Le Deuxiéme Souffle (Second Breath) was Jean-Pierre Melville’s first film after a four year hiatus in the mid-60s. It was also his final black & white film. Once again he proved himself to be France’s most masterful stylist, while also reinforcing his favored themes of loyalty, friendship, and doomed masculinity. Word is bond in the world of Melville, and Le Deuxiéme Souffle‘s anti-hero Gu Minda (the monolith Lino Ventura) makes that statement numerous times during the film. It’s a pretty standard gangster tragedy, but in the hands of Melville, the film is a contemplative morality play with visual style and inventiveness out the ass.
UN FLIC (1972)
Yesterday we looked at Melville’s Bob le flambeur – a film that saw the French crime maverick developing the style and motifs he’d eventually refine in his classic gangster cycle. Today we’re jumping forward in time to his final film, Un flic (A Cop), which was released in 1972 – one year before the filmmaker’s premature death. Here Melville seems to be fetishizing and embellishing the trademark touches he developed late in his career: meticulous heist sequences, minimal dialogue, long glares, homoerotic undertones. All these elements are presented to an almost absurd degree. The result is a visually fascinating caper that frustratingly lacks the emotionally engaging sacrificial gut punches of his classics.
BOB LE FLAMBEUR (1956)
Jean-Pierre Melville and Auguste Le Breton wrote Bob le flambeur back in 1950, but they shelved it due to the release of The Asphalt Jungle – the grandpappy of American heist films. I’m not sure if they pushed it aside because they didn’t want to compete with another caper film, or if Melville was so impressed with Jungle that he decided to beef up Bob. Either way, Bob le flambeur went through some rewrites, with Melville aiming for a comedy of manners directed at the underworld. The intricacies and relationships of Parisian riffraff are shown in glorious detail, and the film seems to mourn their downfall.
LE DOULOS (1962)
The genius of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Doulos is that either everything we’re initially led to believe was a lie, or everything Jean-Paul Belmondo says near the end of the film is the truth. The title of the film comes from French slang for “the hat,” which also refers to a police informant in underworld argot. Belmondo wears the hat for most of the film, but so does a slew of other characters. So who’s telling the truth? Watching this complex and tough crime drama, it really doesn’t matter. This is often argued to be Melville’s first pure crime film and damn did he come out swinging.
LE CERCLE ROUGE (1970)
After making a string of highly acclaimed crime films in the ’50s and ’60s, unconventional French badass Jean-Pierre Melville created his epic masterpiece Le Cercle Rouge in 1970. I’m not calling it an epic because it’s 2.5 hours long, naw, I’m saying that because the film encompasses all of his beliefs concerning criminals, the underworld, and the police and presents them in one seamlessly controlled narrative. Like Rififi 15 years before (which Melville was originally attached to direct), Le Cercle Rouge is centered around a heist. It’s planning, execution, and fallout are depicted in detail, also like in Dassin’s film. Melville’s film takes a closer look at all of these aspects though, all while exploring the masculine romanticism and codes of honor that he obsessed over.