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.
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.