Nearly two-and-a-half hours is a long, long time in the movies, especially so when Jean-Pierre Melville is once more demonstrating his passion for hard boiled gangsters. With Le Deuxieme Souffle (Second Breath), it seems to me that Melville has given us some extraordinary set pieces of heists, shoot-outs and chases...including one roll-along-the-floor-while-shooting-a-gun-in-each-hand-and-plugging-all-the-guys-who-were-going-to-plug-you that now has become a pretty-boy-actor-as-tough-guy cliché. They are embedded, however, in an over-long story featuring yet one more of Melville's existential heroes that he came to obsess about. Melville underlines it all with his stoic gangster code of conduct, illustrated by the pretentious words that start this movie: "A man is given but one right at birth: To choose his own death. But if he chooses because he's weary of life, then his entire existence has been without meaning." Let me tell you something...nothing, nothing will go right as long as Gu Minda, cold-blooded murderer with a soft spot for Manouche, believes his buddies think he ratted them out. The Code won't permit it.
Is this to deny that Melville was a great director? Hardly, but it is to recognize that Melville was human: He didn't always make great movies; his preoccupation with gangsters and their fictitious code of conduct was limiting; his indulgence in what passes as "style" in the gangster milieu could appear, in my opinion, downright silly; and as a screenwriter he was capable of some corny gangster dialogue (or at least he was ill-served at times by the subtitle writers). With all this, the director who could give us Army of Shadows, with its terrible themes, its remorselessness and its humanity, is a great director. The director who could give us Bob le Flambeur, with its irony, its humanity and its tight, story-telling prowess, is a great director with a sense of humor. Watch Army of Shadows and Bob le Flambeur (and Le Cercle Rouge first, then Le Deuxieme Souffle and Le Samourai...and come to your own conclusions. The devil of it with Le Deuxieme Souffle is that great stretches of the movie are gripping, Lino Ventura (with that hard, tired face) and Paul Meurisse are first-rate and Melville never lets us have less than a superbly presented series of scenes. But, in my opinion, his series of scenes, some lengthy, don't add up to a tightly realized movie, especially at nearly two-and-a-half hours.
Gu Minda (Lino Ventura) is a cop-killing gangster who has just broken out of prison. Gangsters he knows have been moving in on his turf. Two hoods threaten Manouche, his long-time girl friend (Christine Fabrega), in her apartment. Gu intervenes, and with a friend drives the hoods to the country. Gu guns them down in the car. Inspector Blot is after Gu. Blot is resourceful and relentless. Gu has no money. He's determined on one last heist with a big payday before he and Manouche flee France. Inspector Blot will not make things easy, When Gu realizes his honor has been compromised, he won`t leave France until he sets things straight. Don't expect a happy ending. With Melville's code of the existential gangster, there never is.
While the plot is simple, Melville embellishes it with any number of twists and turns, sneaky actions, a coincidence or two and some satisfying betrayals, plus a long, extremely well-done set piece on how to hi-jack a van full of platinum. In this gangster movie there is no gangster arm candy, only Manouche. Fabrega was 35 when the movie was released. Lino Ventura was 47. Through the alchemy of genes and make-up, they make their characters about same age. Fabrega looks her years and is all the more believable because of this desirable maturity. She gives to Gu what little sympathy we have for him. It would be difficult to say -- between Ventura with Gu's grim, murderous honor and Meurisse with Blot's sardonic realism and intelligence -- who gives the film more interest. It might depend on your tolerance for thug killers who agonize about their reputations.
At any rate, Le Deuxieme Souffle is worth seeing. Judge it for yourself. The Criterion release looks very good.