Judge Clark Douglas prefers "Goat and Gerbil" to "Cat and Mouse."
Let the hunt begin.
"I think you dropped something."
Facts of the Case
Gustave Manda (Lino Ventura, Army of Shadows), a powerful mobster known to his friends and enemies as simply "Gu," has escaped from prison. He fully intends to meet up with his sister, set up an escape plan, and get out of the country. It shouldn't be too difficult. Gu is a smart guy, and the odds are considerably in his favor. Before Gu has an opportunity to leave, he is confronted with a distraction. One of his old friends offers Gu 40 million dollars to help out with a complicated heist. Lured in by the promise of many millions to retire with, Gu agrees and gets ready to take on one last job.
Meanwhile, Commisaire Blot (Paul Meurisse, Army of Shadows) of the police department is attempting to find Gu. Bodies and suspicious situations are beginning to pile up, and Blot suspects Gu's involvement. The only problem is that Gu is a very careful criminal, and hasn't left behind much in the way of incriminating evidence. It's going to be hard enough to catch him, much less convict him of these new crimes. Gu may be a genius, but Blot has a few tricks up his sleeves. Let the game of cat-and-mouse begin!
The films of Jean-Pierre Melville are obsessed with detail. Consider the scene in Le Deuxième Souffle, in which Gu and his associates conduct a carefully-planned heist. Every single detail of this heist is outlined with cautious observation. Melville wants to give us a sense of where everyone is and what they are doing at all times. This is not uncommon for a heist sequence; many films have examined such scenes in careful detail. What sets the work of Melville apart is the fact that gives every single scene in his movie an equal level of artful attention. The director is equally fascinated by the conversations and actions of every character related to the situation. The set-up is just as important as the event itself, and more surprisingly, so is the aftermath.
Le Deuxième Souffle gives us yet another Melville film that offers up one compelling sequence after another. I would love to know what the average shot length is in his films. I know that it has to be considerably higher that it was for most directors of the era. Melville's lets his camera run on and on and on, sometimes sitting still and sometimes slithering in a voyeuristic manner across the room. However, I don't think Melville is showing off. The shots do not draw attention to themselves, and they are always quietly supporting the action rather than outshining it.
That may be largely because Melville provides such engaging characters for his camera to study. Here there are two important performances that are equally fascinating. The first comes from the rugged Lino Ventura, who takes Gu across a long and carefully-modulated character arc. Ventura is quiet and reserved most of the time, dealing with each new situation with a low-key efficiency. Then watch him in the moment when he is asked to participate in the heist. He is told that his friend Paul is involved. "Paul!" he says excitedly. It's the first little burst of emotion we see from the character. When he reaches his loud scenes towards the conclusion, they have an explosive impact due to Ventura's patient and finely-tuned portrayal.
The other notable performance comes from Paul Meurisse as Blot, the man on the side of the law. Meurisse has less screen time than Ventura, but he does a lot with his scenes. Meurisse is the most charming and charismatic character in the film, blending wit, sarcasm, kindness, and intelligence into the character. We are constantly surprised by the way Blot reacts to certain situations. He has an unusual ability to see the truth of any situation. Consider a moment when others in the police department suggest several tactics they might use to catch Gu. Blot smiles gently and dismisses them all, declaring that there's more or less nothing than can do until Gu makes some sort of mistake and leaves some sort of clue. This is a man who can follow the smallest of leads to a conviction, but he is honest enough with himself and the department to know that he might as well be shooting at gnats unless he finds a starting point.
Once again, Melville successfully blends many aspects of American gangster and noir genre films with French culture. His movies do not look or feel like most of the French films being released during the 1960s, and they have a unique vibe that can't really be found anywhere else. His films have the aesthetic of a Bogart movie, but the meditative and reflective qualities of a European film (though not necessarily a French film). Many American noir efforts combined a gorgeous visual style with a breathless narrative speed, but Melville is too much in love with the genre to permit himself to breeze through it. He wants to soak in each moment, stretch it out, give viewers time to fully appreciate every detail of it before moving on.
The transfer here is mostly sharp and clean, a good deal better-looking than the other Melville film being released along with this one, Le Doulos. There are minor flecks and specks that can be found throughout the movie, but overall this is a crisp and clean-looking film. The audio track is largely understated and quiet, as characters tend to speak softly and there is a minimal amount of music. The mono sound is more or less what you would expect from a film of the era.
Some good extras are included here. Criterion is easily better than anyone else when it comes to audio commentaries, and they deliver once again here. Film scholar Ginette Vincendeau (who has been involved with other Criterion releases of Melville films) and critic Geoff Andrew team up to provide an in-depth, intelligent commentary. There is an abundance of fascinating info here, and is a must-listen for anyone checking out this DVD. Vincendeau has more to say than Andrew, but both have some valuable thoughts to contribute. There's also a twelve-minute video interview with Bertrand Tavernier, who shares some anecdotes about Melville. Two archival interviews with Melville and Ventura are included, and run about a half-hour combined. Melville is such a compelling guy, I'm glad that this was included. Finally, we have a theatrical trailer and an essay from critic Adrian Danks. A reliably solid batch of supplements from Criterion.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Le Deuxième Souffle is the longest film of Melville's career. Criterion's packaging erroneously lists it as 144 minutes; it actually runs 150 minutes. Because of this, I must confess that the film works better on an academic level than as good storytelling. Don't get me wrong, this is a good story. But I can't honestly say that it's more satisfying in terms of plot than one of those lean, mean 90-minute flicks you can find on one of the Warner Brothers film noir box sets. Each scene is very compelling in and of itself as a piece of fine filmmaking. Melville also provides enough detail to give cinephiles plenty of symbols and signals to obsess over and figure out. Nonetheless, the film as a whole lacks energy overall, and several moments seem to drag longer than they need to. I recognize that to fix this problem, Melville would have to compromise some other attributes of the film, so I can't say I'd have it any other way. Still, it is the way it is, and that's something that viewers will simply have to accept before jumping into the film.
Cinema buffs can't afford to miss Le Deuxième Souffle. It's a fascinating crime film presented in a unique and refreshing way. However, I will note that it's probably not the best starting point to those new to Melville (try Bob Le Flambeur). If you aren't familiar with the director's work, try a few of his more well-known titles first, and then you'll probably have enough of a feeling for the director's style to appreciate what he is doing here. As for those of you who are all ready familiar with Melville, go ahead and jump right in, you'll love it. Recommended.
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