From the novel Un reglement de comptes, by José Giovanni, Le deuxième souffle is among Jean-Pierre Melville’s most morally complex and visually captivating works. The film opens as gangster Gustave (“Gu”) Minda and another inmate escape from prison, thus winning a “second breath” of freedom. An overhead shot, because of the design of the prison roof, entombs upright officials in an enormous coffin-like space, suggesting a limit to all breath and “second breaths.” The two escapees jump a train, but the younger man, who jumps off for his destination, ends up a suicide when cornered by the law intent on sending him back to prison. This could have been Gu, whose pilgrim’s progress during his “second breath” the film follows.
Gu commits acts of both kindness and vicious mayhem; occasionally it’s the same act. Moreover, the film’s secondary main figure, Commissaire Blot, descends into his own moral murkiness in his conniving determination to catch Minda, and he must contend with Inspector Fardiano as vigilantly as he must with Minda, as indeed Minda must contend with fellow gangsters. In the end, Minda is destroyed by his having been tricked into giving up a name to the police following a highway murder-robbery in which he participated out of financial necessity, thus clouding his reputation, making him appear a dishonorable stoolie—the facsimile of a collaborationist at the time of the Occupation during the war.
Cold, clear-eyed, exceptionally brutal, Melville’s black-and-white Second Breath boxes viewers in a mental coffin, steeping them in an intricate mortal world of cops and criminals. Not for the first or last time in Melville, the drop of a hat off a shot-dead man’s head releases a poignant reminder of our ultimate vulnerability.
As Minda and Blot, Lino Ventura and Paul Meurisse are excellent.
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