(1966) dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
There is no such thing as a bad Jean-Pierre Melville film as far as I can tell. From Bob le flambeur (1955), Le Doulos (1962), Le Samouraï (1967), Army of Shadows (1969), and Le Cercle rouge (1970), the French filmmaker crafted his own breed of films noir. All of his films that I have seen have been remarkable, and it’s easy to understand how his style influenced and impressed the French New Wave, with his fatalistic films about the criminal world, of doomed characters in intractable situations, and his strange traits and characteristics.
Le deuxième souffle (which roughly translates to “Second Wind”) is based on a novel by José Giovanni and offers a strange disclaimer about its treatment of the characters of both the criminal and the corrupt detective who hunts him down. The film starts with a wordless escape from prison, shot in stark angles, in which a notorious criminal known to friends and foes as “Gu” (Lino Ventura), makes good his getaway. In returning to Paris, he meets some old friends and a lover who help him hole up in preparation for leaving the country. But Gu is lured back for one last heist, but one in which he has been set up on both sides to take the fall for.
Melville used location shooting, giving a strong sensibility of Paris and Marseille, and this aspect, as well as the fatalism and tragic romance of the criminal, were so appealing to Jean-Luc Godard and others.
The opening sequence, which is quite striking, with the three men leaping over a wall (one to his death) and then racing onto a moving train and then departing company, all wordless, though not silent, is something that Melville approached in a more extreme way later in Le Cercle rouge, in which an entire 20 minute heist sequence plays out without a spoken word. And while I see reference to this style as being considered “reporting”, I think more he has a focus on the craftsman or professionalism of the criminal, process-oriented, workmanlike. While not necessarily noble souls (they are killers and thieves), they have skill, intelligence, and aspects of loyalty.
But crime does not pay, not here, nor in France. These characters are not perhaps truly tragic, just simply doomed. They never really had a chance, nor did they have another way out. What is interesting to me as well is that I started reading a more modern series of French crime novels by Jean-Claude Izzo, his series referred to as “The Marseille Trilogy”, and this film in particular strikes me as consistent with his themes and locations. These characters of the underworld who live and die by crime, walk the same streets, drive the same roads.
Melville’s films are aesthetically pleasing and engaging, really quite something. If you haven’t seen them, you should. There is much to be appreciated in this filmmaker, himself a craftsman. And perhaps one of the best of his time.