Le Deuxième Souffle Review
French director Jean-Pierre Melville had a particular affinity for American films, none more so than the gangster-themed ones of the '30s and '40s. It would seem that he admired their economy and grit, and probably appreciated the self-imposed tenets adhered to by the men who were, undoubtedly, ruthless criminals. Before Hollywood began enforcing the Production Code in 1934, the criminal protagonists who gave James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson their signature roles were often painted as sympathetic figures. The glamourisation ostensibly stopped after the Code came in, and the movie stars were forced to join the more law-abiding team on the big screen, but every now and then a psychological undercurrent was slyly added in films like High Sierra and White Heat that only made the characters more compelling. Melville seemed to take an interest in combining the gangster films from the early, pre-Code 1930s with the later pictures where the protagonist tended to be more fully fleshed out and tragically flawed. Like his invented name, the French director took from distinctly American popular art and joined his own Gallic flair and sensibility. The result was a remarkable string of crime films that somehow resemble the cinematic attributes of both countries, retaining the strengths of each.
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.
Melville decides to take his time deliberately exploring each and every facet of this escaped convict and the company he keeps. Playing Gustave "Gu" Minda, Lino Ventura shows why he and Alain Delon were the two ideal halves of Melville's cinematic personality. Ventura is tough, but cool and both stoic and street smart. The viewer trusts Ventura's instincts and actively wishes for Gu's wellbeing regardless of his misdeeds on screen. From this film on, all of the Stetson-wearing director's movies starred either Ventura or Delon, and it doesn't seem coincidental that they all rank (with the possible exception of Un flic) among his very best. Ventura obviously possessed a weariness not present in either Delon or Jean-Paul Belmondo, who collaborated with Melville three times. He lets Gu Minda be slightly vulnerable in the presence of Manouche (Christine Fabrega) and silently commanding otherwise. When Gu really comes into his own during the film's second half, Ventura gives him the perfect mix of determination and cold intelligence necessary to fully form the character. The car ride with Inspector Fardiano (Paul Frankeur) seems to tell us most everything we need to know about Gu.
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.
Whether this was realised by Melville seems absolutely up for debate. There's a comment made on Criterion's Le doulos release something to the effect that the people Melville insisted on populating his films with were largely despicable creatures. For the most part, I don't agree since I find Delon's characters in Le samouraï and Le cercle rouge to be completely sympathetic despite their chosen paths. Similarly, the titular protagonist in Bob le Flambeur bleeds charismatic warmth in a field full of devious scarecrows. Where Melville could let such seemingly perverse characters excel in our mind's eye was in their unflappable devotion to codes of professionalism and camaraderie. Jef Costello was an assassin, but he did it on his own terms. If I was an assassin, I like to think I'd be like him. The same goes with Delon in Le cercle rouge or Ventura in Army of Shadows and so on. Melville's best films let the audience identify and then align themselves with the protagonists. That they're criminals eventually seems unimportant.
It's unfortunately a small bit less convincing in Le deuxième souffle. Gu is deeply entrenched as being a criminal, without apology at the lack of rehabilitation. Other than Ventura's performance, the character is redeemed solely by the devotion of Manouche. Once again, Melville lets a female character play an important role that belies his reputation. The humanity displayed by Manouche is infectious without being overdone or forced, and this is yet more evidence that Melville was merely less concerned with females but hardly uninterested or deaf to their conflicts. There's a sense that Manouche obviously shouldn't be so invested in Gu, yet that injection of rationality entirely sidesteps ideas of love and the ensuing devotion we accept when emotion overrules logic. She's the one who provides the heartbreak. If the viewer can't attach himself or herself to Gu then we can at least hope he stays safe for Manouche's sake.
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.
Released concurrently with Melville's earlier Le doulos, Criterion's edition of Le deuxième souffle marks the film's debut in R1. It's still unreleased in the UK. Though Criterion lists the running time at 144 minutes, it actually measures 150 minutes.
The 1.66:1 image has been transferred progressively and enhanced for widescreen televisions. A troublesome amount of grain mars the deeply shaded opening scenes and the contrast, almost consistently set to grey throughout, nearly looks green at times early on. Some noise is also detectable at various points in the film. Things do settle down after the first couple of reels thankfully, and the quality rebounds enough to earn a good recommendation. One thing that does persistently recur is a few speckles of damage in the same exact area, near the top middle of the frame. There isn't any other real damage to speak of here, but those almost constant speckles can be seen frequently. I genuinely trust Criterion enough with situations like this to be confident that the problem lies more in the source print than the work done for the transfer. Several films of this vintage and older in Criterion's catalog look significantly better on the whole, but there's nothing in this presentation that's overly problematic.
Audio is a Dolby Digital mono track in French and with optional English subtitles that are white in colour. Unlike Le doulos, there isn't an obvious, though mild, hiss in the track. Dialogue, score, and sound effects all come through nicely despite the inherent limitations of mono.
The extra features for Le deuxième souffle are a modest improvement over the disappointing lot found on Criterion's Le doulos release. For starters, there's a full-length commentary here, with duties shared by Melville scholar Ginette Vincendeau and film critic Geoff Andrew. Having two voices on the track helps keep things interesting as they mostly trade comments back and forth instead of engaging in a traditional conversation. The statements are certainly informed and thought-provoking, though sometimes they seem to follow a lot of the conventional wisdom regarding Melville (not surprising since Vincendeau is one of the few authorities on the director). Keeping with the idea that Melville disfavoured female characters, Andrew at one point declares Manouche irrelevant while Vincendeau agrees but then immediately says she's also crucial. Yet, the track isn't at all contentious between the commentators, and they do well to at least not give the impression that they're reading from prepared notes. It's a bit of a time investment to go through a two and a half hour film again with the commentary on, but I found this one to be worth the effort both in the material discussed and the presentation used.
Criterion also provides a new interview (11:37) with Bertrand Tavernier, publicist for the film. Done for the same session as his Le doulos contribution, Tavernier here discusses Le deuxième souffle, the film's reaction, and his personal experiences with it. Not quite as enlightening as the other time spent with Tavernier, but still highly entertaining for fans of Melville.
A pair of supplements both billed as archival interviews could hardly be more different. The first (4:01), taken from a 1966 episode of a French television programme, shows some behind the scenes footage and has brief discussions with Lino Ventura, Melville, and Paul Meurisse, who are all three sitting at barstools with their backs to the camera except when speaking. This excerpt also incorrectly puts Mel Ferrer as being in the cast based on a visit he apparently made to the set. Perhaps Ferrer was originally intended to be in the film, but he's nowhere to be seen in the finished product.
The second (25:51) of these older pieces is much better, also running longer and digging deeper into Melville's inability to play well with others. The director is interviewed at length in his office at Studio Jenner. He talks about the perils of being the so-called "father of the New Wave" and how he became interested in film from an early age. Lino Ventura is also interviewed, and though he's given less time there's some considerable depth to the ideas discussed in terms of Ventura's acting. The line Melville has to end the episode sounds almost like one of the favoured aphorisms that often begin his films.
Closing out the disc's extras is a theatrical trailer (2:19) for Le deuxième souffle. A sixteen-page booklet (as opposed to the thin folded insert for Le doulos) contains an essay by Adrian Danks and sits inside the transparent keepcase.
With Le deuxième souffle, there's a sense that Jean-Pierre Melville was establishing boundaries of what he was capable of in terms of length and plotting. Like the later masterpiece Le cercle rouge, he has a plot that's greatly ballooned into near obscurity and the idea thus becomes for a focus on the process over the scenario. In doing so, it's distilled to the very essence of the matter. Taking a plot previously best summed up by an 80-minute Hollywood gangster movie and transforming it into 150 minutes of extremely precise calculation where most everything from the exciting to the banal gets equal time can be rightly viewed as risky. Yet, I like that Melville took these chances and that he finally found a niche to explore and eventually master. His earlier films are frequently exceptional and it would be a mistake to think he could only tackle projects revolving around criminals, but in Le deuxième souffle you can see how he continued to build on Le doulos and ended up making Le samouraï just a year later. There's a lot of ambition in this film and it's turned out quite impressively. Ditto Criterion's introduction of it to DVD.