Second breath, inexorable suffocation. The prologue is a jailbreak sketched in angular wall corners and mist, virtually a Franz Kline, a smoke shared aboard a freight train caps the sense of grayish abstraction. Then murmurs in a nightclub in Marseille segue into a shootout at a Parisian restaurant, Jean-Pierre Melville’s world is mysterious like that. "I gambled and I lost," shrugs the escaped convict (Lino Ventura), a sagging underworld boar half-hidden behind specs and a fussy mustache. His opposite number is the mordant police commissioner (Paul Meurisse) who sweeps into the scene of a crime to shoot down assorted alibis like a marksman and then calmly courts the fugitive’s sister (Christine Fabréga). Italy is the dream escape for the crook running out of time (his hideout is bare rock but for a thorny Christmas tree), though not before the final caper that seals everybody’s fate. Backstabbing brothers (Raymond Pellegrin, Marcel Bozzuffi), platinum plunder and executions in moving cars, Orloff the free-agent (Pierre Zimmer), "one hell of a crossroads." Baroque subtlety is the key to the formal balance, the diagram of treaties and betrayals is laid out with a scientific eye engrossed by ritual and rupture alike. The highway heist is one such tour de force, armored cars and gangsters collide as the panning-zooming camera contemplates what might be the jagged edge of the world. (It opens with a tranquil view of an anthill and closes with a truck toppling into the abyss.) Cops and robbers "holding hands, out on dates," that’s the way of things now, Ventura’s veteran rogue endures interrogation techniques out of the Algerian War (cf. Le Petit Soldat) and gets gunpoint confessions of his own. Melville’s "marque des maîtres," a continuous joust in which both sides obsessively hang on to honor codes to ward off the void of their existences. Walsh’s High Sierra, De Toth’s Crime Wave and Tourneur’s Nightfall are visible throughout, Siegel takes cognizance in Charley Varrick. Cinematography by Marcel Combes. With Michel Constantin, Paul Frankeur, Denis Manuel, Jean Négroni, and Pierre Grasset. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce