Le Deuxième souffle begins with a quiet and starkly lit prison escape sequence. The credits then run over a tracking shot of the two escapees running through the nearby woods but no music accompanies the titles; instead all we hear is the steady sound of the prisoners’ footsteps pounding the earth.
Silence pervades most of the action in Le Deuxième souffle, a French gangster film where music is used sparingly and characters are reticent (it takes seven minutes for us to receive the first line of dialogue). Director Jean-Pierre Melville aspires to create organic suspense sequences where character movement is precious and the camera is respectfully observational – and boy, does it work. The film contains a much revered heist sequence where the anticipation plays out with realistic and unbearable intensity.
The title is translated in the English subtitles as “Second Wind” and as such, the film’s lead character Gu (Lino Ventura) is an aged criminal considering one final heist before retirement. Melville pays great attention to conveying why Gu, an escaped convict, would risk it all in one final caper. Faced with a life of solitude and insecurity, unable to readily leave the confines of his bed-sit and hesitant about who he can trust, it’s no surprise to see the eagerness with which Gu accepts the opportunity to participate in a plot to hijack 200 million francs worth of platinum.
On Gu’s trail is Commissaire Blot (Paul Meurisse, unforgettable as the adulterous headmaster in Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques) who anticipates Gu’s return to crime from the outset: “He was very rich once, now he’s poor. He won’t leave France like that if there’s another option, and there’s always another option.” The film unfolds in inconsistent alternations between Gu’s reintegration into the crime world and Blot’s investigation, plot strands that eventually intersect following the execution of the heist.
While the film’s title and first half hour imply that middle-age is the film’s major theme, the final third suggests the primary interest to be an exploration of the line between cop and criminal – a theme that has intrigued cinema for decades. Le Deuxième souffle does not suggest that cop and criminal are interchangeable – as is currently en vogue (The Departed, Miami Vice, even The Fast and the Furious) – but rather presents a commonality in the bleakness of their respective professions.
Meuisse gives the more personable performance in my opinion, but the film favors the character of Gu by showing that he does have a life outside of his profession. Conversely, Blot is depicted as clinical and perpetually on the beat. He seems to have no existence or interests that lie outside of the law, particularly evident when we see him impervious to the charms of two sultry vixens. Gu at least has a life of his own, even if it is a vapid and depressing existence.
In terms of narrative convention, Blot could easily qualify as the film’s villain. As depicted on screen, Blot is interested only in business and when he pops up in the narrative, it’s in order to foil the protagonist. He’s even seen resorting to duplicitous and nefarious means to capture his man. But then, it’s all in the name of justice and after all, Gu is a notorious criminal who has showed no remorse for the dead – a point the film tellingly acknowledges when a character queries him, “What of the two officer you killed, are you going to adopt their five children?”
While it presents an interesting display of the obsession required to be a police officer, it does so in a matter-of-fact way rather than a penetrating way, which leaves the film feeling a bit unfinished. As Blot is rendered with only hints of a personality, the scenes with Gu overshadow him considerably and the imbalance becomes burdensome on the film’s considerable but unevenly distributed running time. The film could have done with either an increase or a decrease in the amount of time spent with Blot.
More controlled than the crime films of fellow French New Wave directors Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut (or even Melville’s own earlier work Bob le flambeur), Le Deuxième souffle still belongs in the same annals of French gangster pictures inspired by the Hollywood work of the likes of Howard Hawkes and William Wyler (even if Melville didn’t appreciate such grouping, as evidenced on the DVD’s archival footage from a 1966 segment of the French television program Cinéma). The relationship between the American gangster film and the French gangster film has come to resemble an intriguing sort of feedback loop over the past half-century.
While Le Deuxième souffle and its ilk are unabashedly inspired by classic American film noirs like The Asphalt Jungle, a more recent film like Michael Mann’s Heat owes an undeniable debt to specific sequences in Le Deuxième souffle but owes considerably less to The Asphalt Jungle in particular. It’s been a fascinating and mutually beneficial relationship for the two national cinemas and one can only hope this give-and-take pattern will continue to thrive in the future.
The new Criterion Collection release marks the first time Le Deuxième souffle is available on DVD in the US. The most interesting special feature is an audio commentary track by two of Britain’s most popular film scholars – Geoff Andrew and Ginette Vincendeau. Vincendaeau, originally of French nationality, wrote the book Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris and imparts her wide knowledge of film history in brilliantly articulate and lucid comments. Unlike most scholarly commentaries, Andrew and Vincendeau have been recorded simultaneously rather than having their comments spliced together from separate sessions in post-production. The result is a smooth-flowing commentary where the scholars’ insights into the film build upon each other without becoming either a friendly chat or a dueling argument.
Vincendeau dubs Melville’s style “discrete virtuosity”, a reference to the way he constructed hugely elaborate sequences with complex camerawork but orchestrated them so subtly that it takes multiple viewings to recognize the craftsmanship. There’s a remarkable depth to his style, but I’m not entirely convinced it reflects a depth in the film. I couldn’t find a narrative corollary to seeing a deceased character slumped up against a mirror or the necessity of Blot’s exposition unfolding in a single long take.
Nevertheless, they were certainly impressive shots that deserve recognition for avoiding ostentation. Vincendeau hits the nail on the head by pinpointing his style as such and it’s specifically this quality that makes Melville a hugely entertaining – if not eternally fascinating – director to study.