“Le Deuxième Souffle” – A.J. Hakari

For me, there are two primary aspects to consider when judging a film: what does it have to say, and how does it say it. A flick can succeed or even excel in one department, but it’s all for naught if it lets viewers down in the other. Case and point, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Deuxième Souffle, a French gangster noir with a hell of a story on its hands. The film’s main aim is to question the idea of honor among thieves, of whether those engaged in such seedy activities truly abide by any sort of shared moral code. Melville has a great concept to work with, but the laborious way in which Le Deuxième Souffle moves along ends up almost crippling the movie’s burgeoning coolness factor.

After being sent up the river for a heist gone wrong, Gustave “Gu” Minda (Lino Ventura) never thought he’d see the light of day again. But ten years after his imprisonment, Gu has finally escaped and is ready to join his former comrades, including gal pal Manouche (Christine Fabrega), once again. Unfortunately, he’s landed smack dab in the middle of a war between his old crew and a restaurateur (Marcel Bozzufi) eager to move in on their turf. Gu takes the pleasure of knocking off a couple of annoying hoods, but he’s not out of the woods yet. There’s still the matter of leaving Paris with enough cash to start life anew, and with no other options, Gu is coerced into taking part in a daring highway robbery. But hot on his trail is Inspector Blot (Paul Meurisse), a fast-moving and resourceful cop who’s not above resorting to underhanded tactics in order to put Gu back behind bars.

Going into Le Deuxième Souffle, I wasn’t expecting typical gangster fare. I knew from seeing a couple of Melville’s pictures beforehand that his time would be spent stripping away the layers of glamorization Hollywood features bestowed upon the criminal lifestyle. For the most part, this is true, for Le Deuxième Souffle starts the action off on a tense but somber note. Viewers quickly become acquainted with the desperation Gu feels after making his great escape, experiencing the world slowly closing in on him as he does. In fact, Gu’s journey echoes that of a character Lino Ventura also played in Classe Tous Risques, that of a criminal on the run returned home to find that his colleagues aren’t too eager to help him out. Gu has better luck, but he faces opposition not only from the rival mobster but also from Inspector Blot, whose sneaky techniques make him as much of a lowlife as the thugs he tracks down. In both cases, Ventura was born to play the part, his haunted eyes reflecting years of regrets and worldly wisdom learned from living a true hard knock life.

Casting an introspective eye on the criminal underworld is all well and good, often doing Le Deuxième Souffle a great thematic service. But it’s in moving away from overtones and towards building up an actual story that Melville makes the first of numerous missteps. Most of the time, watching the film is like watching him play Pin the Tail on the Donkey; sometimes he’s right on the mark, and other times he might as well be in Timbuktu. The trouble is that Melville’s focus is way too inconsistent. He builds up the pivotal heist sequence throughout the film’s first half, but once it’s over and done with, he just sort of meanders his way through the crime’s aftermath. You can almost see him let the camera keep on rolling as he goes off to make a sandwich or something. The film’s style and sharp look (which, thanks to the Criterion Collection’s restoration, is nothing short of gorgeous) begins to emerge as dressing that barely covers up the bitter taste left by Melville’s prolonging of the plot. Aimless scenes abound in the latter two acts, with Melville eventually losing his storytelling finesse and, disappointingly, ending the rather messy affair in an obligatory hail of bullets.

Fans of American film noir should seek out Le Deuxième Souffle, if only to see how the people who helped invent the genre tackle it head-on. The results may not be as all-around as Rififi or Quai des Orfèvres, but Le Deuxième Souffle proves that at least half of a great movie is better than all of a crappy one.

Rating: ★★½☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

Leave a Reply