Modern movie gangsters wouldn't know how to pull a trigger without him. And the toughsters favored by Quentin Tarantino or the techno-fetishists fancied by the Wachowski brothers would be nowhere, unplugged, without the films of Jean-Pierre Melville to guide them. ''The coolest, most stylish auteur of his time,'' is how acolyte John Woo described the late filmmaker (he died in 1973 at the age of 55), whose 13 films include ''Bob le Flambeur'' (1955) and ''Le Samourai'' (1967).
Now Woo -- the director of the 1989 Hong Kong gangster classic ''The Killer'' -- is billed as the presenter of a new, uncut, beautifully restored version of Melville's 33-year-old French gangster classic, Le Cercle Rouge, currently making its way around the country to a handful of lucky movie houses. And within le cercle -- a pseudo-mystical notion of men cinched together by a penchant to go bad -- Melville creates a world of lonely cats and mice, cops and robbers whose destinies are bound up in a jewel heist that takes place in gorgeously choreographed silence.
Melville muse Alain Delon, the essence of cool in his trenchcoat and snap-brim hat, is a brooding ex-con; Gian Maria Volonte is a prison escapee with the law nipping at his heels; and Yves Montand is a retired cop hounded by a trippy case of alcoholic delirium. Paris has never looked so inky, or nightclub ladies so aloof. ''Le Cercle Rouge'' is the antidote to every square tough-guy caper you've ever seen, and the inspiration for many great ones. It is an existential imperative to seek out a showing and burn rubber to get there, preferably in an excellent car.