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Second Breath (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1966)

Jean-Pierre Melville’s methodically paced, existentially motivated Second Breath is a remarkable study in back alley morality. The movie nearly transcends its heist film roots, slowly growing as it proceeds into a shadowy examination of pride. It’s a film that’s considerably enhanced by its director’s consummate, unerring skill behind the camera. Several sequences in this black and white film are stunners. For example, the way that Melville films the opening prison break sequence transforms it into a geometric marvel. He chooses stylish angles to abstract the action, and stages it in a deep gray light that casts a pall over much of what’s to follow. There’s no music in this bit, and that choice remains a near-constant throughout the remainder of the film. The effect is one of a heightened reality that can switch from glamorous to gritty in a second, as the well-dressed men that populate the picture suddenly reveal their thuggish nature.

The plot of Second Breath, in which the aging, escaped fugitive Gu (Lino Ventura) must perform one last heist before fleeing the country, is textbook stuff, but the execution is superb. Melville focuses on the symbiotic relationship between cops and robbers, which strikes the old-school Gu as a sickening development. It’s not until about a half hour into the movie that the plot details concerning the heist are made explicit. The time spent before that scene is used to establish not only the large cast of characters, but also the allusive doublespeak and ethical codes that exist in their underworld. Particular attention is paid to the exalted reputation of Gu, who performed a legendary heist years earlier. Doggedly pursued by the morally alert Police Commissioner Blot (Paul Meurisse), Gu is a fascinating subject that transcends the clichés inherent in his caricature.

For the bulk of the run time, the film is not so much exciting as it is absorbing. Some of the detail that accumulates early on may seem arbitrary at first, but it soon comes to inform the drama that unfolds in the film’s second half. Exciting, however, is exactly the word to describe the climactic highway heist that serves as the film’s centerpiece. In this tense, expertly filmed sequence, Melville demonstrates why he’s perhaps the best director ever to inhabit this genre. He establishes space masterfully, taking time to pause for occasional observational details (such as the ants on the ground that one hood spies as he waits), and then watches in broad daylight as his plot unfolds with ruthless efficiency. The sequence moves so matter-of-factly, though, that it scarcely dominates the less overtly energetic scenes that surround it.

A procedural pitched from the perspective of the man in hiding, Second Breath uses the locations it was shot on to full effect, establishing a poetic quality that in no way interferes with believability. The plot spans a period of a few months, but the tight editing and frequent camera wipes make time fly by. Large swaths of the film proceed with next to no dialogue. When Melville does need to stage a conversation, he does so simply, with extended medium shots that do a great deal to show off his cast’s talent and his fluid camerawork. The net impression of such unobtrusive mastery is awe. The product of a director in complete control of his talents, both on a technical and narrative level, Second Breath musters enough depth that by its conclusion it feels only nominally like a heist film.


Jeremy Heilman