The last phase of Melville’s career was dominated by a series of brilliantly directed minimalist crime films like ‘Le Samourai’, ‘Le Cercle Rouge’ (both masterpieces of the genre), and less known, more populist tales like ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’, another bravura piece of filmmaking that is both deeply pessimistic and audaciously held together by a drawn out narrative concerning an escaped convict and hardened criminal named ‘Gu’ (Lino Ventura).
Each crime film Melville directed is a brilliant film in its own right, and though the last three films he made were in colour, they could also pass as black and white, because the anaemic production design and cinematography opts for a muted visual approach that sucks the life out of the frame so that it is rendered more or less an appropriate reflection of the lonely criminals who occupy the mise en scene, wearing noirish trench coats and sworn to an uncompromising moral code which usually leads to death.
Melville’s body of work is simply one of the most outstanding and misunderstood of the post war French filmmakers, and personally, with the 2007 reissue of his forgotten 1966 World War II masterpiece, ‘The Army of the Shadows’, Melville has eclipsed many of his contemporary peers who have been over praised for far too long by critics. Each year seems to see the restoration and release of a Melville film on DVD, forcing many like myself to reassess the career of a filmmaker who was somewhat akin to Coppola in terms of the inspiration and influence he would have on the next generation of filmmakers eager to breakthrough into an industry that had lost touch with contemporary audiences.
Even today, Melville’s incredibly cinematic career continues to exist in the shadows of the nouvelle vague, and any mention of French filmmaking regularly disintegrates into a discussion about the influence of artists like Godard and Truffaut, who may have been true innovators but had problems telling a good story and creating genuinely convincing emotions. Melville was not an ideologically driven filmmaker but one who had an endless fascination with Hollywood genres, and perhaps this is why his films offer such a telling illustration of the successful marriage between European sensibilities and American cultural influences.
On its release, ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’ was an instant hit and is one of Melville’s most commercially successful films. The Parisian underworld was familiar territory for Melville, and the obsessive glare with which he repeatedly explored such a troubling and seductive milieu meant he took great pleasure in romanticising and glamorising the exterior world of the hardened criminal. Masculinity was a key thematic motif and the imagery of the underworld in ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’ is one that holds a deep prejudice towards women, and patriarchal rituals that occur between the male characters in many of Melville’s films are evident in how the central protagonist and anti-hero, Gu, has no real desire to abscond with his lover, Manouche. Instead, having already escaped from prison, Gu is lured back into the underworld when he is offered the chance to help pull a lucrative heist in the foothills of a desolate Marseille landscape.
When Gu is framed by the police as an informant, he goes to extreme lengths in order to clear his name and prove to the underworld of his religiously devout adherence to a moral code that can never be compromised or corrupted in anyway by righteous institutions like the police. Redemption rarely ever exists in the world of Melville’s crime films, and Gu is another in a long line of stylish, likable criminals who are made to suffer at the hands of a nihilistic underworld that cannot offer any kind of escape. Escape becomes almost like a form of humiliation in ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’, and though this macho attitude espoused by Gu is spectacularly conventional in how it is manifested in the final sequence in which he goes seeking some kind of payback, it also functions as an extended metaphor for a repressed desire to seek death at the hands of morally dubious men like himself.
If conventionality in terms of genre is something that finds itself quite visible in the narrative, what separates ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’ from Hollywood crime films is Melville’s intricately detailed and visually minimalist manipulation of framing, composition and camerawork; technical elements that would are usually rendered obsolete and unoriginal in most Hollywood mainstream genre films are deliberately fore grounded so that when a character enters the frame, where they are going to position themselves within the frame becomes a point of active interpretation that is intellectually rewarding for the spectator.
The heist sequence in any Melville film is a real dramatic high point, and in ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’, the heist of an ordinary armoured van is made altogether more gripping for Melville’s instance to set the action in the scenic landscape of rural Marseilles. Melville’s greatest tool for making the heist sequence in his films a genuinely enthralling spectacle was the rejection of a bombastic Hollywood soundtrack used by many filmmakers to create a false kind of emotional investment. Silence, minimal dialogue and natural sounds in the heist sequence forces us to observe rather than become preoccupied with the nature of the event. Such a primitive technique used by early cinema pioneers works superbly in the hands of Melville, making us value and experience the micro details that are typically excised in traditional crime films.
Though his characters are infinitely stylish and have a wonderfully eclectic dress sense, Melville more than anything wants us to see the edges to the stark reality of the life that Gu must lead once he has escaped from prison. It is a life made up of living in the shadows, hiding and making oneself invisible to the naked scrutiny of an unforgiving society that views criminals as a cancerous disease. When Gu is killed at the end in a hail of bullets, nobody mourns his life except Manouche, his lover and the only female character in the film, but even she can now finally see the worthless and indispensable nature of the underworld and how treats its own occupants, citizens and loners with nothing but contempt.
It is hard to imagine that after the brilliance of ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’, Melville would go on to produce some of his finest work, but it seems as though such consistency is what distinguishes Melville amongst many of the great post war French filmmakers.