Le Deuxième Souffle (1966)

Le Deuxième Souffle (1966), written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville.

"Second Wind".

Veteran gangster "Gu" escapes from prison and heads for Paris as we try to sort out a bunch of other characters. His devoted sister and her loyal bodyguard have just repulsed an armed attack on her bar. Gu arrives at her place just in time to take care of some other hard men trying to muscle her. "Take care of" means going for a drive and dumping their bodies in the woods, his standard method.

Gu has to either vanish or go down trying. He signs on to an armored car platinum heist which involves killing police escorts as a matter of course. It's not clear whether he thinks he has a future or not. His reputation matters to him more than survival: he is a reliable criminal and no snitch.

We are dealing with that old society of crooks and cops, people who have known each other for years. Crafty, patient Inspector Blot is after Gu. The criminals try to reassure each other: "Paris cops won't come to Marseille". Sure, tell yourself that.

This is very much the society of men, a class of hoods who own clubs but will also do heists. Some (the older ones) are reliable and trust each other, the younger ones not so much: some are police informants.

The sister is the only female character and -- contrary to standard tropes -- she is neither a femme fatale nor the weak link. She is more like one of the boys.

There are a lot of characters and the plot is probably easier to follow the second time through. Remade in 2007 with Daniel Auteuil and Monica Bellucci.

Melville is a fascinating director. He began as an amateur filmmaker, formed his own studio and produced good films from the beginning. The French cineastes first loved him and then hated him, mostly because he remained loyal to Charles de Gaulle when the president was the target of student and worker protests of the late 1960s.

It is said his interest was not so much in film noir as in the American gangster films of the 1930s and 40s. His characters drive big American cars, wear those hats, and often have .45 Colt automatics. He also made WW2 "Resistance" films, using his own experiences in the war.

I will have to try Le Samouraï (1967) again; it left me a little cold. I enjoyed Bob le Flambeur (1956) and Le Cercle Rouge (1970) and look forward to seeing others.

Available on DVD from Criterion. The useful commentary track is a team effort by a French woman and English man, both film critics and big fans.