It’s always so fun to watch a Jean-Pierre Melville film you haven’t seen before. His Le Deuxième Souffle (Second Breath) is, as you’d expect, quiet, stylish, and masterful. You can’t really compare a Melville film to anyone else’s (although, the very beginning does, for many reasons, remind me of A Man Escaped). His style is so recognizable and confident. I really enjoyed Anthony Lane’s recent New Yorker write-up on the Melville retrospective where he quotes the director’s definition of friendship: “Be a pal, get your gun, and come on over quickly.” As ludicrous as that should sound coming out of most anyones mouth, it somehow works for Melville, so cool and assured, and slightly nihilistic, are his films.
Lino Ventura plays Gu, a prison escapee who gets caught up in double-crosses and a heist. Like other Melville films you’ve got to be ready for some extended silent sequences, and for all of the plotting to not fully merge until we’re at least 1/3 of the way in, if not much further along. These are some of my favorite things about his films – he truly gives his audience credit and assumes them to be smart.
In pursuit of Gu is Commissioner Blot (Paul Meurisse from Diabolique!). Jo Ricci (Marcel Bozzuffi, who I most recognize from The French Connection) is also on his trail, but for much less savory reasons.
A highlight scene comes around the 45:00 mark when Blot and Jo meet in Jo’s office. It’s a long scene, gorgeously and fluidly blocked with few edits.
That’s Jo frame left and Blot frame right:
They start simply standing off against one-another, and then Blot moves away from Jo. Blot’s clearly the more comfortable one even though it’s not his space. That’s important to this scene, I think. Jo plays nearly the whole thing like a menacing guard watching his turf; Blot is the mercurial thief trying to break in: each is the reversal of his true nature and motivations in the film.
Blot comes around the chair and sits on the arm of it, a move which eventually coaxes Jo into something similar:
I like this about blocking because it’s so true to real life. Have you ever noticed how you sometimes automatically mimic or counter-move to someone you’re in conversation with. Here, Jo doesn’t sit unless Blot does.
Blot ges even more comfortable, moving into the chair. Jo interrupts the dialogue to offer a drink at a convenient time (between “two thugs…” and “…low-class burglars.”). Not only does he interrupt the dialogue, he also walks away from Blot. These things go hand-in-hand:
Melville’s camera dollies forward with Jo to his liquor table (one of two in the room, I might add), and then pulls back with him as he returns to his desk. Jo’s brief retreat seems to give him renewed confidence as he sits lightly back on the edge.
Blot in turn seems to see that. His cavalier approach doesn’t work, Jo’s retreat is equal to tightlippedness, so Blot stands and walks off-
-leaving Jo by himself, before walking back and landing in the above MCU.
The first cut in the scene – a reverse on Jo – and then back to the same fluid master, as we pan with Blot, who crosses Jo, changing the 180 line, and turns to face him:
Blot’s circling Jo, but Jo’s holding his ground. Traditional wisdom: you stand over someone, you’ve got the power; you change the 180 line, you’ve got the power. Blot’s doing both of these, but it’s Jo who’s playing hard-to-get.
Blot continues pacing back and forth in front of Jo, even turning his back on him-
-before he finally gives Jo too much info about Gu. Jo can’t handle it. He walks away from Blot, partially in anger, partially to hide that anger. The two men stand eye to eye and evenly for the first time in awhile in the scene, and then come close together, again changing the 180 line:
And now they just circle. Blot walks away from Jo, his back still to him. Blot comes back to Jo, facing him. Jo circles around Blot. There’s nervous energy from both of them but it’s different. It’s sort of cat and mouse, but not to catch each other. Blot’s just filling Jo with information, hoping that Jo will catch Gu out. Jo is trying to keep his cool until the cop leaves.
Finally Blot leaves (more classic blocking: put stuff elsewhere in the room, in this case, drinks and a hat, and your characters will have to move to get it). That they come face-to-face in a way similar to the beginning and middle of the scene is no accident. Melville has built this so that the structure of the blocking circles the same way the men do:
There are so many other great sequences in here. I was struck by how much Melville booms or jibs down to reframe. I was also looking at how he begins his scenes (I think it’s harder to start a scene than to end it; I might post on that idea more in the future), and he tends to be fairly traditional that way: wides, 2-shots, character entrances. But his performances are all so tight – taciturn men (I think there are three credited women at the end) who hold onto information and honor tightly.