Early in Le Deuxième Souffle, police investigator Blot (Paul Meurisse) preemptively details the various phony-baloney stories some criminals involved in a shootout plan to tell, though the crooks’ threadbare tall tales still prove successful at keeping them out of the slammer. Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1966 film functions in a similar fashion, its story a compendium of well-known, somewhat tired characters, situations and tropes that the director nonetheless utilizes effectively, and thrillingly. In its most basic outline, the plot concerns Gu (Lino Ventura), a thief who breaks out of prison and both commits murder to protect his devoted sister Manouche (Christine Fabréga) and partakes in an armored car robbery for 200 million francs. As with most of the French auteur’s noirs, however, the ensuing action defies easy summarization, so unstable and evolving are all of its underworld figures’ allegiances to each other.
Written with José Giovanni (based on his novel), Melville’s film is another of his meditations on predestination, with Gu’s plans to escape from the cops (and France) as futile as any would-be stabs at fleeing his fundamental self, an existential endeavor the roughneck doesn’t for a second even consider, so convinced is he that only death awaits. Gu’s criminal code of ethics (don’t rat, don’t betray) is also typical Melville, though the director’s handling of these pet themes is, compared to Le Doulos or Le Samouräi, occasionally more sluggish than scintillating, thanks mainly to a script that indulges in a few too many silent, protracted sequences that are gripping in the abstract but, strung together, hinder momentum. Taken as a series of bravura showcases for the director’s unparalleled modulation of tone, rhythm, texture and mood, however, Le Deuxième Souffle smolders, its portentous fatalism generated from hyper-composed camerawork and an experimental jazz score that help couch the proceedings in a nowhere-world situated between dream and reality.
Characteristic of Melville’s crime canon, the film’s rigorously mannered aesthetic creates a decidedly artificial environment, and yet that environment is so meticulously, thoroughly realized that it’s breathtakingly immersive. And at no point does Melville’s blend of the natural and the self-consciously synthetic produce greater results than during the centerpiece heist, during which the director’s masterful command of cinematic grammar—especially his dazzlingly swift transitions in perspective—proves both viscerally and intellectually heady.
While the competent anamorphic widescreen transfer may not be Criterion's finest hour, it's nonetheless far superior to any previous home-theater presentation of Melville's film. Shadows are reasonably sinister and contrast is strong, though a bit of edge enhancement does creep into some scenes, and-worse still-sporadic print blemishes (including one faded vertical tear near film's end) are present. The mono soundtrack, meanwhile, merely serves its purpose, delivering dialogue and Melville's jazzy score with clean, clear efficiency.
Ginette Vincendeau, author of Jean-Pierre Meelville: An American in Paris, and BFI film critic Geoff Andrew are the stars of the disc's primary supplement, an audio commentary in which everything under the sun (regarding Melville and the film) is touched upon, from the director's style and themes to production information. In a newly recorded 12-minute interview, director Bertrand Tavernier, who worked as a publicity agent on Le Deuxième Souffle, dully chats about his memories of the project. After that, it's to the archives-namely, one four-minute clip of Melville, Lino Ventura and Paul Meurisse quickly discussing the film while sitting at a bar on set, and a more in-depth 26-minute TV interview with Melville and Ventura in which the director once again shows that wearing sunglasses inside can, in fact, be cool. A trailer, as well as a booklet essay by film critic Adrian Danks, is also included.
Le Deuxième Souffle may be second-tier Melville, but in terms of noir, that still makes it virtually second to none.