Like all of Jean-Pierre Melville's best films, Le Cercle Rouge has a breathless, nearly airless consistency. From its opening scene, a daring escape from a speeding locomotive, the movie wraps itself around you like a pleasurably constricting vise, so that long before its climactic heist — a dialogue-less jewelry-shop robbery — you find yourself rapt, on the edge of your seat, unable to blink. Set in his vintage terrain of tan trench coats and charcoal fedoras slicing through foggy, sea-blue streets, Le Cercle Rouge (which came out originally in 1970 but, prior to now, has been available to U.S. viewers only in a shortened and poorly dubbed version) is Melville's ultimate mythologizing of the criminal lifestyle, of the self-aware hood as modern-day cowboy, operating by his own rigid code, unable to conform to the standards of “civilized” society. As usual, Melville doesn't overtly glamorize his Spartan thug protagonists — they can be brutal, and the work they do never seems less than grueling — but he can't help ennobling them. He is at once attracted to and repelled by these men, and in the end, no one gets away scot-free.

It's the prisoner Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté) who gracefully hurls himself from that train, escaping from the police captain, Mattei (André Bourvil), who is transporting him to Paris. At the same time, “reformed” thief Corey (Alain Delon, whose vague, distant beauty became iconographic over the course of his three films with Melville) is granted an early release from a Marseilles prison, along with a tip from a friendly guard about a can't-miss “job” he should pursue once he's on the outside. Le Cercle Rouge is about the inevitable meeting between Vogel and Corey, how the two team up to lift the entire inventory of a seemingly impenetrable Place Vendome jewelry store, and how (since three of a kind always beats a pair) they recruit an additional accomplice, a sharpshooting, DTs-plagued ex-cop (Yves Montand) — all the while staying one step ahead of the indefatigable Mattei.

The robbery is a magnificent set piece, in which one is reminded that Melville had once hoped to direct what became Jules Dassin's Rififi. The action is blocked out comic-strip style, in clearly defined, staccato panels. The cinematographer, longtime Melville collaborator Henri Decaë, uses high-contrast, deep-focus shooting to give the images a three-dimensional, pop-up-book quality. And there's a wonderfully modern vibe to the scene: With its surveillance cameras and electric-eye security system (which Melville's thieves subvert without so much as a can of hairspray), Melville's jewelry-store-as-movie-heist locale is at least a decade ahead of its time.

What Le Cercle Rouge is really about, though, is Melville himself, about his preference for mood and style over plot, and about his triumphant fetishization of both the filmmaking and the safecracking “processes,” so that a glass cutter and the disassembled pieces of a gun become, arguably, the real stars of the movie. Watching Le Cercle Rouge, you feel an excitement at Melville's mastery of form, at the sense of someone working at the height of his powers. It is, for Melville, what Femme Fatale was for Brian De Palma: a grand, summing-up movie, in which the writer-director consumes all the bits and pieces of his earlier crime yarns and reassembles them into a crackerjack über-caper that, at 140 minutes, is at once the longest film in the Melville canon and the lightest on its feet.

What's more, you see here the virtual blueprint for a specific kind of more-ascetic-than-thou underworld thriller — a legacy that would richly inspire Takeshi Kitano (in films like Sonatine and Fireworks), avowed Melville disciple John Woo (credited as “presenter” on this reissue) and, most profoundly, Michael Mann. Le Cercle Rouge is also a variation on a favorite Melville motif, the ethereal ballet between criminal and cop — but not as fatalistic a reworking as Le Samourai or Un Flic.

Or, rather, it is, but it's a peculiarly cheery brand of fatalism, about as slaphappy as suicide fantasies get. Even in the movie's grimmest moments, Melville seems to peer out from behind the camera with a reassuring wink and nod. Le Cercle Rouge is the most self-consciously cool of his famously underheated films noirs.

LE CERCLE ROUGE | Written and directed by JEAN-PIERRE MELVILLE | Produced by JACQUES DORFMANN and ROBERT DORFMANN | Released by Rialto Pictures | At the Nuart

LA Weekly