Friday, December 27, 2019

The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville: Le Deuxième Souffle (1966)

Le Deuxième Souffle (1966)
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Melville.
Written by: José Giovanni and Jean-Pierre Melville based on the novel by José Giovanni.
Starring: Lino Ventura (Gustave 'Gu' Minda), Paul Meurisse (Commissaire Blot), Raymond Pellegrin (Paul Ricci), Christine Fabréga (Simone - dite 'Manouche'), Marcel Bozzuffi (Jo Ricci), Paul Frankeur (Inspector Fardiano), Denis Manuel (Antoine Ripa), Jean Négroni (L'homme), Michel Constantin (Alban), Pierre Zimmer (Orloff), Pierre Grasset (Pascal), Jacques Léonard (Henri Tourneur), Raymond Loyer (Jacques, le notaire), Albert Michel (Marcel le Stéphanois), Jean-Claude Bercq (Inspecteur Godefroy), Louis Bugette (Théo, le passeur), Albert Dagnant (Jeannot Franchi), Sylvain Levignac (Louis Bartel).
One of the interesting things about watching all of Jean-Pierre Melville’s films in a row is figuring out why some have become the types of films that critics describe as masterworks, and others have fallen by the wayside – still not overly examined or talked about, even if others in his filmography have been rediscovered. To this point in his filmography, Le Deuxième Souffle is the most curious case of this – because it is clearly a transitional film for Melville – part Bob La Flambeur or Le Doulos and part Le Samourai – but not quite either. It’s his final film in black and white, and shows Melville’s absolute mastery of the shadows and light that make it such a wonderful format for movies. It’s also hugely entertaining – and was, at the time, Melville’s most successful film commercially. And yet, Le Deuxième Souffle hardly gets mentioned – not nearly as much as other Melville masterworks, but it clearly deserves to be. Hopefully it’s one that everyone just needs to catch up with.
The film is another of Melville’s looks at a criminal underworld – concerned with loyalty, friendship and betrayal, which perhaps represented what Melville himself was feeling at the time – as he was ostracized from much of the mainstream in French filmmaking, and the New Wave at the same time. It has similarities to Le Doulos, but while that film was fast moving and fleet of foot – with a complex web of a plot nearly impossible to unwind, the plot here is relatively straight forward – and is more drawn out. This is a film that runs two-and-a-half hours, and uses that time wisely.
After some customary title cards – about a man choosing his own death – the film opens with a terrific wordless and music-less scene of three men breaking out of prison that will likely bring to mind the extended climax of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956) for some. One of the men don’t make it – and we don’t really care about one of the other two. Who we concentrate on is Gu Minda (Lino Ventura) – a man who has been in prison for 10 years for a robbery, and was never going to get out again if he didn’t escape. No he’s out – but not really free. His escape is a major story – a dogged police detective, Blot (Paul Meurisse) is on his trail, and isn’t likely to give up so easily. Gu has no money with which to build a new life, even if he can get out of France. What he does have are some loyal friends – a sister who is willing to do anything to help get him free, and some connections to the underworld which may have a job for him that would allow the kind of money for which he can live on for the rest of his life. But that opening quote – about a man choosing his own death – hangs over the movie. We know things aren’t going to end so cleanly here.
Gu is an older character than many in Melville’s films – he is 47, but because of the last decade behind bars, he seems even older, wearier than most men his age. In many ways, it kind of feels like Gu has broken out of prison, not to build some big, new exciting life – but rather to end his life on his own terms, not as some sad sack prisoner, but as a man of action. When, late in the film, Gu’s action become the subject of much debate as to whether or not he was a rat, all he really wants to do is set the record straight – to secure his legacy as a standup criminal, not because he’s worried about the consequences. Those have already been set, and there is no going back.
The film has a couple of brilliant action set pieces in it. The first is obviously that wonderful prison break sequence. The other one is the extended robbery sequence at the half way point – where Gu has teamed up with four other criminals, much to his sister’s chagrin, to pull off essentially an armored car robbery. The robbery is violent – people are killed – but it is an example, as in much of Melville, of a job that is planned, and executed, with precision and professionalism. Of course, the fallout from that robbery is the fallout from almost every big screen robbery – as the cops close in, and the various gangsters are brought in by the cops, and start turning on each other. In some ways, it is Le Doulos all over again – with people concerned over who is the finger man, and plotting based on incomplete information, that ends in nothing more death. But this time, it isn’t wrapped in such an entertaining package – it’s a sadder state of affairs here, with a clean getaway impossible no matter what they do.
There is a lot here to unpack. In many ways, I think this is perhaps the most like a Michael Mann film – namely heat – of all of Melville’s work. Melville is often brought up in relation to Mann, because both filmmakers don’t really concern themselves with psychological depth, as much as they allow the character’s action define their morality. They like people are professionals, defined by their work, by their adherence to a code. In the relationship between Gu and Blot, you see some similar dimensions of what you would see between DeNiro and Pacino in Mann’s epic masterwork. They are on opposite sides of the law, but respect each other because they both adhere to their own code – Blot goes as far as to give a reporter a story of what really happened with Gu – retroactively giving him his legacy back, even if he’s not around to enjoy it.
Le Deuxième Souffle is not often mentioned when discussing Melville’s best films – it doesn’t get the attention that Bob La Flambeur, Le Samourai, Army of Shadows or The Red Circle get – not even the attention that Le Doulos gets either. But it deserves that sort of attention. It is a key work in Melville’s career – kicking off what would be one of his greatest stretches of output – and it is every bit the precision masterwork that those other films are as well.

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