You can't keep a classic movie down. After years of lying on the shelf, inexcusably dropped from distribution, two of Franois Truffaut's greatest films are returning to the theatrical circuit with first-run fanfare. And they look as good as ever. ``The 400 Blows,'' based on Truffaut's own unhappy childhood, is a sensitive and intelligent corrective to the rash of goofy teen pictures cascading out of Hollywood lately. ``Jules and Jim,'' the story of a three-way romance, treats its delicate subject with a warmth and wit too rarely found on today's more jaded movie scene.
Most striking about both pictures is how fresh and spontaneous they still look. ``The 400 Blows'' dates from 1959, when it took first prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and ``Jules and Jim'' arrived two years later -- yet their sense of energy, invention, and immediacy seem scarcely diminished. Truffaut's genius for camera movement gets some of the credit for this, and so does his loving work with performers. Jean-Pierre L'eaud's debut as the schoolboy of ``The 400 Blows'' remains a miracle of child acting, and neither Oskar Werner (speaking his French dialogue phonetically!) nor Jeanne Moreau has surpassed the performing brilliance of ``Jules and Jim.''
It's poignant to reflect that Truffaut's career rarely returned to the directorial heights of these works, except in such isolated peaks of achievement as ``The Wild Child'' and ``The Story of Adele H.'' Perhaps the special qualities of his early pictures stem from their roots deep in his own emotional life. He once told me, for instance, that years passed after the making of ``Jules and Jim'' before he realized that its central portrait -- of a woman too much in love with love -- was his unconscious tribute to his mother, whose feelings he had wounded by portraying a flirtatious and insensitive parent in ``The 400 Blows.''
It's doubly poignant that it apparently took Truffaut's passing last year to prompt the reissue of his first and third feature films. Whatever the reasons, though, it's good to have them back. They stand among the masterpieces of postwar French film.