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Le Deuxieme Souffle - 1966 Jean Pierre Melville


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Jean -Pierre Melville is one of France's most celebrated film makers.  A contemporary of New Wavers Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, Melville directed  crime classics such as Bob le Flambeur, Le Samourai, and Le Cercle Rouge. 


Le Deuxieme Souffle opens with a title card that reads: “A man is given but one right at birth: to choose his own death. But if he chooses because he’s weary of his own life, then his entire existence has been without meaning.”  That's pretty heavy stuff.  One could spend wonderful hours in a cafe with Sorbonne philosophy  students debating the merits of such a statement.


The film's protagonist, Gustave "Gu" Minda (the superb Lino Ventura),  shows signs of weariness.  Saying he's tired of living may be going too far.  Having escaped from prison, after being locked up for many years,  Gu wants three things out of life now that he's free: to reunite with Manouche (Christine Fabrega), his equally weary lover,  make enough money to retire from gangster life, and settle a score with rival mobster Jo Ricci (Marcel Bozzuffi).  All of these goals, as Le Deuxieme Souffle shows, are connected.


Gu has a face that's kind and menacing at the same time.  The character  precedes Don Vito Corleone, Michael Corleone, and Tony Soprano as a tortured and complex individual, as opposed to an archetype.  Melville has no interest in romanticizing gangsterism.   Gu has no qualms about killing, and he's quite good at it, as the film makes clear.  Melville  shoots Le Deuxieme Souffle in a monochromatic black & white.  He relies  on natural light, and dispenses with studio atmospherics. The sets, with the exception of the night club scenes, are quite austere. The film, in appearance, is the opposite of the magnificent high contrast black & white used by Warner Bros. and RKO in the 1940s.


Jo Ricci is a big shot in the Paris underworld, due in large part because he functions as an informant for the unscrupulous Inspector Blot (Paul Meurisse).  Rather than being uncomfortable acting as a police stool pigeon, Ricci is quite proud of it.  Indeed, he makes sure a bottle of cognac and beautiful young women are ready for when Inspector Blot pays him a visit. Jo Ricci resembles Michael Corleone in that he's a  sociopath, willing to betray his own family in the interest of business.


Manouche serves as a mother figure to Gu.  She's made enough money from the cigarette racket, in  partnership with someone named Jacques the Lawyer.  Jacques was killed by a partner of Paul Ricci (Raymond Pellegrin).  Paul owns a night club and traffics in cigarettes.  He is also Jo Ricci's brother.  Manouche is still alive thanks to Alban, a Gu loyalist and expert marksman.  Gu is too proud to live off of Manouche's  money. He ignores her plea to not pursue one last score.


A golden opportunity arrives thanks to a shadowy mercenary known as Orloff.  A truck is scheduled to transport platinum worth hundreds of millions of francs through Marseille.   Orloff backs out when he discovers the robbery involves killing police.  Orloff recruits Gu instead, who gladly accepts the chance to make 200 million francs.  The heist includes Paul Ricci, who Gu trusts, and two other lower level hoods, Pascal and Antoine.  Antoine is unstable and trigger happy;  he reminds me of Wilmer in the Maltese Falcon, played memorably by Elisha Cook Jr.


Le Deuxieme Souffle is heavy in plot twists and double crosses  that, thankfully, are not distracting or gratuitous.  Inspector Blot relies on his vast supply of mobster informants to trap Gu into confessing to the platinum robbery, and also in naming Paul Ricci as an accomplice.  Gu is on tape, but sections of the recording are left out, so that Gu appears to rat out Paul.  For Gu, this is an unforgivable offense.  Thus, in the film's third act, Gu has a new, and more important calling, think of it as goal number four: to clear his name, and make certain  everyone knows, most importantly Manouche, that he, Gu, is many things - assassin, robber, cop killer - but above all, he is absolutely not someone who squeals on his colleagues.    As for the police, Melville doesn't let them off the hook.  Marseille's dim local inspector, Fardiano, uses brutal  torture and denial of due process to extract information from Gu and Paul Ricci.


Le Deuxieme Souffle  clocks in at 2 hours and 24 minutes., with very little dead space.  The narrative moves smoothly in a tight procedural fashion.  The robbery of the platinum truck is thrilling, right up there with any Hollywood action sequence.


There's a beautiful logic to the film's ending, and to Gu's fate.  Through hard work and determination, Gu has secured 200 million illegally gained francs, exacted his bloody revenge on Jo Ricci, ensured the safety of his beloved Manouche, and cleared his good name.  This last accomplishment, ironically, was made possible by Inspector Blot, whose self-satisfied expression, as he leaves a blockbuster story for the press to write about, while lighting a cigarette, closes Le Deuxieme Souffle.


P.S. I saw the Criterion restored edition.  The sub-titles in English were very clear and easy to read.

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