screeened May 14 2009 on Criterion DVD in Brooklyn NY
Jean-Pierre Melville’s last feature in black and white is an extended study of a gray terrain: a criminal underworld that’s less dark than cloudy, where truth, loyalty and honor stumble through a mist of greed, distrust and hubris. Melville immerses the viewer in a similar experiential haze by casting a sprawling narrative that spreads gaseously through the oblique and largely unstable relationships among its ensemble; it’s not until the masterful heist sequence at the midway point that the film finds its focus. It’s an ambitious gambit, carried over largely by Melville’s assured deadpan style, working through scenes with a consummately professional attention to detail mixed with emotional detachment. The lack of the latter spells the doom of tough but aging ex-con Gu (Lino Ventura), whose plans for one last big score are usurped by the compromising of his good name, ironically incited by a police trap that exploits his insecurity over his reputation. This professional code is the real protagonist of the film, demonstrated in virtually every scene and mediated through each character’s decisions and the viewer’s responses. Predicated on a world of crime, the code itself is not an absolute good, as it enables Gu and his accomplices to justify killing innocent cops along with more deserving double-crossers and agitators. As with the resistance fighters in Melville’s Army of Shadows, the code is an imperfect talisman guiding its followers through a world of overwhelming danger and corruption; among the criminals in this film it proves to be just as fatally insufficient. Nonetheless, it remains Gu’s sole remaining principle as he makes a furious bid to redeem his professional honor at all costs, an act of equal parts salvation and suicide.
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The following citations were counted towards the placement of Le Deuxieme souffle among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?
Mika Kaurismaki, Sight & Sound (2002)
Robert Fischer, Steadycam (2007)
Wilfried Reichart, Steadycam (2007)
Jean A. Gili, Positif: 10 Favourite Films 1952-2002
Sight & Sound, 360 Film Classics (1998)
They Shoot Pictures Highly Recommended Films
Titles by Jean-Pierre Melville in the 1000 Greatest Films:
#240 – Le Samourai
#559 – Bob le flambeur
#573 – Army of Shadows
#734 – The Red Circle
#786 – Les Enfants Terribles
#928 – Second Breath
Le Deuxième Souffle is less well known than such celebrated films as Le Doulos, Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge, and has been regrettably neglected due to its long unavailability. The long overdue home video release reveals a transitional film between the romantic genre play of Bob le Flambeur and Le Doulos and the austere and existential Le Samourai. 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. The careful casing of a room and the tense wait for the arrival of a target are as meticulously measured as the exacting details of a robbery or a shoot-out. It’s all there from the brilliant 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, they wordlessly make their leap, the oldest of the three straining to keep up with the youngest, huffing as he tramps through the forest and races to catch an open boxcar on a passing train.
The film is based on a novel by José Giovanni, the pen name of Joseph Damiani, a real-life petty thief who started putting his experiences and stories to paper while serving eight years of a life sentence. Melville, In his interviews with Rui Nogueria (published in the book Melville on Melville), proclaimed that “I retained everything that was Melvillian from the book and threw everything else out.” Melville scholar Ginette Vincendeau, in her book Jean- Pierre Melville: An American in Paris, observes that his adaptation is in fact largely faithful to the original novel, but that the minor changes are also defining. Melville cuts minor characters, removes private lives from his professional characters and makes Gu an isolated loner too proud to accept the charity of his friends. He also restructures the story, providing a strong, clear narrative line through the complex web of relationships and betrayals and the multiple story strands that he slowly winds together: Gu’s life in hiding and his scheme to from France, the platinum heist masterminded by his old friend Paul (Raymond Pellegrin), the bad blood with Paul’s unprincipled brother (Marcel Bozzuffi) and the dogged investigation by maverick Commissaire Blot (Paul Meurisse), a cagey Paris cop with a savvy understanding of the politics of the underworld. “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.
Melville began pre-production on Le Deuxième Souffle in 1963, but a long legal battle with another production company (who had also purchased the rights from Giovanni, who apparently thought Melville’s option had lapsed) delayed the start until 1966. Ventura has originally been set to play Commisaire Blot opposite Serge Reggiani (from Le Doulos) as Gu. By 1966, Reggiani was out (over a contract dispute, according to the actor), Ventura took over the lead and Melville reworked the role of Gu from an exhausted and fragile older man to an aging but still robust veteran. According to Melville, Simone Signoret was originally signed to play Manouche and the rest of the film was almost entirely recast. The film was rushed into production in February under “extremely difficult conditions” and shut down in mid-March for three months, according to Melville. “When we started again on 7 June, it seemed like a miracle.” Even after it was finished, Melville ran into problems with censors over a scene where the police, during their interrogation of Paul, put a funnel in his mouth and pour water down his throat. The Censorship Commission demanded the scene be cut because: “This is not normal practice in the French Police.” It was, however, an echo of recently revealed Army interrogation practices in Algeria, which may have made the scene even more troubling to the censors.
Le Deuxième Souffle is at heart a romantic fantasy of underworld loyalty and lives of calculated risk and violence anchored by brilliantly staged and shot set pieces, from the opening prison break to the precision execution of the armored car a heist. But there is a harder edge to the moral compromises made in the name of professionalism (notably the cold-blooded killing of two motorcycle cops played out with the cold dispassion of a military attack, an act Melville doesn’t shy away from but neither condemns). For all that thematic darkness, the film became his biggest hit to date and firmly established the maverick auteur as a major mainstream director.
– Sean Axmaker, Turner Classic Movies
Early in Le Deuxième Souffle, police investigator Blot (Paul Meurisse) preemptively details the various phony-baloney stories some criminals involved in a shootout plan to tell, though the crooks’ threadbare tall tales still prove successful at keeping them out of the slammer. Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1966 film functions in a similar fashion, its story a compendium of well-known, somewhat tired characters, situations and tropes that the director nonetheless utilizes effectively, and thrillingly. In its most basic outline, the plot concerns Gu (Lino Ventura), a thief who breaks out of prison and both commits murder to protect his devoted sister Manouche (Christine Fabréga) and partakes in an armored car robbery for 200 million francs. As with most of the French auteur’s noirs, however, the ensuing action defies easy summarization, so unstable and evolving are all of its underworld figures’ allegiances to each other.
Written with José Giovanni (based on his novel), Melville’s film is another of his meditations on predestination, with Gu’s plans to escape from the cops (and France) as futile as any would-be stabs at fleeing his fundamental self, an existential endeavor the roughneck doesn’t for a second even consider, so convinced is he that only death awaits. Gu’s criminal code of ethics (don’t rat, don’t betray) is also typical Melville, though the director’s handling of these pet themes is, compared to Le Doulos or Le Samouräi, occasionally more sluggish than scintillating, thanks mainly to a script that indulges in a few too many silent, protracted sequences that are gripping in the abstract but, strung together, hinder momentum. Taken as a series of bravura showcases for the director’s unparalleled modulation of tone, rhythm, texture and mood, however,Le Deuxième Souffle smolders, its portentous fatalism generated from hyper-composed camerawork and an experimental jazz score that help couch the proceedings in a nowhere-world situated between dream and reality.
Characteristic of Melville’s crime canon, the film’s rigorously mannered aesthetic creates a decidedly artificial environment, and yet that environment is so meticulously, thoroughly realized that it’s breathtakingly immersive. And at no point does Melville’s blend of the natural and the self-consciously synthetic produce greater results than during the centerpiece heist, during which the director’s masterful command of cinematic grammar—especially his dazzlingly swift transitions in perspective—proves both viscerally and intellectually heady.
– Nick Schager, Slant
Jean-Pierre Melville’s methodically paced, existentially motivated Second Breath is a remarkable study in back alley morality. The movie nearly transcends its heist film roots, slowly growing as it proceeds into a shadowy examination of pride. It’s a film that’s considerably enhanced by its director’s consummate, unerring skill behind the camera. Several sequences in this black and white film are stunners. For example, the way that Melville films the opening prison break sequence transforms it into a geometric marvel. He chooses stylish angles to abstract the action, and stages it in a deep gray light that casts a pall over much of what’s to follow. There’s no music in this bit, and that choice remains a near-constant throughout the remainder of the film. The effect is one of a heightened reality that can switch from glamorous to gritty in a second, as the well-dressed men that populate the picture suddenly reveal their thuggish nature.
The plot of Second Breath, in which the aging, escaped fugitive Gu (Lino Ventura) must perform one last heist before fleeing the country, is textbook stuff, but the execution is superb. Melville focuses on the symbiotic relationship between cops and robbers, which strikes the old-school Gu as a sickening development. It’s not until about a half hour into the movie that the plot details concerning the heist are made explicit. The time spent before that scene is used to establish not only the large cast of characters, but also the allusive doublespeak and ethical codes that exist in their underworld. Particular attention is paid to the exalted reputation of Gu, who performed a legendary heist years earlier. Doggedly pursued by the morally alert Police Commissioner Blot (Paul Meurisse), Gu is a fascinating subject that transcends the clichés inherent in his caricature.
For the bulk of the run time, the film is not so much exciting as it is absorbing. Some of the detail that accumulates early on may seem arbitrary at first, but it soon comes to inform the drama that unfolds in the film’s second half. Exciting, however, is exactly the word to describe the climactic highway heist that serves as the film’s centerpiece. In this tense, expertly filmed sequence, Melville demonstrates why he’s perhaps the best director ever to inhabit this genre. He establishes space masterfully, taking time to pause for occasional observational details (such as the ants on the ground that one hood spies as he waits), and then watches in broad daylight as his plot unfolds with ruthless efficiency. The sequence moves so matter-of-factly, though, that it scarcely dominates the less overtly energetic scenes that surround it.
A procedural pitched from the perspective of the man in hiding, Second Breath uses the locations it was shot on to full effect, establishing a poetic quality that in no way interferes with believability. The plot spans a period of a few months, but the tight editing and frequent camera wipes make time fly by. Large swaths of the film proceed with next to no dialogue. When Melville does need to stage a conversation, he does so simply, with extended medium shots that do a great deal to show off his cast’s talent and his fluid camerawork. The net impression of such unobtrusive mastery is awe. The product of a director in complete control of his talents, both on a technical and narrative level,Second Breath musters enough depth that by its conclusion it feels only nominally like a heist film.
– Jeremy Heilman, Movie Martyr
A 1966 film by Jean-Pierre Melville, one of the great eccentrics of the French cinema. Melville specialized in severely stylized versions of American gangster films, bringing out their unspoken existentialism through a camera style that sometimes evokes the minimalist purity of Bresson, sometimes the seamless studio realism of William Wyler. Second Breath, one of his few commercial successes, is a painstaking account of an aging gangster (Lino Ventura) who escapes from jail and plans an elaborate armored-car robbery to prove he’s still in the game. It isn’t an easy film to watch, perhaps because it moves so deliberately in comparison to its American models, but this somber, repressive, and perverse work displays a ferocious moral and formal integrity.
– Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader
Melville’s great film noir Le Deuxieme Souffle (Second Wind), one of the pinnacles of the French crime movie, is based on an icily knowing novel and script by ex-Death Row inmate Jose Giovanni, the writer of the noir classics Classe Tous Risques and Le Trou. It stars that magnificently dour, Bogartesque hard guy Lino Ventura as Gustav “Gu” Minda, a famous (in the underworld and among the flics), hard-bitten career criminal who escapes from jail and gets entangled in a doomed heist.
The movie is beautifully shot in crisp, gloomy black and white by cinematographer Marcel Combes, and the supporting cast includes Paul Meurisse of Jean Renoir’s Picnic on the Grass (as the bemused inspector Blot), Raymond Pellegrin (as fellow crook Paul Ricci) and The French Connection‘s assassin-on-the-El, Marcel Bozzufi (as the other, badder Ricci brother Jo), and blond anti-femme fatale Christine Fabrega as Gu’s good angel Manouche.
Le Deuxieme Souffle was greatly influenced by Robert Wise’s moody, jazzy 1959 American heist thriller Odds Against Tomorrow, which was one of Melville’s three favorite films (the others are John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle and William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives). Melville’s veneration for Wise’s picture extends even to his duplicating the wallpaper here from Robert Ryan’s apartment — but what he captures more than anything is that mesmerizing, fatalistic, anti-heroic quality of the great American noirs, that sense that crooks and cops are ensnared together in a web of fate that will not release them until the end of the road. Certainly this is what happens to Gu, the most tragic of all Melville’s gangsters, a man without a country in a world without a moral compass.
– Michael Wilmington, The Isthmus
From the novel Un reglement de comptes, by José Giovanni, Le deuxième souffle is among Jean-Pierre Melville’s most morally complex and visually captivating works. The film opens as gangster Gustave (“Gu”) Minda and another inmate escape from prison, thus winning a “second breath” of freedom. An overhead shot, because of the design of the prison roof, entombs upright officials in an enormous coffin-like space, suggesting a limit to all breath and “second breaths.” The two escapees jump a train, but the younger man, who jumps off for his destination, ends up a suicide when cornered by the law intent on sending him back to prison. This could have been Gu, whose pilgrim’s progress during his “second breath” the film follows.
Cold, clear-eyed, exceptionally brutal, Melville’s black-and-white Second Breath boxes viewers in a mental coffin, steeping them in an intricate mortal world of cops and criminals. Not for the first or last time in Melville, the drop of a hat off a shot-dead man’s head releases a poignant reminder of our ultimate vulnerability.
Like many of Melville’s later films, Le deuxième souffle is a kind of “minimalist epic” that has the precision of a scalpel and the intensity of a full-blown melodrama, without being restrained by the coolness of the one or the histrionics of the other. It is a contradictory and paradoxical work in which the pulse of life appears to be pumped in and withdrawn at the same time. These qualities are directly related to how Melville represents physical actions and gestures. Gu’s movements throughout the film are both organic—they seem natural and appropriate—and regimented by the closed-in environments he is placed within. For much of the first half of the film, we watch Gu as he waits for the opportunity to break free from the tawdry, cell-like microworlds he is forced to hide in. Ventura’s performance emphasizes his stocky physicality, the on-set tension between director and actor perhaps bringing a very real sense of hostility and irritableness to his character (though like other Melville characters, he also displays an extraordinary, almost Zen-like patience that is linked to his professional typology). Also typical of Melville, there are numerous shots and scenes that show us characters traveling in cars, but here these act less to open out the landscape and allow these figures the freedom of mobility than to show the restrictedness of the space they occupy and move within (one of the most hypnotic sequences involves Gu traveling on a series of buses, his bulky frame squeezed into ill-fitting seats, to reach his next hideout).
In Melville’s cinema, characters are rarely given a complex psychological dimension and are defined and judged by the “purity” of their actions. Gu is a brutal, driven, and pared-down figure who gains respect, even from Inspector Blot (the wonderful Paul Meurisse), who recognizes his murderous brutality, because he ultimately conforms to and doesn’t break from his “code.” In fact, the key crisis for this character occurs after he is tricked by the police into informing on his criminal collaborators. His hysterical reaction, including an attempt at suicide, underlines the definitional importance of his inscrutable ethical code. But this code or typology is also central to the ethics of the film, and Gu is rewarded with a degree of respect and a heroic death for maintaining it.
Like many of Melville’s films, Le deuxième souffle pivots on a dazzling set piece that relies upon these qualities of observation, varied perspectives, and an almost documentary-like rendering of actions. This central heist sequence is a study in contrast. Whereas most of the film is defined by its cramped and dank interiors, or the minimalist gaudiness of some apartment and nightclub settings, the heist is staged in a vast, windswept, and elemental environment that almost seems to visibly shock the gang. The sequence is a model of both restraint and meticulous detail, showing us a series of actions, gestures, and perspectives that constitute the event. It shows Melville as a complete master of framing, mise-en-scène, and montage, combining and fragmenting each to give us the full sense of this dramatic episode, including its atmospheric brutality. The precision of the sequence mimes the matter-of-fact but bravura professionalism of the gang, as well as the epic minimalism of the film itself. It is a remarkable display, but it is also absolutely in keeping with the pinched, battened-down, almost parched theatrical realism of the rest of the film.
A little too much has perhaps been made of the fact that Melville was an avid cinephile who actually lived above his own film studio, actively blurring the distinction between the world of cinema and everyday life in much the same way that his films do. Nevertheless, much of Le deuxième souffle can only be accounted for in terms of its immersion in and refinement of the iconography and generic conventions of Série noire, film noir, and the American gangster film. Melville’s films in this mode have the quality of afterimages, modernist apparitions of established models fueled by a ghostly world-weariness and the characters’ self-consciously ritualized actions and gestures. A wonderful example of this occurs in the second half of Le deuxième souffle, when Orloff (Pierre Zimmer)—a loyal compadre who offers the desperate Gu his place in the gang—arranges to meet the other gang members to discuss Gu’s inadvertent betrayal of them to the police. As in Melville’s next film, Le samouraï, the main preoccupation in this scene is with process, the meticulous preparation that leads toward what we might call action. Both Orloff and a member of the gang “case” the arranged meeting place first, looking to gain the upper hand, but also preempting the generic requirements of the scene. These preemptory actions highlight the gestural and sartorial qualities and definitions of these characters, their movements having both a narrative and an archetypal function and origin. Orloff seems to be rehearsing the poses of his archetype—and he really is little more—theatrically prestaging the various postures and stances of the standoff that will occur. His awareness of the situation, of his place in the world, and of how this scene will unfold is characteristic of the existential, worldly, and ritualistic nature of Melville’s world. Similarly, it is not until Gu changes into clothing more closely resembling that of a gangster that he is able to break free, even if only briefly, from his clandestine existence.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Le deuxième souffle is its treatment of time. This emphasis is clearly signposted by the almost maddening preponderance of dates and times that appear on the screen, drawing attention to both the procedural and quotidian dimensions of the film we are watching. This play with time, its fragmentation and our awareness of it, places Le deuxième souffleclearly within the realm of the sixties European art movie. But Melville’s film is actually one of the most contemplative and quiet of all crime films, and his concern with time also has more profound implications. Love, friendship, communication, self-respect, and “life itself” are not impossible in Melville’s cinema but are explicitly finite or time-bound. The bittersweet, gruff, highly stylized but deeply felt quality of the director’s work suggests that his preoccupation is less with feelings of contemporary isolation—common in sixties art cinema—and the opportunities that sound and image “situations” offer for compositional abstraction, à la Antonioni, than with the melancholy contemplation of the play of intimacy and inevitable betrayal. Ultimately, Le deuxième souffle offers one of the richest and starkest portraits of the Melvillean universe.
– Adrian Danks, The Criterion Collection
Melville’s ninth film and last to be shot in black and white, Le deuxième souffle (known in English as Second Breath or Second Wind) is, I’d argue, the one most indebted to the Hollywood gangster films he famously loved. It’s not his best by some margin, ranking roughly in the upper middle of his impressive output, but no other film Melville directed could so easily be pictured as a potential Warner Bros. success starring Cagney and clocking in at just over half the 150 minutes of Le deuxième souffle. What Melville does is take a fairly basic story, which he co-adapted from the José Giovanni novel with the author, and quite literally turn it into an epic. The plot is plucked almost directly from any number of pictures where a convict escapes from jail and takes on what he perceives to be a final job, only for things to eventually go awry. There are several nuances that keep this idea eternally fresh and relevant, but Melville falls for few of them. He instead seems to consciously position his film as an alternative to the fast-paced entertainment of the Warner Bros. gangster movies. Le deuxième souffle is no one’s idea of being fast-paced.
From the opening prison break and through the planning, execution, and fallout of a platinum heist, Melville’s Hollywood adoration mixes nicely with his desire to add some extra meat to the thin bones of the American gangster film. Every little decision and ramification gets probed and prodded. The utter banality of an unofficial profession seemingly exciting to a fault becomes fascinating in the sheer detail used. We see the methodical nature of the heist and its planning, waiting, and clean-up. This isn’t Rififi or Melville’s superior Le cercle rouge, but it’s certainly in that same vein at times. A single job is still the centre point and it serves as the catalyst for everything that happens before and after. The quick, yet violent efficiency employed during the heist is almost hypnotic in its matter-of-fact style. By also sketching out relationships that Gu is entwined in, either romantically with the icy blonde Manouche or through tacit friendships with men like Orloff, Melville adds some gravity to the proceedings. Gu is intimidating to the point of being likable, but he’s hardly redeemable. This is a criminal through and through – guilty, convicted, imprisoned and escaped, and still unable to leave well enough alone before making another violent run for the money. Where Le deuxième souffle struggles for elbow room is in convincing the audience that these people are worthwhile at all.
Those even remotely familiar with Melville’s other films may be able to guess at the final result. For all his interest in these gangsters and criminals, Melville certainly seemed unimpressed by their plight when it came to stamping out a fate. Over and over again, the men at the centre of his films die violently. They either accept this conclusion or they struggle to overcome it, but there’s ultimately no escape. The twinge of melancholy for Gu is established in his counterpart, a police commissioner identified as Blot (Paul Meurisse). He’s played superbly by Meurisse as someone just as interested in the unwritten code of his profession as Gu. When Melville lets criminals be his protagonists, he usually makes sure to attach the ethics of the trade near their murderous hearts. Blot is a total funhouse mirror of Gu with the obvious distinction that he’s chosen the other side of the law. There’s an interesting distance maintained between the two for much of the film, though this seems as incidental as it is necessary. Those paying attention may notice that Michael Mann tends to wear his Melville influence on his sleeve in a handful of crime-related films. The relationship between Ventura and Meurisese isn’t entirely unlike that between De Niro and Pacino in Heat. The main difference lies in allegiances. Few will watch Le deuxième souffle and hope for Meurisse’s Blot to triumph while Pacino is positioned more as the protagonist in Heat. Mann tends to follow this line of placing sympathy in the direction of the good guys in a couple of his most Melville-influenced films, notably the excellent Miami Vice (with Thief being more classically in the spirit of Melville).
Aside from the either painfully or deliciously patient approach used, depending on one’s perspective, Le deuxième souffle seems intent on establishing every last demon contained within Gu’s deceptive freedom. The film progresses and his liberation increasingly feels like a trap at most every turn. Since Melville peddles in tragedy as much as he does character-oriented crime tales, the expectations for the protagonist’s future should be limited, but if you’re watching intently then you’re probably in his corner to a certain extent. The existential wave had not yet completely fallen over Melville by this film, but where Gu goes and where he has to go become basically identical. The commentary on this disc even goes so far as to question whether Gu could be subconsciously suicidal. On some level, that may be a valid reading. His actions don’t necessarily resemble those of a man content to live out his life on a beach somewhere. Part of what makes Melville’s films so endearing is his reluctance to romanticise the crime genre despite allowing the characters to exist within a warm, though still detached, frame. The director doesn’t really seem indifferent to them, but he’s ever the realistic pessimist. In the world he created on film, he has reason to be.
– Clydefro Jones, DVD Times
On its release, ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’ was an instant hit and is one of Melville’s most commercially successful films. The Parisian underworld was familiar territory for Melville, and the obsessive glare with which he repeatedly explored such a troubling and seductive milieu meant he took great pleasure in romanticising and glamorising the exterior world of the hardened criminal. Masculinity was a key thematic motif and the imagery of the underworld in ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’ is one that holds a deep prejudice towards women, and patriarchal rituals that occur between the male characters in many of Melville’s films are evident in how the central protagonist and anti-hero, Gu, has no real desire to abscond with his lover, Manouche. Instead, having already escaped from prison, Gu is lured back into the underworld when he is offered the chance to help pull a lucrative heist in the foothills of a desolate Marseille landscape.
When Gu is framed by the police as an informant, he goes to extreme lengths in order to clear his name and prove to the underworld of his religiously devout adherence to a moral code that can never be compromised or corrupted in anyway by righteous institutions like the police. Redemption rarely ever exists in the world of Melville’s crime films, and Gu is another in a long line of stylish, likable criminals who are made to suffer at the hands of a nihilistic underworld that cannot offer any kind of escape. Escape becomes almost like a form of humiliation in ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’, and though this macho attitude espoused by Gu is spectacularly conventional in how it is manifested in the final sequence in which he goes seeking some kind of payback, it also functions as an extended metaphor for a repressed desire to seek death at the hands of morally dubious men like himself.
If conventionality in terms of genre is something that finds itself quite visible in the narrative, what separates ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’ from Hollywood crime films is Melville’s intricately detailed and visually minimalist manipulation of framing, composition and camerawork; technical elements that would are usually rendered obsolete and unoriginal in most Hollywood mainstream genre films are deliberately fore grounded so that when a character enters the frame, where they are going to position themselves within the frame becomes a point of active interpretation that is intellectually rewarding for the spectator.
The heist sequence in any Melville film is a real dramatic high point, and in ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’, the heist of an ordinary armoured van is made altogether more gripping for Melville’s instance to set the action in the scenic landscape of rural Marseilles. Melville’s greatest tool for making the heist sequence in his films a genuinely enthralling spectacle was the rejection of a bombastic Hollywood soundtrack used by many filmmakers to create a false kind of emotional investment. Silence, minimal dialogue and natural sounds in the heist sequence forces us to observe rather than become preoccupied with the nature of the event. Such a primitive technique used by early cinema pioneers works superbly in the hands of Melville, making us value and experience the micro details that are typically excised in traditional crime films.
Though his characters are infinitely stylish and have a wonderfully eclectic dress sense, Melville more than anything wants us to see the edges to the stark reality of the life that Gu must lead once he has escaped from prison. It is a life made up of living in the shadows, hiding and making oneself invisible to the naked scrutiny of an unforgiving society that views criminals as a cancerous disease. When Gu is killed at the end in a hail of bullets, nobody mourns his life except Manouche, his lover and the only female character in the film, but even she can now finally see the worthless and indispensable nature of the underworld and how treats its own occupants, citizens and loners with nothing but contempt.
– Omar Ahmed, Ellipsis
Le deuxiéme souffle was adapted by Melville from the book and screenplay by José Giovanni, the real-life criminal who also wrote Classe tous risquesand the jailbreak picture Le trou, the latter based on his own famous prison escape. Giovanni rarely resorts to gangster movie clichés, instead writing his scripts more like reportage. To match this, Melville and cameraman Marcel Combes shoot Le deuxiéme souffle in a pseudo-documentary style, almost like French Noir Neorealism. They use real locations and a loose, fluid camera style that follows the action rather than dictating where the action goes, maintaining a spontaneity even in the carefully planned crime sequences or Gu’s overly cautions travel patterns. The platinum hijacking is shot as a virtuoso action scene, each moment planned to the tiniest detail, and with the patience and precision of the jewelry store break-in in Dassin’sRififi (later aped by Melville in Le cercle rouge). The men don’t speak, they just fulfill their roles. Yet, even with this eye towards realism, the director doesn’t abandon the expressive shadows of old-school noir completely. Take, for instance, when Manouche goes to see Blot, and the police station corridor is so dark, we can barely see their faces. It’s questionable whether Manouche is being led to her salvation or destruction.
Giovanni’s felons are only glamorous in the sense that they come off as lone warriors trying to stave off change, to continue to operate within a system that is becoming obsolete. Lino Ventura played a similar criminal type in Classe tous risques, the older thief who is ready to get out of the game. Melville likely saw something in these men that appealed to him. His crooks are professionals who do their jobs and they do them well, or else they might lose their lives, much in the same way hardboiled gumshoes of American detective fiction managed to maintain a level of good in a rotten world by sticking to their manly code of personal ethics and the structure of “how things are done.” The ultimate expression of this ideal would come a year later, realized by Alain Delon in Le samourai, but Le deuxiéme soufflehas a trench-coated precursor to Delon’s hitman in Orloff (Pierre Zimmer), the movie’s ultimate get-it-done man. He’s the one who hooks Gu up with the platinum heist, forgoing the big money himself, all because he respects Gu and knows he needs the work. Orloff doesn’t even want credit for it, forbidding anyone to tell Gu he was responsible even while vouching for the older hood’s viability. Orloff says Gu can do it, and that should be good enough; likewise, when things do go wrong, there is nothing more important to Gu than clearing his name.
And trust me, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that things go wrong. From the very start of Le deuxiéme souffle, there is a sense of impending doom hanging over Gu. It’s not just that calendar, either, though that does serve as reminder of time running out–not that we know when the deadline is, just that one is coming. Before Gu even appears on screen, a title card informs us that some believe that man’s only true power in life is to choose the time of his own death, though for any one of us to give up simply because we are tired is to waste everything we have experienced prior. Once we read that, we know that Gu can only have one destination, it’s just a question of how he gets there. In one sense, I suppose, we know he can never escape and just retire, that wouldn’t fit Melville’s mission statement. We also can’t believe someone as meticulous as Gu would walk into his own death without at least having some plan for escape. No, Melville never intended his little lead-in to be taken so literally.
Rather, the director was giving us something to chew on, like the Eastern proverbs he would use in Le samourai and Le cercle rouge, little pearls of wisdom for the audience to roll around in their heads while watching the drama unfold. As our existential hero, Gu isn’t looking to end his life, but instead he attempting to take back his right to choose his own fate, to wrest it away from the cops and criminals who are trying to dictate how he will go out. This solidifies metaphorically as his eventual quest to clear his name, to prove to his peers that he is not a rat. The one time he actuallydoes attempt suicide, it’s a desperate, flailing attempt to silence the lies. In a hard-bitten society like this one, actions must trump words. Honor matters, but it’s what a man does that proves he has it.
As the credits roll, Le deuxiéme souffle leaves one with the strange satisfaction of a self-fulfilling prophecy. While in other instances, Gu’s fate would be cause for sadness, in this case, it comes off more as a job completed. It still gives us reason to reflect, but not to lament.
– Jamie S. Rich, Criterion Confessions
“You have to choose, to die or to lie,” prefaces 1962’s Le Doulos, French slang for “informer.” Le Deuxième Souffle (1966) begins with, “A man is given but one right at birth: to choose his own death.” Cowboy gangster Jean-Pierre Melville almost always chose to die and almost always violently. Thieves, murderers, fugitives, solitary men coming into contact with one another to reassert their honor and betray their friends, Melville’s heroes usually get Le Deuxième Souffle‘s “second wind,” but to call it fleeting ascribes time too much elasticity. Le Doulos‘ B-grade noir heist film piles up bodies faster than Jean-Paul Belmondo can drop a dime or get Richard Widmark on a dame, but Belmondo never quite achieves full focus of character. Melville can’t make up for his own script, which drags even for the director’s usual measured pacing. Serge Reggiani (Casque d’or) shines like a single bulb swinging in an attic murder, his hushed tones and hunted glances unforgettable. A vintage interview with Reggiani documents his decadelong professional “blackout,” in which he refused to keep up with the Joneses. In this case, that’s Melville favorite Lino Ventura, of recent Criterion gripper Classe Tous Risques, as well as the great Paul Meurisse (Diabolique). Ventura opens Souffle escaping from “the can,” hot as his henchman’s luger, out to settle some scores, dodge Meurisse, and pull one last heist on his way to Sicily. Melville’s every bit as methodical, but his material’s better and his leading men titans of French film. At nearly 2½ hours, almost every minute clenches its jaws in gangster predestination. Behind Melville were Criterion essentials Les Enfants Terribles and Bob le Flambeur; ahead lay Le Samourai,Army of Shadows, and Le Cercle Rouge, also gold-bullion DVDs. In these bloody B&W sieges, Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973) lay down with death and got up once again on equal footing with William Wyler (The Desperate Hours), his American idol.
– Raoul Hernandez, The Austin Chronicle
The heist is only one part of the film. What Melville is primarily interested in is Gu’s sense of honor, the code he lives by, and that he hopes others adhere to. Ventura was forty-six at the time of filming, and is presented as a guy who is starting to get old. Minda makes the leap across the prison roof, but barely is able to catch the freight train that takes him to Paris. Christine Fabrega’s Manouche is a woman still attractive, but no longer youthful. Added to this mix is Paul Meurisse as Blot, a police detective who is so familiar with the Parisian gangsters he deals with that he can supply them with their own fantastic alibis before they are offered, spoken with deadpan, sarcastic delivery. Le Deuxieme Souffle is about people who know that they have limited futures. This may be best seen in a shot of Minda, alone on New Year’s Eve, ripping off the last page of a daily calendar, leaving only a blank page.
Much of the action takes place in empty, or nearly empty spaces. The buildings are crumbling, while the interiors are shabby and in need of repair. It is not surprising that the only thing shiny and new in Minda’s hideout is the lock that isolates him from the outside world. The heist takes place on a rocky stretch of road that gets little traffic. The heist partially takes place in the rain, while another scene is of Minda interrogated in a muddy lot. As in his final film, Dirty Money, Melville likes to put is characters in a nowhere town stuck in crappy weather. Melville’s Paris seems empty of people, even during the daytime. Against this austerity is the what appears as a visual non sequitur, at least initially, of a dance troupe performing in a dive more bar that nightclub, appearing in the early Paris based scenes. There is really no reason for the girls to be in the movie from a narrative standpoint, but they do look good making their moves against the cool jazz style score ofBernard Gerard. In the end, Le Deuxieme Souffle is about people who are alone, even when they are with other people, fighting to maintain their individual sense of integrity in the face of compromises imposed by others.
Why is Gustave Minda — I guess I’ll call him “Gu” from here on in, like everyone else does, even though the nickname is incongruously babyish — such a sympathetic figure? Or at least a figure you find yourself rooting for? He’s more than just a hard, hard man, after all; he’s a killer equally capable of killing people from a distance (like the guys on the motorcycles guarding the van full of platinum) or close up. (Gu has a thing for taking people on drive through the countryside and killing them while the car is still moving — it’s unclear whether this is a way of ensuring he’ll have fewer witnesses to the crime or if the gun, the victim, the highway, and the moving car are a peculiar constellation of elements that satisfy some inchoate psychopathic compulsion deep inside his brain.)
Maybe it’s that shot early in the film of Gu clumsily climbing aboard a train car shortly after climbing over the prison wall, barely able to run fast enough to keep up with the car, and then barely able to swing his leg up into the open cabin. (According to Ginette Vincendeau’s audio commentary on the Criterion DVD of the film, Melville instructed the engineer to make the train go faster than Lino Ventura was expecting in order to achieve precisely this level of unathletic awkwardness.) Maybe it’s the sight of Gu later in the film trying to keep a low profile as he travels to Marseilles: he’s grown a fussy little mustache and wears a pair of glasses as he rides a seemingly endless series of buses to his destination, looking like a dumpy office manager who can’t afford a car and has to take public transit on his business trips. Is it the shot of Gu showing up at his old flame Manouche’s apartment, his head bizarrely appearing at the bottom of the half-open door, like a five-year-old cautiously spying on his parents? Is it the little domestic glimpses we get of Gu holed up in various cramped hideouts, briskly shaving in anticipation of a dinner with Manouche, or enjoying a cozy solitary dinner on New Year’s Eve, smearing a thick coating of pâté onto a piece of toast? Or is it the genuine agony he displays when Commissaire Blot tricks him into identifying his partner in the platinum heist, branding him forever as a police informant?
Gu is the character we get to know best in Le Deuxième Souffle, and yet by the end of it, we feel as though we barely know him at all, or why his inevitable doom affects us the way it does. Except for Blot, the characters don’t speak much, and they operate according to obscure motives and codes of criminal conduct. (It was reassuring to listen to the DVD commentary and hear Vincendeau and fellow Melville expert Geoff Andrew admit that the plot is kind of confusing the first time through — I was starting to think I was just slow.) The characters have a certain glamour, thanks to the charisma of the movie stars playing them, but they live drab, joyless, sexless lives that no one watching them would envy.
Maybe it’s Melville who I truly envy: the restraint of his storytelling, his treatment of violence as a grubby, matter-of-fact reality instead of an occasional for spectacle, his ability to take this complicated set of criminal plots and counterplots and transform it into a nearly abstract meditation on loyalty, honour, and age. Strange that a director so austere and grown-up — it’s impossible to imagine any of Melville’s characters ever being children — should have been such an inspiration to a filmmaker as exuberantly adolescent as Quentin Tarantino.
Stray Observation: As in Le Doulos and Le Cercle Rouge, Melville stages a couple of scenes in a nightclub and pauses the action so we can enjoy the kooky floorshow — this time, it’s a bunch of girls in black cocktail dresses and cigarette holders striking poses together to cool jazz music. I love these scenes, although I’m always amazed at how these little clubs can afford to keep a team of 10 dancers on staff every night along with all those waiters and bartenders.
– Paul Matwychuk, The Moviegoer
For me, there are two primary aspects to consider when judging a film: what does it have to say, and how does it say it. A flick can succeed or even excel in one department, but it’s all for naught if it lets viewers down in the other. Case in point, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Deuxième Souffle, a French gangster noir with a hell of a story on its hands. The film’s main aim is to question the idea of honor among thieves, of whether those engaged in such seedy activities truly abide by any sort of shared moral code. Melville has a great concept to work with, but the laborious way in which Le Deuxième Souffle moves along ends up almost crippling the movie’s burgeoning coolness factor.Casting an introspective eye on the criminal underworld is all well and good, often doing Le Deuxième Souffle a great thematic service. But it’s in moving away from overtones and towards building up an actual story that Melville makes the first of numerous missteps. Most of the time, watching the film is like watching him play Pin the Tail on the Donkey — sometimes he’s right on the mark, and other times he might as well be in Timbuktu.
The trouble is that Melville’s focus is way too inconsistent. He builds up the pivotal heist sequence throughout the film’s first half, but once it’s over and done with, he just sort of meanders his way through the crime’s aftermath. You can almost see him let the camera keep on rolling as he goes off to make a sandwich or something. The film’s style and sharp look (which, thanks to the Criterion Collection’s restoration, is nothing short of gorgeous) begins to emerge as dressing that barely covers up the bitter taste left by Melville’s prolonging of the plot. Aimless scenes abound in the latter two acts, with Melville eventually losing his storytelling finesse and, disappointingly, ending the rather messy affair in an obligatory hail of bullets.
– A.J. Hakari, Blog Critics.com
Le Deuxième Souffle was, when it was released in Europe in 1966, the last film to be shot by Jean-Pierre Melville in black-and-white. The French master’s first color film was Le Samourai in 1967 and was followed within two years by Army of Shadows, two inarguable masterpieces that the US wanted nothing to do with at the time. Like few other directors, Melville took naturally to color, uncovering a deeper isolation in an array of tones that had seemed simply tragic in his peerless black-and-white work. Recently remade in France with Daniel Auteuil in the lead, Le Deuxième Souffle, which literally translates into “The Second Breath,” might be considered “minor” Melville in comparison to the towering giants that followed it, but even that would rank it among the best crim films of the 1960s.
Deuxième Souffle is perhaps Melville’s most elementally structuralist affair. The acting is superbly restrained, the movement and space mapped meticulously. It is perhaps the most fluidly edited of the master’s films. In this respect, though, it is thoroughly apolitical, the film foresees the globe-trotting paranoia of Army of Shadows and the director’s late-era crime epic Le Circle Rouge rather than representing the penultimate work of Melville’s black-and-white period.
Few things in Melville’s oeuvre rival the centerpiece heist of the police transport, executed with the precision of a Swiss stopwatch. Bernard Gérard’s unhinged jazz accompaniment is suspended while Melville focuses on procedure and movement, ingratiating the scene with the permanence of the hold-ups and shoot-outs of Ford and Hawks. Like those two directors saw the myth of America in their westerns, Melville sees the cold efficiency of the French bourgeoisie in his teeming underworld, two worlds he often remarked as being nearly one and the same.
Of all the gangsters, thieves and hoodlums that populate Le Deuxième Souffle, few have the presence that Pierre Zimmer gave the properly-named Orloff, a gigantic, reserved gangster who passes the heist to his old friend Gu and remains one of the few people who sticks with the aging thief when he accidently rats on Paul. Possessed of nearly the same frosty manner as Ventura, Zimmer dominates his scenes with stiff physicality and a collected expression, especially in a nerve-wracking sequence where he looks to be cornered by Jo and Antoine. That this was Zimmer’s debut performance renders it near-astonishing.
Not many of Melville’s crime sonatas end happily and Souffle is no exception. Tracked by a corrupt police force, Gu ends up stuck between Jo Ricci and his thugs and Commissar Blot (the great Paul Meurisse), the investigator who has been following him throughout. Like the doomed samourai that he so often filmed, Melville became increasingly fatalistic while approaching his 55th birthday, seeing as both his father and grandfather had suffered fatal heart attacks in their 55th year. Eerily, he suffered the same fate only two months before his 56th birthday in 1973, a year after releasing his swan song,Un Flic, in France and two years before it would see release stateside. Like Gu, there is a sense he saw his fate coming and, rather than let his reputation succumb to uneasy modernity, simply said “To hell with it!” and continued to make brilliant, tight-lipped noirs like this.
– Chris Cabin, Film Critic.com
It all came affirmatively back to me: the geometrized prison break in the cold gray (black-and-white) dawn; the seven silent minutes to the first line of dialogue; the five-minute unobtrusive single take as the prissily sardonic police inspector (Paul Meurisse) sizes up the scene of a nightclub shooting, supplies all the answers and alibis to his own questions, and proves himself in the course of this virtual monologue the equal of Melville (or vice versa) as an aficionado of the underworld; the pregnant first look between the escaped convict and the cotton-candy-haired gun moll at their reunion, matched and surpassed by their pregnant last look much later on; the protagonist’s trademark killings in a moving vehicle; the mountain-road stickup of an armored car; the superb ruse by which the policeman gets the gangster to spill a single bean; the evocative shots of dark-coated figures in a landscape, scantily clad chorines on the dance floor, abstract polygons of light and shadow; the spare, neurotic jazz score; the stoic camaraderie and the stern judgmentalism about good people and bad, whether crooks or cops. And through it all, that great block of granite, that craggy colossus of the French screen, Lino Ventura — a block with worrisome cracks in it (is he over the hill? all washed-up?), a block that undergoes liquefaction over his deviously induced betrayal of his cronies and his principles, an unnerving turn of events that can only be put right by doffing his fusty mustache-and-glasses disguise, donning a regulation trenchcoat, and doing penance by way of a two-gun suicide.
Near the end, my most treasured sequence in all of Melville leaves Ventura out entirely, and centers on a subordinate figure in the large population of characters, a natty iceman (Pierre Zimmer) with the sinister name of Orloff. “He’s all style and no action,” someone appraises him. Well, let’s see. It is he who is tabbed as the protagonist’s go-between at an assignation with three ticked-off mobsters. As a precaution, he visits the meeting place ahead of time, picks out a spot atop an armoire where he can stash a gun out of sight from normal human height. He practices standing with his back to the armoire, reaching up over his head, pulling down the gun with the business end forward. He goes away satisfied. Then the gypsy triggerman from the hostile trio also checks out the meeting place beforehand, finds the gun, keeps it. He’s satisfied as well. Comes the meeting. The talk turns testy. Orloff sidles over to the armoire, positions himself in front of the empty hiding place. The gypsy tenses in anticipation, eggs him on. Mr. Cool Cat is about to have his fur ruffled. You’ll need to see the film to find out what happens next, a moment even more magicianly than the one in Le Samourai when the professional assassin unveils his white gloves from beneath a washroom towel. And, as I would tell the undergraduates, this alone should suffice to deter us from a life of crime: we’re not smart enough.
To object that Melville glamorizes his subject would be to miss altogether the point of a film that is manifestly a movie buff’s fantasy. Aside from that, the film is doubtless a “meditation,” as they say, not just on the gangster genre but on themes of loyalty and trust, aging and death, sang-froid and savoir-faire,arbitrarily in gangster garb. Any piddler of course can meditate on such stuff. It takes a true artist to arrange his thoughts and feelings into a form that will fully express and validate them. Many a filmmaker loves gangster movies, pays homage to them, imitates them. Melville improves them. His love runs deep. I can’t say that the extra twenty-five minutes, when I could identify them, added anything to the film but length, two and a half hours all told. Mere length is not nothing, however, in a film I never want to see come to an end. The extra minutes necessitate no revision in my previous opinion of it.
– Duncan Shepherd, The San Diego Reader
The films of Jean-Pierre Melville are obsessed with detail. Consider the scene in Le Deuxième Souffle, in which Gu and his associates conduct a carefully-planned heist. Every single detail of this heist is outlined with cautious observation. Melville wants to give us a sense of where everyone is and what they are doing at all times. This is not uncommon for a heist sequence; many films have examined such scenes in careful detail. What sets the work of Melville apart is the fact that gives every single scene in his movie an equal level of artful attention. The director is equally fascinated by the conversations and actions of every character related to the situation. The set-up is just as important as the event itself, and more surprisingly, so is the aftermath.
Le Deuxième Souffle gives us yet another Melville film that offers up one compelling sequence after another. I would love to know what the average shot length is in his films. I know that it has to be considerably higher that it was for most directors of the era. Melville’s lets his camera run on and on and on, sometimes sitting still and sometimes slithering in a voyeuristic manner across the room. However, I don’t think Melville is showing off. The shots do not draw attention to themselves, and they are always quietly supporting the action rather than outshining it.
That may be largely because Melville provides such engaging characters for his camera to study. Here there are two important performances that are equally fascinating. The first comes from the rugged Lino Ventura, who takes Gu across a long and carefully-modulated character arc. Ventura is quiet and reserved most of the time, dealing with each new situation with a low-key efficiency. Then watch him in the moment when he is asked to participate in the heist. He is told that his friend Paul is involved. “Paul!” he says excitedly. It’s the first little burst of emotion we see from the character. When he reaches his loud scenes towards the conclusion, they have an explosive impact due to Ventura’s patient and finely-tuned portrayal.
The other notable performance comes from Paul Meurisse as Blot, the man on the side of the law. Meurisse has less screen time than Ventura, but he does a lot with his scenes. Meurisse is the most charming and charismatic character in the film, blending wit, sarcasm, kindness, and intelligence into the character. We are constantly surprised by the way Blot reacts to certain situations. He has an unusual ability to see the truth of any situation. Consider a moment when others in the police department suggest several tactics they might use to catch Gu. Blot smiles gently and dismisses them all, declaring that there’s more or less nothing than can do until Gu makes some sort of mistake and leaves some sort of clue. This is a man who can follow the smallest of leads to a conviction, but he is honest enough with himself and the department to know that he might as well be shooting at gnats unless he finds a starting point.
Once again, Melville successfully blends many aspects of American gangster and noir genre films with French culture. His movies do not look or feel like most of the French films being released during the 1960s, and they have a unique vibe that can’t really be found anywhere else. His films have the aesthetic of a Bogart movie, but the meditative and reflective qualities of a European film (though not necessarily a French film). Many American noir efforts combined a gorgeous visual style with a breathless narrative speed, but Melville is too much in love with the genre to permit himself to breeze through it. He wants to soak in each moment, stretch it out, give viewers time to fully appreciate every detail of it before moving on.
– Clark Douglas, DVD Verdict
Melville clearly has a taste for the existential and the absurdist—with character names like Gu and Blot (the chief inspector), it sometimes sounds as if we’re in a late-period Beckett play, Endgame with guns, or something. There are some absolutely extraordinary sequences in the picture, without question—the most notable would have to be the central heist, a 200-million-franc job that’s too sweet for Gu to resist, even though he’s hot as blazes. It’s kinetic and tense and visual, Melville at his best, sort of both a tribute to and a conscious attempt to outdo Rififi. But other scenes make you feel as if you’re in some sort of noir echo chamber, scenes that bear little or no relationship to real life, or even to the story, but are there simply to conjure up the mood of the gangster pictures so close to Melville’s heart.
Titles pop up with date, time and location, alerting us that we’re barreling toward the inevitable and unpleasant climax—it’s a familiar noir device, maybe most famous from Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing. And the odd brother/sister relationship is in many respects at the heart of it all—there’s something a bit untoward and overly intimate about their relationship, and he seems at other times ready to pimp out Manouche, who understands the power she can exercise over men. Her interactions with Blot are especially charged and dangerous. (Christine Fabréga is beautiful and ice cold in the role.) But it’s also unquestionably an excessively long picture—it clocks in at two and a half hours not because it’s got a tremendous amount of ground to cover, but because it’s a little too in love with or impressed with itself.
– Jon Danzinger, Digitally Obsessed
Review by Glenn Erickson for DVD Talk
Review by Mick LaSalle for The San Francisco Chronicle
ABOUT THE CRITERION DVD
Criterion’s disc shows minor signs of age and wear and some chemical degradation across some reels (noticeable mostly in darker scenes), but it’s eminently watchable and a welcome release for the rarely screened Melville film. The DVD features commentary by Melville scholar Ginette Vincendeau and critic Geoff Andrew, who intersperse their reading of the film and observations of style with production details, and a new video interview with filmmaker and critic Bertrand Tavernier, who worked as an assistant and publicist for Melville in the sixties and shares stories about the director. Also features a pair of archival interviews with Melville and Ventura: a short four-minute newsreel piece (which includes a brief clip of actor Jose Ferrer, who is not in the finished film but was apparently cast in the film at one time) and a more formal 26-minute interview from the French TV series Cinema. An accompanying booklet features an essay by film professor Adrian Dirks.
– Sean Axmaker, Turner Classic Movies
Aside from a few more noticeable artefacts in the darker scenes of the beginning – this Criterion transfer settles down to have some fairly strong moments. It appears to have a few more earmarks of Criterion digital restoration magic which I, actually, never found overly obvious but it seems to have helped smooth out the source inconsistencies. I wouldn’t say it is a perfect transfer but for the most part it looks quite competent and reasonably clean. It is anamorphic (in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio), progressive and situated on a dual-layered SD-DVD. Hopefully the screen caps below will give you a good idea of what it will look like on your system.
– Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver
Criterion has done a nice job with the 1.66.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of Le Deuxieme Souffle on this DVD. The black and white image is nice and stable and while eagle-eyed viewers will probably spot a couple of minor compression artifacts in some of the darker scenes, overall things are pretty stable. Contrast looks set properly and there aren’t any problems with any serious print damage save for a couple of fleeting instances that thankfully don’t last too long. Only some specs and grain now and again are constant. Detail levels are pretty strong despite occasional softness in some of the far away shots and a tiny bit of edge enhancement.
The French language Dolby Digital Mono audio track comes with optional subtitles in English only. While it’s a little on the flat side there aren’t any serious problems with it to report. Dialogue remains clean and clear throughout and the levels are all properly balanced. A little bit of minor distortion is noticeable in a couple of spots but unless you’re listening for it you probably won’t pick up on it. All in all, the movie sounds just fine.
Ginette Vincendeau, the author of Jean-Pierre Melville: An American In Paris joins BFI programming head Geoff Andrew for an excellent commentary track. Both participants have a fair bit to say about this film, putting it into context and comparing it to Melville’s other pictures and pointing out some interesting notes about both what we see on the screen and about what we don’t see. Much attention is paid to Melville’s use of shadow and about the film noir style employed but the pair also discusses the intricacies of the plot and detail the history of the film and those who made it. As far as critical commentary tracks go, this one is pretty impressive.
From there, check out the twelve minute interview with film critic and publicity agent Bertrand Tavernier (11:36) who speaks about his involvement with this film and his working relationship with Melville and who lends some unique insight into the picture’s history. Up next is a four minute archival piece from a French television show entitled Province Actualities(3:59) that is essentially a news clip that gives us a quick look at the set of the film while it was in production – basically Melville, Lino Ventura and Paul Meurisse discuss the film briefly while sitting at a bar. A lengthier twenty-six minute interview segment entitled Cinema (25:50) features Melville and leading man Lino Ventura being interviewed by television host Francois Chalais. This is considerably more in-depth than the first interview is and it’s a joy to listen to the sunglasses wearing Melville talk about his work on the film and to hear from Ventura about his contributions to the picture as well.
Rounding out the extra features is an anamorphic widescreen trailer (2:18) for the film, some classy menus, and chapter selection. Inside the keepcase is an insert booklet that features an interesting essay on the film written by film critic Adrian Danks.
– Ian Jane, DVD Talk
ABOUT JEAN-PIERRE MELVILLE
The following quotes are found on the They Shoot Pictures profile page for Jean-Pierre Melville:
“Melville was a precise, methodical director with a predilection for themes of war and crime. The former preoccupation was attributable to his own experiences, and the latter was the probable result of his nostalgic admiration for the Hollywood cinema of the 30s…Beginning in the early 60s, Melville worked with larger budgets and with name stars like Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon and showed an increasingly technical mastery of the medium.” – (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)
“He had a built-in breathlessness, in fact, an adopted resignation to transience and mutability that is partly an eccentric individualism and partly what Melville inherited from American mobility and obsolescence. It gives his gangster films a true supercharge – “en quatrième vitesse” – and he transformed Belmondo and Delon into beautiful destructive angels of the dark street.” – David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)
“Powerful endings and memorable set-pieces have a place in all Melville’s work, even the earlier films, some of which are far removed from his later world of ‘flics’ and gangs’, where the night-time photography glitters as cold and metallic as a gun barrel.” – David Quinlan (Quinlan’s Film Directors, 1999)
“Betrayal, revenge, and the criminal mind are significant elements in the work of Melville. His films are not so much reflections of the Hollywood crime genre as indications of a unique sensibility creating from the same source material – crime and criminals.” – William R. Meyer (The Film Buff’s Catalog, 1978)
Tribute by Mystery Man on Film features more quotes and an excerpt from a 1961 radio interview between Melville and Gideon Bachmann.
Jean-Pierre Melville said it himself: “I have a bloody awful character.” In 1972, towards the end of his career, glowering at the world through smoked glasses under a Texan ten-gallon hat, the man whom some consider to be the “father of the nouvelle vague” listed the collaborators for whom he still felt gratitude after 25 years in the business. None of his stars stars got a mention; neither Belmondo, Delon, Lino Ventura nor François Perrier. Nor, outrageously, did his his great director of photography, Henri Decaë. Melville told the journalist Rui Nogueira, author of The Cinema According to Jean-Pierre Melville (1996) that he only felt gratitude to Pierre Charron and René Albouze. Charron chose the furniture for his films; Albouze was a prop man.
This is as good a clue as any to the character of this provocative, morose, secretive, private and perverse man, whose life was a running battle with collaborators, former admirers and critics. He once said he was “a solitary to the power of five – myself, my wife and three cats.”
It was of course this sacré caractère which drove Melville to employ the independent methods of a “new wave” director well before the nouvelle vague. Melville made his first feature in 1947; the nouvelle vague proper did not appear until 1959. Frustrated by the film establishment, which regarded him as an amateur, and angered by what he saw as the “communist dictatorship” of the unions, he built his own Studio Jenner, in 1947, the only director to have one. It was destroyed by fire in 1967.
Melville’s hardboiled world is really that of the film buff, but a skilled one. He involved himself in every aspect of film-making; set design, writing the script, running the camera, and designing his heroes’ fetching gangster gear. Here we come to a puzzling contradiction. Alongside his seemingly obsessive gangster pastiches, Melville was perfectly capable of producing work that was restrained, precise and sensitive with no reaching for decorative symbolism.
– Peter Lennon, The Guardian
The career of Jean-Pierre Melville is one of the most independent in modern French cinema. The tone was set with his first feature film, Le Silence de la mer, made quite outside the confines of the French film industry. Without union recognition or even the rights to the novel by Vercors which he was adapting, Melville proceeded to make a film which, in its counterpointing of images and a spoken text, set the pattern for a whole area of French literary filmmaking extending from Bresson and Resnais down to Duras in the 1980s. Les Enfants terribles, made in close collaboration with Jean Cocteau, was an equally interesting amalgam of literature and film, but more influential was Bob le flambeur, a first variation on gangster film themes which emerged as a striking study of loyalty and betrayal.
But by the time that the New Wave directors were drawing from Bob le flambeur a set of stylistic lessons which were to be crucial to their own breakthrough—economical location shooting, use of natural light, improvisatory approaches, and use of character actors in place of stars—Melville himself had moved in quite a different direction. Léon Morin, prêtre marks Melville’s decision to leave this directly personal world of low-budget filmmaking for a mature style of solidly commercial genre filmmaking that used major stars and tightly wrought scripts to capture a wide audience.
This style is perfectly embodied in the trio of mid-1960s gangster films which constitute the core of Melville’s achievement in cinema. Melville’s concern with the film as a narrative spectacle is totally vindicated in these films, each of which was built around a star performance: Jean-Paul Belmondo in Le Doulos, Lino Ventura in Le Deuxième Souffle, and Alain Delon in Le Samourai. Drawing on his 1930s viewing and his adolescent reading of American thrillers, Melville manipulated the whole mythology of the gangster film, casting aside all pretence of offering a social study. His criminals are idealized figures, their appearance stylized with emphasis on the belted raincoat, soft hat, and ever-present handgun. Their behavior oddly blends violence and ritualized politeness, and lifts them out from their settings. Melville had no interest in the realistic portrayal of life. He disregarded both psychological depth and accuracy of location and costume. The director instead used his stars to portray timeless, tragic figures caught up in ambiguous conflicts and patterns of deceit, relying on the actor’s personality and certainty of gesture to fill the intentional void.
Le Samourai, a perfect distillation of the cinematic myth of the gangster, remains Melville’s masterpiece. Subsequent attempts to widen his range included an effort to transpose his characters into the world of Occupation and Resistance in L’Armée des ombres, as well as a film—Le Cercle rouge—that combined his particular gift for atmosphere with a Rififi-style presentation of the mechanics of a robbery. These films are interesting but flawed works. Melville’s frustration and dissatisfaction was reflected in his last work,Un Flic, which completed the passage towards abstraction begun in the mid-1960s. It offers a derisory world lacking even the human warmth of loyalty and friendship which the director had earlier celebrated. In retrospect, it seems likely that Melville’s reputation will rest largely on his ability, almost unique in French cinema, to contain deeply felt personal attitudes within the tight confines of commercial genre production. Certainly his thrillers are unequalled in European cinema.
—Roy Armes, Film Reference.com
Bob le flambeur
In 1963, Raymond Durgnat pertinently suggested that “Melville has a way of watching, rather than sharing, his characters’ perplexities. He seems not to mind what they do, provided it suits them. He is not unkind, but feline.” Durgnat’s astute reading of Melville’s work nevertheless over-emphasises the purely detached and relatively amoral perspective that it offers. The subtle scene described above is one of many moments in Melville’s cinema in which his mostly male characters appear to be both within and outside of a dramatic situation, able to engage in the emotion of the moment while also stepping outside of it to contemplate a configuration of events, actions and bodies. Bob recognises his complicity and involvement in the coupling he sees staged in his bed but he also recognises the beauty of this staged composition, its ‘rightness,’ in a way. In a similar fashion, the lone assassin protagonist of Melville’s most celebrated film, Le Samouraï (1967), both enacts his crimes and observes the patterned compositions he creates through his meticulous movements and steely actions. There is another moment in Bob le flambeur where Bob looks, as many of Melville’s characters do, at his unshaven face in the mirror. Though this provokes a momentary shock of existential awareness – the notation of age and a concomitant world-weariness – it is also a moment of pure contemplation; the character simultaneously sees both from within and outside himself. Typical of Melville’s aesthetic style (and his ethical perspective), we are shown these moments and events through a mixture of seeming point-of-view shots and a vast array of detached perspectives (which rarely repeat camera set-ups). Thus, while the characters are both ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’ to the situation, we are also both inside and outside their view of it, engaged in the film’s action while also observing it. It is this combination of direct engagement and distanced contemplation, of feeling character and observing actor, as well as the joining of real-time observation – which Colin McArthur describes as a “cinema of process” – and aesthetic abstraction (heightened or drained colours, self-consciously staged compositions) that defines Melville’s cinema.
Melville himself has been careful to place his work within the context of a composed or synthetic tradition of filmmaking: “I am careful never to be realistic.… What I do is false. Always.” But this statement encapsulates only ‘half’ the story, as John Flaus suggests: “He [Melville] does not seek to simulate the world but to create anew from the materials of the world. The severe form, the precise detail, the delicate effect are part of a style which shows rather than refers to its subject.” Essentially, Melville’s cinema is a highly complex and regulated thing within which nothing, not an edit, a gesture, a sound or a camera movement, is wasted (though it is also a cinema that is often also stylistically adventurous). His films present a collection of minute observations and actions played out in what seems to be real time, while also reveling in self-conscious displays of what could pass for pure style. Melville combines this with an overwhelming sense of lived experience. His films are often, all at once, highly personal, non-naturalistic (full of attenuated shades and colours or self-consciously fake back projections), dream-like fictions, and documentary-like narratives. His style often also revolves around the meticulous placement and withdrawal of certain cinematic techniques. For example, despite the head of the character of the niece being consistently framed in Le Silence de la mer (1949), she is never given a close-up until the penultimate point of the film.
Les Enfants terribles
Melville is a filmmaker that almost everyone seems to admire, but few know what to do with (other than those who attempt to slavishly copy or evoke his work). Similarly, many accounts of his cinema focus only on his gangster films, finding it difficult to encapsulate the trio of films he made about the war-time occupation of France into an overall understanding of his work; particularly any ‘summary’ which attempts to present a teleological narrative that moves from the initial ‘literary’ works such as Le Silence de la mer to the explicitly cinematic genre and audio-visual abstraction characterising his last film, Un Flic. Critical discussion of Melville’s work is also obsessed by the American affectations of his films and his personal style (the car he drove, the Stetson he wore, the Coca-Cola he drank, the evocative New York-based or influenced films he made such as Deux Hommes dans Manhattan and L’Aîné des ferchaux ), as well as his status as perhaps the first truly self-conscious cinéphiliac director. It is in these obsessions that most critics see Melville’s talismanic importance to the nouvelle vague, as an exemplar of particular critical proclivities and independent production processes. Nevertheless, Melville seems to belong to a separate generation or movement (closer to other singular figures of French cinema like Robert Bresson, Georges Franju and Jacques Becker). His valediction of such highly classical directors as William Wyler, John Huston, Robert Wise and Charles Chaplin points toward an unflinching, or aspirational, classicism in his own style; expressed in his films’ attention to detail, deployment of iconographic objects and often restricted emotional, tonal and aesthetic palette. But his films, particularly from Le Doulos (1962) onwards, also seem to belong to an explicitly modernist tradition in which the world created appears predetermined, patterned, almost geometric – and such patterns or geometries emerge as key themes and visual preoccupations of films such as Le Samouraï and Le Cercle rouge. Thus, although Melville would like to be connected to names such as Huston, Wyler, William Wellman and John Ford, he belongs as much to a formalist cinema defined by its compositional clarity and spatio-temporal experimentation, and thus should be examined equally alongside such directors as Yasujiro Ozu, Alain Resnais, Bresson and Jacques Tati.
Melville’s cinema is essentially tonal: a sensibility (melancholy, poetic, unhysterical) which is founded upon a ‘purity’ of style, performance and narrative action. It is this ‘sensibility’ or ‘tonality’ – existential, ritualistic and formed around the incapability of the individual and their community – that preoccupies most critical accounts of Melville’s cinema. John Flaus has suggested that Melville “is a self-confessed addict of the structure & ethos, but not the tone, of the Hollywood crime genres.” Thus Melville’s films often appear as intricately choreographed shadow plays in which the elements of genre become isolated, detached and abstracted. This abstraction goes hand-in-hand with a career long fascination with totemistic objects brought either to the foreground of a shot or arranged purposely in the background of the frame. Melville’s films are full of moments in which characters fix on a particular object or fetishise certain keepsakes or elements of mise-en-scène. This isolation of individual shapes, objects and actions is playfully noted in the scene in Le Samouraï where the character of Weiner is asked whether he can identify the man (Jef, played by Alain Delon) he passed in the foyer of his lover’s apartment block. Not being ‘observant,’ he cannot recognise the ‘person’ of this man but constructs a readily identifiable composite; he points out a hat, a coat and a kind of face that he remembers brushing past…
The endings of Melville’s films tell us much about the moral codes and frameworks that they set up. In many of his films the majority of the central characters end up dead. These endings – which often have the feeling of ritual – reestablish the intimate connections that have been created between characters whose relationships are made impossible by a variety of legal, social, moral and criminal codes. In this sense they have much in common with the cycle of ‘chamber’ Westerns made by Budd Boetticher with Randolph Scott; in fact the moral climates, dilemmas and group dynamics of Melville’s films often seem closer to the Western than film noir. It is also in respect to this focus on the relativity of social roles and functions (often with characters on either side of the Law), as well as their explicit revision and abstraction of the crime genre, that one can see the clear influence of Melville on directors such as John Woo, Johnny To, Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann and Quentin Tarantino. It is also in these endings, particularly in his last five films, that Melville tells us something about the end of a kind of classicism; of a classical world of archetypes, moral and physical integrity, and ritualised ceremony that is passing from view. They also prefigure the end of a cinema that Melville considered to be a “sacred thing.”
– Adrian Danks, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography
Classical cinema, basically, had to do with heroes, so-called modern cinema is to do with grubs. I have always refused to go along with this regression… I always arrange my characters – my ‘heroes’ – to conduct themselves within their environment, whatever it might be, the way I would conduct myself […] To be frank, I’m only able to become interested in characters who reflect some aspect of myself. Egocentric, paranoiac, megalomaniac? No: quite simply the natural authority of the creator.
– Melville, as quoted by Danks in Senses of Cinema