Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Deuxième Souffle has long been one of my favorite Melville films, since I tracked down a 16mm print and presented it in the campus film series at the University of Oregon in the mid-1980s. I watched it twice, then twice again at the Sanctuary in Scarecrow, which for a brief , glorious period was the smallest screening room in the city of Seattle. Criterion rescued the film from near oblivion, at least as far as the U.S. is concerned, with their excellent DVD edition. I explore the film and the DVD for the Turner Classic Movies website.
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.
That criminal elder is Gustave ‘Gu’ Minda, played by stocky, broad-shouldered Lino Ventura, an icon of French crime cinema (including such classics as Touchez pas au grisbi and Classe tous risques) and the very model of stoic professionalism. Our first glimpse reveals 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, whether it’s a pair of two-bit thugs who try to rob Manouche (Christine Fabrega), Gu’s former lover and trusted friend (she’s referred to as his “sister,” which is slang for mistress), or a motorcycle cop guarding an armored car with a shipment of platinum. But he’s also resigned to his fate: “I gambled and I lost,” he shrugs when Manouche tries to cheer him up.
Read the complete piece on the TCM website here.