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Criterion Collection: Le Deuxieme Souffle

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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
A prison escape, a heist, and a Colt .45 Oct. 9 2008
By Doug Anderson - Published on Amazon.com
Format: DVD
Film noir master Jean-Pierre Melville's 1966 2 hr. and 24 min. mob epic has everything you want to see in a Melville film: a prison escape sequence, gangland violence, cool jazz clubs with leggy blondes, Colt .45's, fedoras, crime bosses putting together crews to pull off big jobs (in this case 1 billion in platinum bars), an intricately planned and executed heist sequence, stakeouts, hideouts, double-crosses, betrayals, brutal interrogations involving torture, revenge, and, most importantly, memorable characters (on both sides of the law) who live by their own private codes.

Its very hard to imagine what the careers of Coppola, Scorsese, Friedkin, Woo, and Tarantino (to name just a handful of Melville's progeny) would be were it not for the hard-hitting but cool film noirs of Melville who provided the archetypes and templates for virtually every mob film to follow. But the pleasures of Melville's films are many and no single filmaker that followed Melville into this genre (that he didn't invent but that he certainly elevated) exercises his craft with as sure a hand and with as much integrity as Melville himself. This is due to the fact that Melville brought to the highly formulaic genre of film noir his experience as a resistance fighter in WWII and so when he puts together a murder sequence, an interrogation sequence, or any number of sequences involving men doing battle with their conscience and with each other there is a realism (albeit a highly stylized realism) and an authenticity that is anything but formulaic. His imitators have made great films which can be appreciated and celebrated for their own specific merits, but no other filmaker seems to own this genre and the characters that inhabit it the way Melville does.

In the opening sequence Gustave "Gu" Minda (Lino Ventura: who looks like a cross between Fellini at 65 & DeNiro at 45) breaks out of prison with the help of two accomplices. Though a mere 46, "Gu" seems old like an old man who can barely muster the energy or will to scale the last wall. The stark austerity of the prison with its formidable concrete walls that stretch high into the sky is like a huge and dehumanizing labyrinth of stone and living within these walls for so many years seems to have taken the life out of him and aged him well beyond his years. One of the younger men dies when he falls from one of the walls. Once freed, the other two flee into the woods and jump on to a moving train. Its a thrilling beginning, and we are holding our breath the whole way. Throughout the sequence all we hear are the sounds of the men busily working to accomplish each task necessary to free themselves, and then, once outside the prison, all we hear are the sounds of their newly liberated feet crunching leaves on the forest floor. We feel their exhileration. The entire sequence is like a highly condensed version of Bresson's A Man Escaped. And all before the opening credits roll.

With this first masterful sequence we know immediately that we have been delivered into the hands of a master cinematic craftsman. At 2 and a half hours we know its going to be a long ride but we also know that there's no better director to spend 2 and half hours with.

I bought this film along with Le Doulos. I watched Le Doulos first, and, although enjoyable, it was fairly slight. Le Doulos is an appealing jazz duet featuring two thinly-imagined players for the most part and a clever and well-executed plot but overall the film didn't pack much of a punch compared to the one delivered by this fully realized jazz symphony which features a cast of twelve fully realized players who are all given considerable screen attention and a labyrinthine plot that puts these lives into contact with each other in extremely compelling, and, more often than not, deadly ways.

The fate of the other escapee eventually does figure into the story and in a profound way, but this is Gu's story. Once he finds his way back to Paris he immediately seeks out his sister Sophie Manouche. In our first glimpse of Manouche we learn that she runs a club and while shes talking to her business partner, Jacques the Lawyer, at the clubs bar three thugs rush in and start shooting up the place. Manouche's bodyguard, Alban, squeezes off a few expertly placed shots to fend them off but not before Jacques takes a bellyful of lead. This brings Inspector Bloc (Paul Meurisse, who will later appear in Melville's masterpiece Army of Shadows) onto the scene. When Bloc begins asking questions no one's talking, but Bloc is a cool inspector who knows how to read men as well as evidence and he knows exactly what happened, who did it, and why.

Bloc knows everyone, and he understands the code of silence that governs the underworld. He also knows how these characters operate, their signature moves, as well as what they will do before they do it. Gu may be the most notorious underworld criminal of his day and his name may command immediate respect, but Bloc's name is equally respected and equally feared. We know that it is only a matter of time until these two face off. That is unless the unscrupulous Inspector Fardiano (who is not so respectful of the thieves'--or any other--code of honor) doesn't catch up with Gu first.

Meanwhile, Paul Ricci is busy putting together a team in order to pull off a major heist. Paul Ricci is acting on a tip from "Nevada" (an old-timer who wears dark shades and a stetson and drives a huge black cadillac, all Melville signatures) who has the inside scoop on exactly when and where an armored truck will be moving 1 billion in platinum. Paul belongs to the higher class of gangster (the kind who live by an unspoken code of honor) but Paul's brother Jo belongs to the lower class of gangster (the kind who don't). Paul recruits Antoine the Gypsy and Pascal and for a fourth he attempts to hire a cool blonde pro named Orloff who is the very model of the independent consummate professional that Melville would focus on in his next film, Le Samourai. When Orloff hears that two motorcycle cops must be dispatched he decides the job is too risky. Knowing that Gu needs a big score quick so that he can elude the everpresent Bloc and disappear once and for all to Miami, Orloff passes the job on to him. Neither Orloff nor Gu trust Paul or his crew but Gu has no choice but to take the job.

As you would expect, the heist sequence, which takes place high in the mountains, is exquisitely choreographed and exquisitely shot by Melville. But, as masterful as this sequence is, its only one of several exquisite scenes in this impressive film.

Highly recommended.

DVD extras: Includes archival footage of Jean-Pierre Melville (wearing dark shades) flanked by Lino Ventura and Paul Meurisse sitting at a bar together and answering questions about Le Deuxieme Souffle for a French television program. The interview lasts a mere three minutes but its very cool to see and hear Melville speak about the crime genre not getting the respect it deserves from the French and to hear Ventura and Meurisse discuss their parts.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
The Ventura advantage Nov. 2 2008
By J. A. Eyon - Published on Amazon.com
Format: DVD
One of the chief merits of this film is having Lino Ventura as star instead of the more glamorous Belmondo or Delon (Melville's typical choices). Ventura has no veneer. His hangdog face and stocky body give an authenticity and grittiness to it -- even in the midst of the usual Melville iconography of trenchcoats, American cars, and jazz. And, unlike the other two actors, he naturally embodies the fatalism that's a vital part to this story.

This is probably my favorite of Melville's gangster films. It's a study of loyalties (based on a novel by José Giovanni) and it has more depth than his other gangster films. Best of all, it has characters that are intelligent and capable -- forcing them to engage in battles of wits before they can engage in gunplay.

There's Blot, the Police Inspector (personified by Paul Meurisse), who possesses a Sherlock Holmesian cleverness. There's the mysterious Orloff (Pierre Zimmer) whose quiet skill seems to be a precursor to Alain Delon's role in Melville's next movie, LE SAMOURAÏ. And even Manouche (Christine Fabrega) is proactive altho her primary purpose is to provide an emotional center for the film.

There are many tense, engrossing episodes in this 2 hr 10 min film which make the slow spots that bridge them seem less like slow spots.

My thanks to Criterion for making this fine film available. That makes 11 Jean-Pierre Melville films that I've seen. 3 to go.

The Criterion DVD has a detailed film commentary by Melville expert Ginette Vincendeau and British film critic Geoff Andrew. Bertrand Tavernier speaks in English of his experiences with Melville. And there's a short piece made on Melville at the time of this film's production.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Not one of Melville's best, but not without its moments Oct. 11 2009
By Trevor Willsmer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: DVD Verified Purchase
Jean-Pierre Melville's adaptation of José Giovanni's Deuxieme Souffle is a classic example of a good story badly told. Running two-and-a-half hours and feeling even longer at times, this story of Lino Ventura's escaped convict getting disastrously mixed up in the proverbial one last job to set him up with enough money to escape to Sicily is not exactly a model of narrative economy as the exposition heavy first two hours are filled with characters speculating at length on scenes we've just seen without ever shining any new light on them. Initially this works surprisingly well as Paul Meurisse's casually brilliant been-there, done-that cop, the real star of the show, explains exactly the story various witnesses will tell at a crime scene for them to save the trouble of interrogating them, but increasingly it just becomes repetitive and slows the picture down to a surprisingly dull crawl. It's not until the last quarter that the film finally threatens to kick start into life as Ventura is tricked into revealing the identity of one of his cohorts and tries desperately to prove that he's no stoolpigeon with both the cops and the gang after his blood. His obsession proving that he's not a collaborator certainly may have had some wartime resonance for a French audience, but more up to date references were left on the cutting from floor thanks to the notorious French censor cuts that saw a police torture scene cut to almost incomprehensibility to remove shots of a suspect being force fed water, a favorite torture technique of the French paratroops and police in Algeria.

That the film's most notorious scene isn't actually in the picture any more is telling for a film that plays better in the memory than while you're actually watching it. While there are occasional hints of Melville's better pictures - those omnipresent trenchcoats and hats, the opening prison break played out in silence, a railway station shot anticipating one in L'Armee des Ombres - it's a distinctly minor film padded out to an epic length it never justifies. There are the odd moments that intrigue, such as one character rehearsing the ways a meeting can go wrong to know where to stash hidden weapons only for one of the hoods he's meeting to do exactly the same thing, but they rarely pay off, while the characters on the wrong side of the law are never quite iconic enough to carry the film over the rough patches. Only Pierre Zimmer's Orloff is particularly admirable, but he's more a facilitator than a protagonist, accurately described by one character, as "all style, no action." While the line might seem a suitable description for Melville, the film isn't that stylish either: with no Henri Decae or Nicholas Hayer behind the lens this time (Marcel Combes was the cinematographer) it often looks no better than the average French polar of the era. It's the kind of film that could certainly benefit from a good remake with a tighter script, though whether the recent Daniel Auteuil version is an improvement remains to be seen.

Criterion's Region 1 NTSC DVD offers a fine transfer with a good selection of extras.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Really brilliant stuff from Mssr. Melville... March 12 2009
By Grigory's Girl - Published on Amazon.com
Format: DVD
This film is another brilliant chapter in one of the most unique, fascinating filmmakers that the country of France ever produced. It's a very leisurely film, running 2 1/2 hours, yet it's never boring, and that isn't one wasted frame in the whole thing. It's a very exciting film, because unlike most Hollywood films, you usually can guess who's going to live and who's going to die (the stars in Hollywood films rarely ever die, and if they do, they choreograph it so you know ahead of time). The film has excellent characterisations that feel like real people, not just gangsters (in reality, the characters here are thieves, not the modern "gangster"). The performances are brilliantly understated and very memorable (Melville, for all his visual style, was a great director of actors). When you watch this film, you see the homages (or rip offs) that many modern films take from Melville. The final shootout is reminiscent of the shootout in Reservoir Dogs, and the loyalty and moral codes of the thieves is reminiscent of John Woo's work (Woo has acknowledged Melville as a huge influence). But Woo (and especially Tarantino, whose work can be fun but is very shallow) doesn't capture the milleu of these men that Melville does, they don't have his style, and they don't write the great dialogue that Melville does. Woo does action sequences much more elaborate than Melville does (Woo is a master at action sequences), but he misses a lot underneath the surface, whereas Melville is all under the surface. Le Deuxieme Souffle is a sad, haunting, cynical, yet tender film, a film that is downbeat but doesn't enjoy showing you its sadness and cynicism (like a lot of modern day filmmakers do).

I have seen many Melville films (this one, Le Cercle Rouge, Army of Shadows, Le Samourai), and they are all amazing. This is one of his most memorable works.
4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Another of Melville's existential thugs struggling with the Code, and with 144 minutes to do it in Nov. 8 2008
By C. O. DeRiemer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: DVD
Nearly two-and-a-half hours is a long, long time in the movies, especially so when Jean-Pierre Melville is once more demonstrating his passion for hard boiled gangsters. With Le Deuxieme Souffle (Second Breath), it seems to me that Melville has given us some extraordinary set pieces of heists, shoot-outs and chases...including one roll-along-the-floor-while-shooting-a-gun-in-each-hand-and-plugging-all-the-guys-who-were-going-to-plug-you that now has become a pretty-boy-actor-as-tough-guy cliché. They are embedded, however, in an over-long story featuring yet one more of Melville's existential heroes that he came to obsess about. Melville underlines it all with his stoic gangster code of conduct, illustrated by the pretentious words that start this movie: "A man is given but one right at birth: To choose his own death. But if he chooses because he's weary of life, then his entire existence has been without meaning." Let me tell you something...nothing, nothing will go right as long as Gu Manda, cold-blooded murderer with a soft spot for Manouche, believes his buddies think he ratted them out. The Code won't permit it.

Is this to deny that Melville was a great director? Hardly, but it is to recognize that Melville was human: He didn't always make great movies; his preoccupation with gangsters and their fictitious code of conduct was limiting; his indulgence in what passes as "style" in the gangster milieu could appear, in my opinion, downright silly; and as a screenwriter he was capable of some corny gangster dialogue (or at least he was ill-served at times by the subtitle writers). With all this, the director who could give us Army of Shadows, with its terrible themes, its remorselessness and its humanity, is a great director. The director who could give us Bob le Flambeur, with its irony, its humanity and its tight, story-telling prowess, is a great director with a sense of humor. Watch Army of Shadows - Criterion Collection and Bob le Flambeur - Criterion Collection (and Le Cercle Rouge (The Red Circle) - Criterion Collection) first, then Le Deuxieme Souffle and Le Samourai - Criterion Collection...and come to your own conclusions. The devil of it with Le Deuxieme Souffle is that great stretches of the movie are gripping, Lino Ventura (with that hard, tired face) and Paul Meurisse are first-rate and Melville never lets us have less than a superbly presented series of scenes. But, in my opinion, his series of scenes, some lengthy, don't add up to a tightly realized movie, especially at over two-and-a-half hours.

Gu Manda (Lino Ventura) is a cop-killing gangster who has just broken out of prison. Gangsters he knows have been moving in on his turf. Two hoods threaten Manouche, his long-time girl friend (Christine Fabrega), in her apartment. Gu intervenes, and with a friend drives the hoods to the country. Gu guns them down in the car. Inspector Blot is after Gu. Blot is resourceful and relentless. Gu has no money. He's determined on one last heist with a big payday before he and Manouche flee France. Inspector Blot will not make things easy. When Gu realizes his honor has been compromised, he won't leave France until he sets things straight. Don't expect a happy ending. With Melville's code of the existential gangster, there never is.

While the plot is simple, Melville embellishes it with any number of twists and turns, sneaky actions, a coincidence or two and some satisfying betrayals, plus a long, extremely well-done set piece on how to hi-jack a van full of platinum. In this gangster movie there is no gangster arm candy, only Manouche. Fabrega was 35 when the movie was released. Lino Ventura was 47. Through the alchemy of genes and make-up, they make their characters about same age. Fabrega looks her years and is all the more believable because of this desirable maturity. She gives to Gu what little sympathy we have for him. It would be difficult to say -- between Ventura with Gu's grim, murderous honor and Meurisse with Blot's sardonic realism and intelligence -- who gives the film more interest. It might depend on your tolerance for thug killers who agonize about their reputations.

At any rate, Le Deuxieme Souffle is worth seeing. Judge it for yourself. The Criterion release looks very good.