Criterion Corner: Le Deuxième Souffle (1966) – Reviewed

Icily precise French master filmmaker Jean-Pierre Melville all but perfected the black-and-white crime thriller with such gangster epics as Bob Le Flambeur and Le Doulos under his belt well before he arrived upon one of his most overlooked heist thrillers to date with Le Deuxième Souffle.  Released domestically under such titles as Second Breath or Second Wind, the vast yet intimate French crime epic stars Lino Ventura as prison escapee Gu who goes into hiding while being lured into one final heist job.  On his tail is Inspector Blot (Paul Meurisse) and the stage is set for one of the director’s most elegantly constructed heist sequences of his already exceptional career. 

Though much of it takes place within closed quarters save for the film’s astonishing heist sequence, from start to finish Le Deuxième Souffle is a tense portrait of life in the shadows constantly on the run from justice while fending off other criminal factions amid attempting to carry out an elaborate robbery.  Much of the tension stems from Lino Ventura’s central performance as the film’s antihero Gu, at once ruthless and loyal to the criminal code.  A stocky, tough and intimidating figure, Ventura started out as a professional wrestler before an injury shifted his career towards film acting.  Though Melville and Ventura would later clash over directing methods on set, the film nevertheless represents one of Ventura’s most iconic screen roles.
Visually the film is at once stark and opaque in wide open spaces as well as tightly packed within enclosed spaces thanks to Marcel Combes’ cinematography and Melville’s own acute attention to framing and detail.  The film also boasts a wonderfully moody score by Bernard Gérard as well as a wealth of jazz music heard in the shadowy nightclubs that erupt with violence without warning.  Still, much of the film’s strengths come from the extended passages of silence, which only serve to build the tension to a fever pitch.  While much of it was shot on Melville’s own studio set, the film also makes frequent use of real locations which add to the film’s sense of realism.

A crime universe distinctly of Melville’s own personality and understated approach to the action sequence, Le Deuxième Souffle went on to become the director’s most commercially successful film of his career and even spawned a remake in 2007.  Despite this, the film now is overshadowed by Melville’s subsequent epics Army of Shadows and Le Cercle Rouge.  In the annals of heist films, Le Deuxième Souffle remains curiously under the radar for most modern cinephiles.  Seen now, one is awestruck by the film’s elegant minimalist approach to sight and sound to propel the story forward.  A masterpiece of technical precision with a keen balance between pin drop quiet and bombastic explosive noise, Le Deuxième Souffle is inarguably one of the greatest French crime thrillers of all time and quite possibly the pinnacle of the master director’s illustrious career.

--Andrew Kotwicki