Le Deuxième Souffle

Brash and arrogant, French director Jean-Pierre Melville (1917–73) earned his reputation as the Father of New Wave cinema by directing films such as this sharp thriller, Le Deuxième Souffle (Second Wind) in 1966. Along with such classics as Bob le Flambeur (1956) and Le Doulos (1962), it’s a visually dense gangster movie that simultaneously looks back to classic American film noir — with its hard-boiled heroes and dangerous dames — and forward to the lonely, existential crime films of the later ’60s and ’70s. Never part of the French film industry, Melville carved out an independent career based on genres disparaged by the mainstream, and this newly remastered film, here given Criterion’s usual first-class treatment, is the perfect place to enjoy Melville at his best. Seasoned criminal Gu Minda, played by the stone-faced Lino Ventura, breaks out of a prison where he was serving a life sentence. Hoping to leave the country, he needs one more big score to pay his way and relies on his old gang: Alban, his Neanderthal driver, and Manouche, his blonde moll — Melville’s answer to Gloria Grahame. The drama is incidental to the pure style: dark, interior, with much said by few words. And the casting is superb, including the cynical inspector played by the dapper Paul Meurisse and the sleazy nightclub owner played by Marcel Bozzufi, best known to American viewers for his role in The French Connection. There’s nothing superfluous here, with plenty of gunplay, sexy showgirls, and cool jazz. Despite a silly disclaimer, Melville affirms the gangster’s code of loyalty and friendship. Fans of his later World War II masterpiece, L’Armee des Ombres (Army of Shadows), will marvel at the parallels between his amoral criminals and the virtuous Resistance fighters (gangsters with a cause?) In any case, this gripping narrative stands on its own: taut, angular, and shrewd.