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.