French thespian Lino Ventura plays Gustave “Gu” Minda, a gangster currently serving a long stretch for a violent crime he committed many years ago. As the film opens, we see him escaping from a prison with two other inmates. Meanwhile, three gangsters show up at his girlfriend Manouche’s (Christine Fabréga) restaurant and shoot up the place. Manouche and her bodyguard Alban (Michel Constantin, who played one of the inmates in Jacques Becker’s Le Trou) escape unhurt. A gangster named Jo Ricci (Raymond Pellegrin of The French Connection and Z fame) is putting the pressure on Manouche to give up her business and this attack is part of that. He is planning to extort her and sends two thugs to her place to negotiate. This attempt is thwarted when Gu shows up and he, along with Alban, kill them and dispose of their bodies.
The police Commissioner Blot (Paul Meurisse) is investigating this attack on Manouche as well as the death of the two thugs and suspects Gu’s hand in this. Gu plans to leave the country as soon as he can with Manouche but he is broke. It’s then that a wonderful proposition falls into his lap: a platinum heist set up by Jo’s brother Paul, who happens to be Gu’s pal. With the police and Paul’s thugs behind him, Gu has little time left to help carry out the heist and leave the country but also clear his name from a crime that he was falsely implicated in by Jo. The recurring theme in every film of French auteur Jean-Pierre Melville is loyalty and a self-imposed code that the characters in his stories stick to. To them, honor is more valuable than anything else, even their own life. Gustave Minda is another one of these characters. He wouldn’t rat out anyone and would never attempt it even if he is being threatened with a gun.
Gu is not that different from Jeff Costello from Le Samourai, Corey from Le Cercle Rouge (both played by Alain Delon) or even another character who will be played once again by Ventura in Melville’s Army of Shadows. They lead a life of solitude and whatever genuine human contacts they may have, they are all kept at a distance, regardless of the fact that they all want to help them. It’s this code of honor that separates the good guys from the bad guys in Melville’s films, not whether they are right or wrong. One can surmise that Melville’s preoccupation with honor and characters living in solitude originated out of his own experiences in the Second World War, when he served as a member of the French Resistance. I couldn’t help thinking of Michael Mann’s Heat while watching this film as it’s a known fact that directors like Mann, John Woo and Quentin Tarantino are huge fans of Melville. I see Le Deuxieme Souffle as the French ancestor of Heat and few other Mann films such as Thief and Collateral.
Robert De Niro’s Neil McCauley’s character is so much like Gu in that both characters are determined to avenge their pals and restore their honor, regardless of the very short time they have left to escape from the clutches of the law. And Commissioner Blot reminded me of Al Pacino’s Vincent Hanna as well. Both cops are incredibly perceptive, smart and relentless in their hunt for the criminals. Although I have to say that Blot is the more sophisticated of the two. The highlight of the film is the central heist sequence that is executed as meticulously as Melville’s direction. The beauty of it – as well as the entire film – lies in the details. It’s not fast-paced or hastily edited and lacks the excitement of today’s crime films but those with a good attention span will certainly get a kick out if. The natural and minimalist style that Melville adopted here would show up more predominantly in his next – also his most popular – film, Le Samourai. The screenplay is by Jose Giovanni, a former convict himself.