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Thursday, June 29, 2017

Le Deuxieme Souffle

The next film in by Jean-Pierre Melville festival is my favorite so far, an epic gangster/heist movie from 1966, Le Deuxieme Souffle (roughly translated as Second Wind). Again, as with many of his films, it takes elements of American films and gives them a distinct Gallic stamp.

There are a lot of things going on here, and it needs all of its two and a half hours to tell the story. We begin in media res, with three men breaking out of prison. But we are only concerned with one (but we don't know which one right away). He's called Gu, a notorious criminal (Lino Venturi) who goes back to Paris to join the old gang, namely his sister, Manouche (Christine Fabrega) and bodyguard Alban (Michael Constantin). At first we Constantin as just a bartender, but when gunmen burst through Fabrega's club's door, he proves a deadly shot.

That first bit is about illegal cigarette sales, and that fades into the background. There are many characters to keep track of, most of them interesting in a Dick Tracy-kind of way. My favorite is Orloff (Pierre Zimmer), the kind of crook who is smarter than the rest and isn't afraid of anything (it must take a lot of nerve to walk out of a room with your back facing a room full of gunmen).

Eventually Gru is approached by Orloff to participate in an armored car robbery that Orloff wants no part of. The film then takes on the qualities of the classic heist movie, with four men, each with their own job.

Through this all, a detective (Paul Meurisse) is on the job. He has found two thugs dead in a car, and recognizes Gru's modus operandi (they had been sent to shake down Fabrega, a bad idea when Gru is around). Meurisse is only a half step behind when the film ends satisfactorily--we can't really root against Gru: he's a vicious killer but he we spend so much time with him and he has a certain code that we can't help but start to like him--but law and order must be upheld.

This film is beautifully shot by Marcel Combes, both in Paris and in Marseilles (I've never seen a car going over a cliff that looked so well done) and Melville has full command of the pacing. When the film slows down, it does so for a reason and just makes you inch forward in your seat. We get a long scene of a man trying to find a place to hide a gun that he can get to quickly, and then another scene in which another man looks for that gun. It all pays off in one of those Mexican stand-offs that American noir is known for.

Le Deuxieme Souffle is one of the best crime films I've ever seen.

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