Melville, who died in 1973, specialized in gangster movies, and "Le Cercle Rouge" ("The Red Circle") was something of a valedictory for him -- a summing up of all the elements he had employed in making such films as "Le Samourai" ("The Godson"), "L' Aîné des Ferchaux" ("Magnet of Doom") and "Le Doulos" ("The Finger Man").
It is also notable for its rare screen coupling of French film icons Alain Delon and the late Yves Montand. It is the only film the two appeared in together over their long careers, with the exception of the 1966 World War II epic "Paris brûle-t-il?" ("Is Paris Burning") -- with an all-star cast made up of most of France's A-list at the time.
"Le Cercle Rouge" features Delon, Montand, Gian Maria Volonté and the great French film clown Bourvil, star in the story of ex-cons and corrupt cops -- tough guys all around, and cool customers besides -- involved in the heist of millions of dollars in jewelry that turns out to be too hot to fence.
It was Melville's biggest commercial hit in France. It was previously released in America, in a dubbed version with 40 minutes of Melville's vision cut for U.S. consumption.
Action director John Woo ("Mission: Impossible II," "Face/Off") -- who was heavily influenced by Melville -- has lent his name to the new release of "Le Cercle Rouge," allowing distributor Rialto Pictures to advertise that the film is "presented by" Woo.
"'Le Cercle Rouge' is a classic," said Woo. "Melville's style moves with his actors as they deliver their soulful performances, and the romantic values of friendship expressed in this movie are hard to find today. There's no mistaking that this is a Melville film; all of the elements synchronize to his vision."
Rialto Pictures was founded in 1997 specifically for the purpose of re-releasing classic films. The company has previously distributed restored versions of such film classics as Carol Reed's "The Third Man," Jean Renoir's "Grand Illusion" and Federico Fellini's "Nights of Cabiria," which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1957.
Bruce Goldstein founded the company in 1997 as an offshoot of his duties programming The Film Forum, a New York City movie house.
"There were a lot of films I couldn't get (prints of), so I went out and got the rights," he said. "The idea was that there is an audience for classics, in good prints and restored prints, to see them on the screen -- separate from the DVD market."
Melville was part of the first generation of French filmmakers who were influenced more by film than by earlier sources.
"The first directors came out of theater," said Goldstein. "Melville was a kid in France who adored movies the way (Martin) Scorsese, (George) Lucas and Woo adored movies."
Goldstein said Melville spent his career reworking themes he had seen in Hollywood movies by directors such as John Ford, John Huston and Raoul Walsh. He was particularly influenced by Westerns and 1930s Warner Bros. gangster movies.
"I think he liked pretty much everything Hollywood," said Goldstein. "I'm sure that 'The Asphalt Jungle' (Huston's 1950 classic) had a great influence on him. It was the first 'how-to' heist movie. It was like a blueprint for criminals."
Goldstein said Melville was also influenced by "Rififi," Jules Dassin's 1955 "quintessential" heist movie. He said Melville claimed he had been offered "Rififi," but lost the project to Dassin and eventually consoled himself by making "Le Cercle Rouge."
"Melville was a pioneer in a lot of ways," said Goldstein. "He was really one of the fist independent filmmakers. After (World War II) he could not get a union card to work in the industry so he built his own studio."
Asked whether it might be difficult to market a French film -- given the current vogue of anti-French sentiment among many Americans over Iraq policy -- Goldstein said he didn't anticipate a problem there.
"I really doubt it's going to affect our audience," he said. "I can't see people boycotting a 1970 movie."
"Le Cercle Rouge" has already played in New York. It opens a two-week run in Los Angeles on March 14, and Goldstein said it is booked into several more U.S. cities, including Seattle, San Francisco and Boston. Don't look for it to play at very many shopping malls.
"It's a niche market, but the audience is very loyal," said Goldstein.