50 Years Ago This Week – Another Masterpiece from Jean-Pierre Melville
Jean-Pierre Melville’s ninth feature film, Le Deuxieme Souffle, premiered in Paris on November 1, 1966. The nominal plot – prison break, world-weary gangster, impossible heist, inevitable unraveling – sounds like standard-issue fare. But in Melville’s hands . . . in Melville’s hands . . . these basic and familiar elements are molded into nothing short of a masterpiece, as I have previously insisted. A movie about loyalty, honor, and destiny, it stars the great Lino Ventura as Gu Minda, outlaw on the run, and the sublime Paul Meurisse as Commissioner Blot, the cop charged with tracking him down.
Le Deuxieme Souffle is based on a novel by Jose Giovanni, a character of, let’s say, questionable repute—he lingered for a few months in a post-war French prison awaiting execution before his sentence was commuted to eight years hard labor. Those death row experiences put him in the company of some of France’s most notorious criminals; a gifted listener (probably the best strategy given his surroundings) years later Giovanni poured their stories into his fiction. In fact, Ventura played one of these gangsters twice—the protagonist of Claude Sautet’s Classe Tous Risques, Abel, was inspired by the same underworld figure that formed the basis for Gu. (Ventura’s killers comport themselves with his characteristic nobility and grace, attributes that one suspects were shaped more by the visions of Sautet and Melville than by what the source material had to offer.)
Le Deuxieme Souffle is not an easy movie to follow, especially on first viewing; it involves overlapping schemes that come to entangle interconnected criminal groups operating in Paris and Marseilles. Here’s some advice: don’t get all obsessed with the plot-points, you’ll just end up whispering along with Jerry. (After multiple viewings, I can assure you that it does all add up.) Better to just sit back and enjoy, and marvel at things like the bravura five-minute shot of Commissioner Blot, displaying quite a sharp wit as he reconstructs a crime scene, or the riveting heist sequence, or an easy dozen other brilliant set-pieces—each immaculately constructed, and brought to life by a marvelous cast that includes Raymond Pellegrin, Christine Fabréga, Michel Constantin, and Pierre Zimmer.
One thing you won’t see is a police interrogation scene as Melville shot it. In his original version, the cops coerce a confession out of one suspect by funneling water down his throat. But such armchair waterboarding, a brutal tactic favored by the French gestapo and the army during the Algerian war, left the censors squirming in their seats and they insisted it had to go. (Bits of before and after can be seen on the video-captures below.)
Ventura, Meurisse, and Melville (see them here talking about Le Deuxieme Souffle) would reunite three years later for perhaps the director's greatest film, Army of Shadows. After that, Melville would make only two more movies before his untimely death, leaving behind only thirteen films. Treasure each one.
Gu (Ventura) Looking for Safe Harbor
Held By the Cops
Who Strap Prisoners in Chairs
And do Things the Censors Don't Want You to See
Blot (Meurisse) with Manouche (Christine Fabréga), After the End
One of the Great Shots of the Sixties