Jean-Pierre Melville, the dean of French crime cinema, made his name with a series of deftly-directed tales of colorful underworld characters, starting with the playfully ironic heist picture Bob le Flambeur. Le Deuxieme Souffle (France, 1966) casts a darker shadow over his sensibility.
Lino Ventura, the stocky, broad-shouldered crime movie icon, stars as Gustave ‘Gu’ Minda, a loner and career criminal who leads a prison break and heads right back into the life he knows best. Gu is the very model of stoic professionalism, though our first glimpse suggests a vulnerable man, perhaps past his prime, out of his element and persevering by sheer determination. But once he’s back in his own environment—Paris, Marseilles, the brotherhood of a gang on a meticulously-planned heist—he’s not just the consummate professional, he’s the unflappable anchor who personally takes care of every potential problem.
As Gu prepares for a major heist masterminded by his old friend Paul (Raymond Pellegrin), the maverick Commissaire Blot (Paul Meurisse), a cagey Paris cop with a savvy understanding of the politics of the underworld, dogs his trail. “He isn’t your usual killer,” he warns his men as they close in on Gu. “He’s doomed and he knows it.” But Gu does have something to lose. When a less disciplined cop leaks to the papers that Gu snitched on his fellow gang members, Gu becomes almost feral as he risks his own life to restore his honor and redeem his reputation.
The moments of light humor and romantic diversions from his earlier films have been banished from this portrait of the criminal underworld, and the romantic code of underworld honor comes at a steep cost. Melville’s direction is more stripped down and austere, his camera more sensitive to the minutiae of detail and his exacting pace and meticulous editing attuned to the weight of time. It’s all there from the mesmerizing opening scene, a prison break where we never actually see the prison, only the abstract pieces of walls and doors and guard towers that the three convicts must navigate to reach their freedom in the gray light of early dawn.
Le Deuxieme Souffle is at heart a romantic fantasy of underworld loyalty and lives of calculated risk and violence, anchored by brilliantly staged set pieces, from the prison break to the precision execution of the armored car heist. But there is a harder edge to the moral compromises made in the name of professionalism (including the cold-blooded killing of two motorcycle cops). For all that thematic darkness, the film became Melville’s biggest hit to date and firmly established the outside auteur as a major mainstream director.
Christine Fabrega plays Gu’s mistress, Manouche, and Marcel Bozzuffi is an unprincipled member of the gang who clashes with Gu. Melville adapts the novel by José Giovanni, the pen name of a real-life petty thief who turned his experiences into best-selling books and then became a filmmaker in his own right.
Black and white, in French with English subtitles
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Le Deuxieme Souffle (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]
The Criterion Collection DVD features commentary by Melville scholar Ginette Vincendeau and critic Geoff Andrew, a video interview with filmmaker and critic Bertrand Tavernier, and archival interviews with Melville and Ventura.