"Another Man, Another Chance," now at area theaters, is another precious, interminable runaround from that incorrigible, prolific filmmaking doodler, Claude Lelouch. Called "Another Man, Another Woman" during production, the film revives the plot of Lelouch's most successful picture, "A Man and a Woman." In the setting of the American Southwest in the 1870s.

Jean-Louis Trintignant's widowed race driver with a cute son becomes James Caan's widowed verterinarian with a cute son, while Anouk Aimee's widowed script girl with a cute daughter becomes Genevieve Bujold's widowed portrait photographer with a cute daughter.

A decade ago Lelouch was astute enough to bring his romantic leads together promptly and depict them carrying on a courtship, albeit a courtship of fussily photogenic sorts. "Another Man, Another Chance" suffers from his recent infatuation with an absurd notion of epic narrative, which results in protracted chronicles that may never unite the major characters or get to climactic points.

Over 90 minutes expire before Lelouch can bring Caan and Bujold face to face in "Another Man, Another Chance." That doesn't leave much time for depicting their courtship, and Lelouch sloughs it off after taking feature-length to arrive at this presumably important crossroads in the first place. He appears to believe that it isn't necessary to deal with their romance directly because he regards a union as destined to occur sooner or later. In his movies "later" may mean the fadeout, if we're lucky.

In "Toute la Vie," released here as "And Now My Love," Lelouch went back three generations to set up a chance meeting at the fadeout between Marthe Keller and Andre Dussolier, whose characters were supposedly destined to fall permanently in love. In the current "The Good and the Bad," Lelouch never succeeds in uniting his major characters, who are meant to be antagonists, and lamely promises to get around to it in a sequel.

In "Another Man, Another Chance" he indulges the same coy, inept technique of parallel construction by tracing Bujold's ill-fated first marriage to Francis Huster, a photographer conveniently murdered by a different set of desperadoes, and Caan's ill-fated first marriage to Jennifer Warren, conveniently raped and murdered by a different set of desperadoes.

When they're finally introduced, Caan and Bujold make a gallant effort to look attracted, but a convincing romance is virtually a mathematical impossibility. The stars have neither the scenes nor screen times together to make a romantic attachment stick. It's obvious that Lelouch was far more interested in playing around with a Western setting for his own pictorial amusement. Chances are he's nurtured a desire to "make a Western" for years and envied the sort of fantasia Sergio Leone orchestrated in "Once Upon a Time in the West . . ."

This project gave Lelouch the pretext for shooting on Western locations, but that is not the same thing as shooting a satisfying Western, any more than having a pretext for a movie romance is the same as achieving a movie romance. Lelouch is capable of pictorially pleasing divertissements, like a sequence devoted to a handicap race between runners, teamsters and horsemen, but he's a trifler at dramatic essentials.

Unless something has escaped notice, "Another Man, Another Chance" and "The White Buffalo" are the only movies even remotely describable as Westerns released by a major studio this year. Since last year's significant works were also conspicuous disappointments - "The Missouri Breaks," "Buffalo Bill and the Indians" and "The Shootist" - it appears that the genre has reached another low point, from which only a grand entertainment in the most rousing traditions will rescue it.

A vapidly pretty valentine to the genre like Lelouch's film will never be the answer. Inflated and preposterous as it was, Leone's approach was closer to useful artificial respiration. The Leone Western never felt exactly kosher, but it had a crazy grandeur. The Western as a movie staple is certainly a thing of the past, but many of the younger and more talented American directors speak of wanting to make a Western, if only they can be fairly certain it will join the classics.

Obviously, no one with a feeling for the genre can derive much satisfaction or inspiration from a "White Buffalo" or "Another Man, Another Chance." What you crave is something that looks as beautiful as William Wyler's "The Big Country" but rests on a storytelling foundation as vigorous as the one that carried John Ford's "Stagecoach."