] To be frank, I’m only able to become interested in characters who reflect some aspect of myself.” (Film Dope, 42, October 1989 p.16)

To paraphrase Marlene Dietrich in Touch of Evil, Melville must have been some kind of a man.

Studio Canal’s new high definition transfer of Le Cercle Rouge is unquestionably the best presentation the film has ever received on home video. It corrects every flaw in the standard definition Criterion release from several years ago. Most notably, it restores the film’s original deep-blue color scheme, which perversely skewed more towards green on the Criterion. It also sports a healthy amount of film grain; there were times when I felt like I was seeing a 35mm print being projected onto my television screen. Finally, it should be noted that this is a dark, dark movie. The interiors are illuminated by low-key lighting and the exteriors seem to always take place at night or during the day when everything is bathed in the indirect light of a dusky sunset. Because darkness has always been the enemy of compression, this Blu-ray represents a more substantial leap in quality than the typical HD upgrade.

Although Studio Canal has tended to be hit or miss in terms of Blu-ray image and sound quality thus far, Le Cercle Rouge is one of their most impressive releases, alongside of Belle de Jour. It is a very welcome addition to my library.


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