Jean Pierre Melville, Le Deuxième souffle

Written by Joe D on October 27th, 2007

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Good Luck trying to see this one! I was able to see it last night at the American Cinematheque aka The Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Blvd. next door to the famous Pig & Whistle. It was great, such a treat to see a beautifully shot Black and White movie on a big screen.
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The opening is a study in economy and atmosphere as three men make a break from a prison. The image is very dark and the setting stark, a few high walls, a watch tower with spotlight, some guards walking a narrow alley between the high walls. One of the three escapees dies in the attempt. The other two make it and after running through a deserted forest board a moving freight train. the older of the two almost doesn’t make it, he’s helped by the younger guy, who pulls him onto the moving train. Gus( Lino Ventura) lies there struggling to catch his breath and we feel for the man, getting older, on the run, with nothing in his pockets. Maybe this is illustrative of the title The Second Breath or second wind, where after being exhausted one gets a renewed burst of energy. Gus will soon put this energy to use but first we are plunged into a vortex of underworld connections, deals, murder, police procedures, and in the process we meet the rest of the players in this drama.

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Manouche with Inspector Blot

Manouche ( Christine Fabréga ) runs a chic Parisian restaurant, she is very concerned when she learns of Gus’s escape. Is she his girlfriend? An ex-lover? No, she is in fact his sister and their relationship is an intriguing and unique one.

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The Great Melville!

In Melville by Rui Nogueria, Melville says that in French gangster slang “sister” is a term for girlfriend. I believe Manouche is really Gu’s sister but the implied incest adds a compelling dimension to their relationship and Melville says “If I’ve let it be understood that Manouche is Gu’s sister, it’s because of the Enfants Terribles part of me- or rather because of the great homonyms Pierre or the Ambiguities.”
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A Great Book, Rare these days!

We also meet Inspector Blot (Paul Meurisse) a wise and very human police chief. He comes across almost as a father figure trying to understand these criminals and guide them to justice rather than smash them to bloody bits. He respects their code of ethics, maybe even admires them. He first appears in a tour-de-force scene right after a murder, where he explains how each witness didn’t see anything. It’s a long, complicated scene with a lot of movement and it’s done in one take. Brilliant!

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Figures In A Landscape
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Setting Up The Heist

There’s also a armored car heist, pulled off with calculated ruthlessness that includes the cold blooded assassination of two motorcycle cops. Brutal.
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These Masks will appear in Melville’s Masterpiece- Le Circle Rouge

And a torture scene, like something from Melville’s resistance film Army Of Shadows.
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Give Him A Drink!

Except in this film it’s the French police doing the torturing. The censors didn’t like that so the scene fades out as the torture starts and fades in when it’s over. We have stills of the missing footage but can’t someone locate the original footage and restore it to the way Melville intended? It must exist somewhere, even just a workprint. It would be a wonderful addition to a great film.
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A Still From The Missing Scene

The end of the film has an element reminiscent of Out Of The Past. When Gu lies dying, his last word is “Manouche!”. Later when Manouche asks Inspector Blot if Gu said anything, he says “No”. Trying to free her from a hopeless obsession. Like the deaf boy in Out Of The Past telling Jeff’s girl Jeff wasn’t coming back for her but was running off with the other woman when he was killed. A beautiful touch, one of the greatest endings in Cinema. This film was made at Studio Jenner. Melville’s own film studio in Paris. Unfortunately it burned a few years later and I understand there is no trace of it left today. I don’t think that Rue Jenner even exists. What a shame.
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Lino Ventura, He and Melville didn’t get along but they made great films together

Le Deuxième souffle has never been released here in the USA. It’s not available on DVD here (I think it is in France). I was fortunate enough to see it through the good graces of the excellent programmers at The American Cinematheque during their French Crime Series. See it if you can. And to those that don’t think much of this film I can only say, open your eyes, you’re missing the Cinematic Part.
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4 Comments so far ↓

  1. Jan
    7
    10:47
    AM
    Karan

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  2. May
    15
    3:41
    PM
    Lichanos

    Just watched this on the Criterion DVD - I linked to your post from mine. The ambiguity about siblings is interesting - I had trouble with it in Army of Shadows.

    Thanks for the deleted still! In that scene, I was wondering what was the wicker thing one guy was holding!

    Good point about Gu’s last words and the Mute Kid too!

  3. Oct
    19
    2:55
    PM
    Melville

    Rue Jenner still exsists ! I live there.

  4. Oct
    28
    11:00
    AM
    Joe D

    What’s it like on Rue Jenner?

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