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TCM Imports - July 2018
Remind Me

Le Deuxieme Souffle

In a 2017 New Yorker article about a centenary retrospective of the work of French director Jean-Pierre Melville, critic Anthony Lane gives tongue-in-cheek instructions on how to view the films: "Tell nobody what you are doing. Even your loved ones...must be kept in the dark. If it comes to a choice between smoking and talking, smoke...Wear a raincoat, buttoned and belted, regardless of whether there is rain. Any revolver should be kept, until you need it, in the pocket of the coat. Finally, before you leave home, put your hat on. If you don't have a hat, you can't go." That wittily evocative description captures what Melville achieved: an admirer of American film noir, he became the undisputed French master of the genre. And there is no better example of his mastery than Le Deuxieme Souffle, a title that translates as "Second Wind." Melville's ninth film, his most successful in France, and his last to be shot in black and white, Le Deuxieme Souffle is as hard-boiled, world-weary and fatalistic as any Warner Bros. or RKO production from the 1940s. There is even a disclaimer of sorts at the beginning of the film, stating that it is not an attempt to defend the main character's "moral code."

The film begins with a wordless, kinetic five-minute prison break sequence set to a jazz score. Gustav "Gu" Minda (the wonderfully world-weary Lino Ventura), a career criminal, escapes from prison and agrees to take on one last heist. He is pitted against a smugly clever cop, played by Paul Meurisse. It's a venerable noir setup that is nevertheless compelling as portrayed by the film's two well-matched stars. Born to Italian parents and raised in France, Ventura became one of the biggest stars of mid-20th century French cinema. He worked with top European directors such as Louis Malle and Francesco Rosi, and also played the role of mob boss Vito Genovese in the international coproduction The Valachi Papers (1972). Like Ventura, Meurisse was equally adept at comedy and drama. In Le Deuxieme Souffle, Meurisse plays a character whose smug self-regard makes him less likeable than Ventura's rumpled ex-con.

Le Deuxieme Souffle was based on a novel by José Giovanni, himself a character out of film noir. Born Joseph Damiani in Corsica, Giovanni was the son of a professional gambler. He collaborated with the Germans during World War II and was sentenced to death for his part in a triple murder, only to have his sentence commuted. He served 10 years and published his first novel after his release from prison. Several of Giovanni's other novels were also made into successful noirs, including Le Trou (1960) and Classe Tous Risques (1960).

Film historian Adrian Danks describes director Jean-Pierre Melville as "an egotistical, reticent, fringe-dwelling figure in French cinema, who in spite of his success never really claimed membership or complicity in any established movement or 'wave'of filmmaking." Born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, Melville was eccentric, individualistic and a lifelong cinema fanatic who marched to his own drummer. A Jew, he joined the Resistance during World War II, where he first used Melville as his code name as a tribute to his favorite American writer, Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick. Those wartime experiences undoubtedly influenced one of Melville's best films, Army of Shadows. (1969).

The production of Le Deuxieme Souffle was troubled. Melville had acquired the rights to Giovanni's novel and had begun pre-production in 1963, but there were delays. By the time Melville was ready to begin shooting, Giovanni mistakenly thought the director's option had lapsed, and the novelist sold the rights to another producer. By the time the legal wrangling was resolved and Melville was finally able to start shooting in early 1966, the director had lost is original choice for the cop, Serge Reggiani, as well as Simone Signoret, whom Melville claimed had agreed to play Manouche. Production finally began in February under "extremely difficult conditions" according to Melville and shut down in mid-March for three months. Problems continued after the film was finished, with the censors objecting to a brutal scene where police tortured a suspect.

Often categorized as part of the French New Wave, Jean-Pierre Melville was distinctly his own creation and his reputation has grown over the years. He died too young at 55, leaving behind a 13-film body of work as unique and specific as the man himself, which influenced filmmakers around the world as diverse as John Woo and Quentin Tarantino. As the New Yorker's Richard Brody writes of Le Deuxime Souffle, "In an age of philosophical and aesthetic extremism, Melville captured the second wind (or the last gasp) of dignified formality and restraint by way of a crook and a cop who coolly left their mark as auteurs of crime and punishment."

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Producer: Charles Lumbroso, Andre Labay
Screenplay: Jose Giovanni and Jean-Pierre Melville
Cinematography: Marcel Cobbes
Editor: Monique Bonnot, Michele Boehm
Costume Design: Michel Tellin
Music: Bernard Gerard
Principal Cast: Lino Ventura (Gustave "Gu" Minda), Paul Meurisse (Commisaire Blot), Raymond Pellegrin (Paul Ricci), Christine Fabrega (Manouche), Marcel Bozzuffi (Jo Ricci), Paul Frankeur (Inspector Fardiano)
156 minutes

By Margarita Landazuri