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Good Rep

Photo by Jay Muhlin

Le Cercle Rouge, Jean-Pierre Melville's rarely seen 1970 gangster-heist film — opening Friday for a two-week run at the Nuart — is the latest reissue by the New York-based distribution company Rialto Pictures. Founded in 1997 by Long Island native Bruce Goldstein, Rialto has become a trademark of quality for the cinephile set, re-releasing films like Renoir's Grand Illusion, Godard's Band of Outsiders and, recently, Henri-Georges Clouzot's Quai des Orfevres with sharp, clean prints featuring new translations and subtitles.

Goldstein, 50, had worked at such legendary New York City venues as the Thalia, the New Yorker and the Bleecker Street Cinema before starting the repertory programming at lower Manhattan's Film Forum, which he still oversees, in 1987. As the era of rep houses gave way to home video, Goldstein felt increasingly frustrated by the dearth of choices for filmgoers, and the beat-up condition of so many classic film prints. "If you can get a decent video," he says, "why would you want to see a crappy print at the rep house? As far as Rialto goes, it got started because there were certain films I couldn't get and I'd always wanted to show."

Following reissues, in partnership with Strand Releasing, of Mike Nichols' The Graduate and Godard's Contempt, Goldstein set out on his own, in 1998, with Fellini's Nights of Cabiria. By then, he had signed on Adrienne Halpern, an entertainment lawyer and unabashed Francophile, to assist with the seemingly endless rights problem involved in acquiring older European titles. "Most American films have parents, as it were, and we deal in orphans," says Goldstein. "There were no American-rights holders when we acquired any of our titles. A lot of what we do has been made possible by the changes in the trade laws, in the public-domain laws, over the last 10 years."

Though Rialto has polished up and re-released popular classics like De Sica's Umberto D. and Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Goldstein is also committed to unearthing lesser-known films and bringing them to a contemporary audience. "I've done well with both," he says, "but I'd rather do an undiscovered gem like Le Cercle Rouge, or Quai des Orfevres, a 1947 black-and-white French movie with an unpronounceable name. But remember the ad line from Ninotchka — 'Don't pronounce it, see it!'"

In the case of Le Cercle Rouge, Goldstein and Halpern have, in fact, held the American rights for more than five years. As Goldstein explains, "When we were first going after available titles, back in '97, it just flew off the page from the list of films. Le Cercle Rouge was Melville's biggest box-office hit in Europe, and it's barely been seen here." The pair held off on releasing the film partly out of a desire not to compete with similar Rialto properties, such as Jules Dassin's Rififi (re-released in 2000) and Melville's Bob Le Flambeur (2001), but also because they were waiting for the European-rights holder, Studio Canal, to finish the stunning restoration that premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival. (Rialto currently holds the rights to a handful of additional titles by Buñuel, Godard, Bresson and others; they've only to decide what to slot in when.)

Goldstein and Halpern report that Quai de Orfevres, released late last year with still more play dates to come, has already done more than $100,000 in business for the company. Le Cercle Rouge looks to top that, if its held-over New York run is any indication. And though no one's getting rich yet, the company is sustaining itself. (Goldstein and Halpern even recently hired a pair of staffers to help out at the office.) One can only hope that, as the company expands, Rialto Pictures will carry on with its commitment to smart selection, pristine prints and — at long last — legible subtitles.


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