It is always a source of great pleasure to come across a movie which I previously knew absolutely nothing about but which demands discovery. Such is the case with this tight and involving crime caper from director Claude Sautet. Sautet is something of an eminence grise in French cinema history, insofar as he did direct some fifteen films from this, his first major one, right up to "Nelly and Monsieur Arnaud" (1995), but he wrote the screenplays for rather more and he was often the 'go-to guy' for script doctoring.
There is a nice little story in the booklet accompanying the DVD that is told about Cannes Film Festival president Gilles Jacob, who was a lowly critic back in 1966 when Jean-Pierre Melville's "Le Deuxieme Souffle" was released. Jacob claimed in his review that there were only three masterpieces among French gangster flicks of the 1960s -- the one he was reviewing, Jacques Becker's "Le Trou" (also 1960), and the above title. It turns out that they were all based on novels by an ex-con named Jose Giovanni and that they make an informal trilogy. The themes of all three deal with the myth of 'honour among thieves', the inevitability of betrayal, and finally an inescapable fate.
What helps to make this film special is that the lead role is taken by Lino Ventura, a big brute of a man with the trusting eyes of a child. Ventura's family emigrated from Italy to France when he was a youngster and he was raised in dire poverty. He broke away by using his strength as a wrestler and a boxer, before breaking into movies with "Touchez pas au grisbi"(1953) and was soon established as a charismatic 'heavy' in a succession of movies right up to his death in 1987. Ironically he was also adept at playing comedy, but felt more at home in tough guy roles.
In this film he plays Abel a wanted felon in France on the run in Italy with his beloved wife and two young sons. He is anxious to get his family back to anonymous safety in France and the movie opens with his dispatching the three of them to the border to await his joining them. However they are nearly broke and he needs to raise some funds for the journey. There then follows a bravura sequence actually filmed on the busy streets of Milan where Abel and his partner in crime attack and rob two bank couriers surrounded by the uncomprehending passing crowd of real locals. Meeting up with his family they then hijack a boat to get them to the South of France, but are involved in a shoot-out with customs officials, during which his wife and his partner die. Abel and his sons are left stranded.
He gets in touch with his old gang in Paris to help him out by sending an ambulance to smuggle the three of them back North. They are all indebted to Abel and they do find a suitable vehicle, but all of them find excuses why they are unable to drive the ambulance themselves. They arrange for a young, independent thief (Jean-Paul Belmondo in an early role) to make the journey with Abel. Along the way they are joined by damsel-in-distress Sandra Milo, who poses as a nurse and who soon becomes Belmondo's love interest. Back in Paris his erstwhile cronies find excuse after excuse why they can not be involved in protecting Abel and his sons (whom he succeeds in placing with the sister of an old family friend). Only Belmondo's Eric shows any loyalty to a man that he really doesn't even know. Abel needs the fabled 'one last job' to raise money for his sons and robs fence Marcel Dalio with whom he has some history, but betrayal is in the air. Abel feels obliged to seek revenge on his former friends who think nothing of betraying him to save their own cushy lives.
Ventura's character is sympathetically likeable but a definite 'hard man' like his screen models Bogart and Mitchum. Force, violence, and murder come easily to him. However since this movie was made in the days when 'evil must be punished', it is not a spoiler to tell you that the film ends very abruptly with the narrator saying our 'hero' is subsequently 'caught, convicted, and executed' and up pops the title "Fin". There is no false romanticism here.
The film more or less disappeared after its release and Belmondo's fine turn was overshadowed by his role in "Breathless" which was released at about the same time and which has gone on to be a classic of the genre. However it is certainly time for this movie to be re-discovered by crime buffs and cinema buffs alike. Sautet has given us a thrilling movie to rank with the best from Becker, Melville, and Dassin.