Le Deuxieme Souffle, better known in some circles as The Second Breath, may not be as well known as some of director Jean-Pierre Melville's top tier pictures like Le Circle Rouge or Le Samourai but it's still a film that fans of French noir will no doubt appreciate quite a bit.
The film tells the story of Gustave 'Gu' Minda (Lino Ventura), a convict who escapes from prison and soon finds himself in Paris where he and a few other hoods murder a man in cold blood to save the life of his sister, Manouche (Christine Fabrega). If that weren't enough to get the cops, lead by Inspector Blot (Paul Meurisse), after him he then robs an armored car and makes off with two hundred million Francs. Gu figures this will be enough money for he and Manouche to get out of France and live comfortably but he didn't count on Blot's obsessive tactics and soon finds that his plan may not be as perfect as he had hoped.
The highlight of this picture is its fairly famous heist scene in which we see Gu and his counterparts execute their plan in riveting detail. It's a very impressive set piece that other parts of the film have trouble living up to. The end result is a picture that is a bit up and down throughout and at times there are a few too many scenes that, while beautiful to look at, don't quite go anywhere giving us the impression that Melville was more into the technique than the storytelling this time out. The film does explore many of the themes that Melville's films are known for - the futility of trying to escape predestination, honor among thieves, and of course his trademark fatalism - but it doesn't exploit them quite as effectively as some of his other pictures and the film's impact is lessened because of this. That said, fans of Melville's noir will find much to appreciate here, not the last of which is the excellent lead performance from Lino Ventura. Equally impressive is Paul Meurisse as Inspector Blot.
Of course, much of the reason to watch a film like Le Deuxieme Souffle is the beautiful and striking black and white cinematography courtesy of Marcel Combes. The film may never look particularly realistic but the shadowy compositions, clean camerawork and poignant angles always ensure that, realistic or not, the movie is nothing short of a visual treat. The transitions, editing and cuts used to put the story together further this. The film's score, an offbeat batch of free-jazz compositions from Bernard Gerard, also helps set the mood. It fits the film's underworld settings and blends right in with the rest of the picture, never once feeling inappropriate or out of place in the least.
Le Deuxieme Souffle is a bit more violent than some of Melville's other pictures, but with that violence comes an enviable sense of style, intensity and bleakness. Though not without its minor flaws, it is never the less a testament to Melville's talent as a director and a film that embodies much of the spirit that has made his work so fascinating for so many over the years. This maybe isn't the best film to start with if you're new to his work but for those who need to see as many of his pictures as possible, it's somewhat of an essential watch. Even second tier Melville is completely worthwhile and miles above countless other films...
Criterion has done a nice job with the 1.66.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of Le Deuxieme Souffle on this DVD. The black and white image is nice and stable and while eagle-eyed viewers will probably spot a couple of minor compression artifacts in some of the darker scenes, overall things are pretty stable. Contrast looks set properly and there aren't any problems with any serious print damage save for a couple of fleeting instances that thankfully don't last too long. Only some specs and grain now and again are constant. Detail levels are pretty strong despite occasional softness in some of the far away shots and a tiny bit of edge enhancement.
The French language Dolby Digital Mono audio track comes with optional subtitles in English only. While it's a little on the flat side there aren't any serious problems with it to report. Dialogue remains clean and clear throughout and the levels are all properly balanced. A little bit of minor distortion is noticeable in a couple of spots but unless you're listening for it you probably won't pick up on it. All in all, the movie sounds just fine.
Ginette Vincendeau, the author of Jean-Pierre Melville: An American In Paris joins BFI programming head Geoff Andrew for an excellent commentary track. Both participants have a fair bit to say about this film, putting it into context and comparing it to Melville's other pictures and pointing out some interesting notes about both what we see on the screen and about what we don't see. Much attention is paid to Melville's use of shadow and about the film noir style employed but the pair also discusses the intricacies of the plot and detail the history of the film and those who made it. As far as critical commentary tracks go, this one is pretty impressive.
From there, check out the twelve minute interview with film critic and publicity agent Bertrand Tavernier (11:36) who speaks about his involvement with this film and his working relationship with Melville and who lends some unique insight into the picture's history. Up next is a four minute archival piece from a French television show entitled Province Actualities (3:59) that is essentially a news clip that gives us a quick look at the set of the film while it was in production - basically Melville, Lino Ventura and Paul Meurisse discuss the film briefly while sitting at a bar. A lengthier twenty-six minute interview segment entitled Cinema (25:50) features Melville and leading man Lino Ventura being interviewed by television host Francois Chalais. This is considerably more in-depth than the first interview is and it's a joy to listen to the sunglasses wearing Melville talk about his work on the film and to hear from Ventura about his contributions to the picture as well.
Rounding out the extra features is an anamorphic widescreen trailer (2:18) for the film, some classy menus, and chapter selection. Inside the keepcase is an insert booklet that features an interesting essay on the film written by film critic Adrian Danks.
While this one might not be as well regarded as some of Melville's other pictures, it's still a beautifully made and deliciously dark slice of French noir that delivers everything you'd hope it would and then some. Criterion have done a very nice job on the presentation, from the transfer to the supplemental material, and Le Deuxieme Souffle comes highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.