Le Doulos & Le Deuxième Souffle
Cowboy gangster Jean-Pierre Melville almost always chose to die and almost always violently
Reviewed by Raoul Hernandez, Fri., Nov. 7, 2008
Le DoulosThe Criterion Collection, $39.95
Le Deuxième SouffleThe Criterion Collection, $39.95
"You have to choose, to die or to lie," prefaces 1962's Le Doulos, French slang for "informer." Le Deuxième Souffle (1966) begins with, "A man is given but one right at birth: to choose his own death." Cowboy gangster Jean-Pierre Melville almost always chose to die and almost always violently. Thieves, murderers, fugitives, solitary men coming into contact with one another to reassert their honor and betray their friends, Melville's heroes usually get Le Deuxième Souffle's "second wind," but to call it fleeting ascribes time too much elasticity. Le Doulos' B-grade noir heist film piles up bodies faster than Jean-Paul Belmondo can drop a dime or get Richard Widmark on a dame, but Belmondo never quite achieves full focus of character. Melville can't make up for his own script, which drags even for the director's usual measured pacing. Serge Reggiani (Casque d'or) shines like a single bulb swinging in an attic murder, his hushed tones and hunted glances unforgettable. A vintage interview with Reggiani documents his decadelong professional "blackout," in which he refused to keep up with the Joneses. In this case, that's Melville favorite Lino Ventura, of recent Criterion gripper Classe Tous Risques, as well as the great Paul Meurisse (Diabolique). Ventura opens Souffle escaping from "the can," hot as his henchman's luger, out to settle some scores, dodge Meurisse, and pull one last heist on his way to Sicily. Melville's every bit as methodical, but his material's better and his leading men titans of French film. At nearly 2½ hours, almost every minute clenches its jaws in gangster predestination. Behind Melville were Criterion essentials Les Enfants Terribles and Bob le Flambeur; ahead lay Le Samourai, Army of Shadows, and Le Cercle Rouge, also gold-bullion DVDs. In these bloody B&W sieges, Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973) lay down with death and got up once again on equal footing with William Wyler (The Desperate Hours), his American idol.
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