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Old School Review: “Le Deuxième Souffle” (1966)

*Warning: There will be spoilers in this review*

Title translation: “Second Wind”

Written by José Giovanni and Jean-Pierre Melville, and directed by Melville, “Le Deuxième Souffle” is a crime thriller adapted from a novel also written by Giovanni. Of the three films I’ve seen from Melville at this point, this is my new favorite from him. While the cinematography isn’t as showy as previous films, the story and characters are far more engaging and rapturous. The story is mainly focused on recently escaped and infamous Parisian criminal Gustave Minda (Lino Ventura), or “Gu” for short, and the expert Inspector Blot (Paul Meurisse) who relentlessly pursues him. Now, the plot and story at hand may seem familiar, but it is Melville’s stage direction, camera framing, and restrained performances that he pulls from his actors that make this noir film stand out from the crowd. So, after “Gu” breaks out of prison with two others (one unfortunate prisoner missed his jump, the second was eventually chased off a cliff by the police), he heads to Paris to see his loyal sister Simone (Christine Fabréga), who goes by her nickname ‘Manouche’ throughout the film. She and her bodyguard, Alban (Michel Constantin), work various aspects of a bar called “Ricci’s”. Manouche and Alban get caught in the crossfire of an orchaestrated attack on the bar before “Gu” arrives in Paris, but Alban fends them off from behind the bar while Jacques (Raymond Loyer), Manouche’s admirer, is found to be the only casualty. When “Gu” does arrive back in town he takes his sister’s blackmail problems into his own hands. “Gu” catches two more men sent to Manouche’s house after the attack and kills them with his trademark technique. With the blackmail settled, the three of them, Manouche, Alban, and “Gu” plan to smuggle the infamous criminal to Italy by way of Marseille.

Meanwhile, Inspector Blot is all over every possible trace of evidence connected to the infamous Gustave Minda’s recent escape from prison, and in fact, he’s the first person on the scene of the attack at Ricci’s. Though no one there will give Blot any verifiable accounts of the attack, he knows their game all too well and makes his presence well known, for while the attack didn’t resemble “Gu”s handiwork- Blot knew the old gangster would be heavily invested in the safety of his sister. Blot, for his part, is a damn crafty Inspector and knows all the ins and outs of the criminal underworld- he calculates his risks seriously, and his deductive reasoning is unparalled in the world of this film. To fund the escape to Italy, “Gu” decides to join up with a crew for a heist with a gigantic payout, much to Manouche’s objection. “Gu” finds this opportunity through another old friend of his, Orloff (Pierre Zimmer), who was originally asked to be a part of the heist, but declined due to the risk associated. “Gu” finds himself in familiar company with the crew assembled as Paul Ricci (Raymond Pellegrin), brother of Jo Ricci (Marcel Bozzuffi) who owns the bar Ricci’s, is the lead organizer of the operation. Gustave doesn’t find out until later that it was Jo Ricci who blackmailed Manouche at the beginning of the film, though when he does, he lets Paul know that his brother ‘isn’t on the up and up‘ and decides to let it go due to their friendship. The heist is pretty simple as far as heists go, an armored truck carrying one million francs worth of platinum in its cargo has a long route out through the country with two armed police motorcyles escorting it. Once the armored truck and police motorcade enter the mountainous terrain where the gangsters lay in wait, the heist goes surprisingly well. The motorcade is dispatched effectively as planned and the truck drivers are stowed in a nearby shed. The only diversion is a passerby who stopped because he thought he heard shots- but “Gu” solves the issue and tosses the onlooker into the shed with the others. The crew returns and hides the platinum until they can find an approrpriate seller.

Unfortunately for “Gu”, he’s kidnapped in broad daylight and tricked into revealing that Paul Ricci was involved in the heist as Blot’s team impersonated local gangsters from Marseille with insider information. Inspector Fardiano (Paul Frankeur) of the Marseille Police department receives the two gangsters, they’re heavily tortured as they attempt to break both “Gu” and Paul, though eventually “Gu” escapes. Jo Ricci wants revenge for his jailed brother, and to get “Gu”s portion of the platinum’s revenue. Jo Ricci works the other two members of the crew in the heist and convinces them to side with him, fearing that “Gu” could give up their names to the cops as well. After escaping the Marseille Police Department, “Gu” tracks down Inspector Fardiano and kills him after obtaining a written confession that Gustave Minda did not inform on anyone, and the details of the torture techniques they used in their “information gathering”. The film comes down to a shootout between “Gu”, the two remaining heist members, and Jo Ricci as he takes Orloff’s place in a meeting and shows up with two pistols and a whole lot of righteous criminal honor to uphold. All are killed in the commotion, with Blot arriving just as “Gu” dies on the staircase. Blot heads out of the crime scene and into the crowd, as he does, he purposefully leaves Fardiano’s confession at the feet of a journalist- Blot played by the rules, and Fardiano was just another bad cop to be swept under the rug.

This was another really solid noir film from Melville and it only encourages me to seek out more from the Godfather of the French New Wave film movement. Classic genre tropes with tough guy gangsters, prison escapes, heists, shootouts, this film cleverly includes all the usual ingredients of a typical noir film, but the genius here is in the execution. Yes, the film is two-and-a-half hours, but for me at least, the pacing was very manageable and I was engaged for the whole film’s runtime. If you’re looking for a great rivalry between an unflappable Detective and an infamous Gangster then look no further, you’ve found it! Enjoy!

Final Score: 200 Million Francs

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #14 Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage (1966)

Writer/Director: Kaneto Shindo/Kazuo Ikehiro (3rd film)

Summary: “Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage” begins aboard a ferry, with an over confidant thief losing a hand by Zatoichi’s blade (the first visible limb removal for the series I think, with a prop hand gripping a hanging lantern). Once offshore, the blind swordsman climbs the stairs of a temple and prays that he won’t have to kill any more people while attempting to visit and pray at each of the eighty-eight temples of Shikoku. After departing, he’s followed by a man on a horse and he eventually dismounts and meets face to face on a bridge asking if he’s Zatoichi and giving his name “I’m Eigoro from Serigazawa” before engaging in a battle that results in them both being knocked over the guardrail and into the river. As he drags Eigoro from the river he continues to talk to him, but realizes that the fall must have killed him once he doesn’t respond ashore. As Eigoro’s body drifts away in the river, his horse begins to follow Zatoichi as he leaves. At a crossroads some time later, the horse chooses a diverging path, and Zatoichi decides to follow the animal a while longer before saying goodbye to the beast once they enter the outskirts of a town. Though he follows the horse a bit further as it seemingly knows where its going and enters a house with stables inside. After a short burst of grief and confusion the woman that greets Zatoichi and the Horse (Taro) grabs a sword and slashes at Zatoichi’s arm- shocked by the surprise attack, though she does bandage his wound following the encounter. Okichi (Michiyo Okusu) then informs Zatoichi that she was Eigoro’s sister, and that while foolish, Eigoro had a good heart- which Zatoichi had also suspected.

When a farmer comes to hear what happened to Eigoro Zatoichi hears that this is all the fault of a neighboring Boss named Tohachi (Isao Yamagata) from the next valley over. Apparently his influence has corrupted many men, and he plans on expanding his control to all the farms and fields of Serigazawa. Just when Zatoichi plans to greet this power hungry bully, he comes to Eigoro’s house to let Okichi know that since Eigoro’s dead, his debt has been paid, and that Serigazawa is now under his protection (control). Tohachi claims that the village headman’s watermelon field will be the latest field to come under his protection, whether they like it or not. The meek headman tries to persuade Tohachi, but the only thing that does is further cement the bully’s intentions. Zatoichi does some more information gathering to see exactly what this Tohachi is all about, the archer barbarian might be reasoned with. However Zatoichi quickly discovers that this is nigh impossible and questions the farmers in the village to see if he can rouse them to defend themselves. Their pleas fall on deaf ears though, and when Tohachi and his men come, Zatoichi stands alone. As he fights Tohachi’s horde Okichi runs from house to house pleading with the farmers, trying to guilt them into fighting for their homes and livelihoods. Only the young Yasuzo, wracked by guilt and shame, runs out to fight by Zatoichi’s side, though he’s immediately hit in the heart by one of Tohachi’s arrows. Empowered by Yasuzo’s attempt to do the right thing, Zatoichi cuts down the remainders of Tohachi’s men until it’s just him and Zatoichi left. The Blind Swordsman rushes the archer barbarian, takes an arrow in his other arm, before defeating the would-be lord of Serigazawa. As he’s departing, Okichi says goodbye one last time before Zatoichi walks off.

My favorite part: “Zatoichi’s Pilgrimage” is one of the films in the series that stuck to a more streamlined plot, and those always seem to have a more well rounded story. It may be simpler in some ways to the more complex plots of past Zatoichi films, but when cut down to the core motivations of the character as a righter of wrongs, fighting against institutional injustices, and generally standing up for the little guy- the film retains a greater sense of powerful storytelling. The villain this time around was brash and bold, no scheming this time around, Tohachi tells you he’s going to rule over you before he tries to do so, and that made for an entertaining antagonist for the series.

Why it’s great: While this film isn’t necessarily a knockout within the series, it is memorable and it provides satisfying entertainment value. It’s shot with engaging cinematography, and it’s a more melancholy entry where Zatoichi takes his time in unsheathing his cane sword. He may have started this story out wanting not to kill while on his journey, but after witnessing the extreme tactics of Tohachi, eventually he relents and chooses to take the gang out. This film, not unlike “High Noon”, had a villain that was rotten to the core and enforced the protagonist into a pressured timeline, making for a simplistic- but fun film amongst the series’ best middling entries.

Final Score: 88 Temples of Shikoku

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25 days of Zatoichi The Blind Swordsman: #13 Zatoichi’s Vengeance (1966)

Writer/Director: Hajime Takaiwa/Tokuzo Tanaka (3rd film)

Summary: “Zatoichi’s Vengeance” opens with him stumbling onto a murder scene when he stops a group of men robbing a man dying on the road. When they object to his morality check, they attack, and are swiftly defeated. The blind swordsman kneels to the dying man who gives his name when Zatoichi asks, Tamekichi (Gen Kimura), but more importantly he pleads with his dying breathe to give a pouch of money to Taichi. These are the only clues Zatoichi has at the outset of this journey. Though after a quick stop for lunch the next day he finds a weighted die in the bag with the money, concluding that Tamekichi must have been caught cheating at a gaming house- which is why he was being pursued in the dead of night. After awhile he encounters a blind priest (Jun Hamamura) that hasn’t eaten in some time, and they share a meal together as the stranger drops some wisdom on Zatoichi before heading off to Ichinomiya, at which point Zatoichi decides to check out the local festival as well. There he quickly encounters a raucous small child chasing a group of fellow children that responds to his grandmother calling out, “Taichi! Look at the dirt on that Kimono! Get inside this minute!” Zatoichi then meets with the grandmother and tells them a white lie about Tamekichi rather than offload the heartbreaking truth. He also learns that the town’s no longer the idyllic dream that it had been. Gonzo, the corrupt local official has stormed into the area recently and implemented incredibly harsh financial extortion to all of the merchants in Ichinomiya. Only three of the shop owners have survived the onslaught so far, many having to pay 100 ryo or more to buy back their shops.

From there, Zatoichi does his usual thing, but as always this film has a slight variant to it’s tale. Yes there’s the usual fight against injustices and standing up for the every day people, but this time his tactics come with a cautionary warning from his fellow blind traveler. After witnessing Zatoichi perform amazing feats of swordplay against some hecklers from the crowd at the thunder drums performance (more on that later), the blind priest counsels Zatoichi that by displaying such masterful swordplay in front of Taichi, he may have corrupted the boy and sent him on a path towards violence. He tries to reason with Gonzo’s men, but it only results in him being humiliated by them in front of Taichi and his innkeeper family. Zatoichi eventually storms in when the men return to force payment and he cuts down a dozen or so of them in the street, to which the blind priest chastises him, “Alas, now you have killed, and in front of Taichi too.” The blind swordsman retorts with “What else could I do?” as the priest replies with more vague wisdom, “One hour’s cold will spoil seven years of warming.” There’s also a B story running throughout the film surrounding Ocho (Mayumi Ogawa), the leader of a brothel recently built in the wake of advancing corruption. She’s the former wife of the Samurai Kurobe (Shigeru Amachi), the man hired to kill Tamekichi at the beginning of the film. He tries to win her heart back, but after being abandoned three years ago she’s become disillusioned and numb to the world, and she rejects him outright. Even through rejection, Kurobe meets with Ocho’s boss and seeks to pay off her debt so that she may seek happiness and swears to have the fifty ryo for her release within two days. Thus in the third act we have a villain with great motivation for a fight. He immediately goes to Gonzo’s establishment and demands fifty ryo for any job they require. After a quick rejection Kurobe displays his prowess with a blade and is hired on the spot. Once he hears who his target is, Kurobe had witnessed Zatoichi’s skills when he attacked Gonzo’s men in the street, he raises the required payment because “Fifty ryo is too little for killing him“. Gonzo’s men actually have a good idea for their attack on Zatoichi, to use the town’s thunder drums to disorient him with overwhelming noise. They fight him at night on a bridge, and the silhouette sequence is pretty cool visually, after he overtakes them Kurobe strides up complimenting him on his skill. Kurobe then informs Zatoichi that he must kill him for fifty ryo and that there is no other way, Zatoichi warns him that he may die as a result, but after Ocho’s rejection, Kurobe seems a bit disillusioned with life anyway and he only has the finality of a worthy opponent. After their duel, Zatoichi goes straight to Gonzo’s place and demands the seven merchants’ money back, and the fifty ryo that Kurobe was promised, and three more ryo to repay Tamekichi’s mother for the few lunches he paid for out of the money. With the money returned, Zatoichi tries to tell Taichi’s grandmother about Tamekichi’s true fate- but she stops him, saying that she knew the truth the moment he came to them. Ocho has her debt repaid but is too hungover and depressed to notice, Taichi peers longingly into the distance, and Zatoichi wanders off once more.

My favorite part: The Biwa playing blind priest was a nice touch. Zatoichi’s never really been challenged by a character more moral than him in such a way before. In their last encounter, the priest plays his Biwa and sings to mark their departure. During the song, the Biwa priest breaks a string and likens this to Zatoichi’s moral predicament. “You cannot play Biwa if you just depend on the strings. And if you depend only on your hidden sword, you will not live long

Why it’s great: This film is unique and has lasting impressions for Zatoichi as it has the clarity to question it’s own morality, and the series as a whole. Does it need to be so violent to meet its ends? Judging by the evolution that the series undergoes after “Zatoichi’s Cane Sword”, that answer is yes. After this film, the series wanders with this notion of questioning morality for a while longer. The foundation of the next film ponders the question even further with Zatoichi seeking the purifying cleanse of his violent past with a spiritual pilgrimage.

Final Score: 50 Ryo

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Old School Review: “The Sword of Doom” (1966)

Written by Shinobu Hashimoto and directed by Kihachi Okamoto, “The Sword of Doom” is an existential samurai film that dwells on a titular character that isn’t exactly altruistic, to say the least. This is, essentially, the story of a villain. A Samurai with a unique style, long lost from any traces of morality, Ryunosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai) spends the majority of the film brooding and sulking about until he bursts with a flurry of violence. Don’t fret, this film most assuredly lives up to its pulpy title. Ryunosuke appears suddenly in the opening scene when he happens upon an old man praying for death so that his granddaughter would not be burdened by his increasing fragility. He swiftly grants his elder’s wish and moves along nonchalantly. Our protagonist is almost more of a singular force set upon the world than a human character, a skilled swordsman with a thirst for violence.

Early on in the film Ryunosuke’s father, who disproves of the psychopathic Samurai’s technique, pleads with his son to purposefully lose an upcoming fencing match. His opponent’s wife, Hama (Michiyo Aratama) also urges him to concede and throw the match against Bunnojo Utsuki (Ichirô Nakatani). Ryunosuke agrees on one condition, that Hama sleep with him before the match. Hama agrees, though Bunnojo discovers the infidelity before the match’s start and has made the clash a far more personal affair. After the fight is considered a draw Bunnojo lunges for a kill shot, but Ryunosuke’s entire style leans into this tactic, lying in wait for his opponent to strike with his eyes and sword leisurely cast aside. After Bunnojo is slain Ryunosuke and Hama are run out of town and the film cuts to an unspecified jump in time.

A few years later, roughly, Hama and Ryunosuke are married and considering returning to their village. Ryunosuke’s a sake drunk and Hama is resentful of her husband and her situation in life. Ryunosuke hears of rumors that Bunnojo’s brother Hyoma (Yûzô Kayama) is seeking vengeance, so he does a bit of research. What he doesn’t know is that his father urged Hyoma to train under master fencer Shimada (Toshirô Mifune), to wipe the shame of Ryunosuke’s actions from his family’s name. I won’t go into an excessive amount of detail on every plot point, but that is the skeletal framework essential to understanding the film. “The Sword of Doom” harbors a dense and nightmarish atmosphere that is used to great effect. The cinematography and blocking of the actors is magnificient and alleviates any stress that the admittedly convulted plot contributes to. The remainder of the film has some of the best Samurai action I’ve seen in films (so far), and Ryunosuke’s descent into existential paranoia is an excellent departure from his stoic confidence earlier in the film. Though my favorite scene of the whole film is when Ryunosuke witnesses Shimada’s expertise in killing an onslaught of attackers on a wintry night- his skill is enough to shake the soul of the morally corrupt Samurai. Aside from the Kurosawa films in which these two actors frequently come to blows, “The Sword of Doom” takes a different route, the two iconic Samurai actors never cross blades. Though Ryunosuke is profoundly affected by seeing the superior’s swordsman’s technique in action.

This was the final Criterion Collection film that I picked up through a sale they had recently, and it was worth every penny. The Criterion Collection does an excellent job with their film restoration. They clean up the audio and frames of film of any static or dirt and allow the full vision of the original filmmakers to shine through. Criterion commits to a commendable standard of quality that I personally highly value and I cannot recommend them enough. If you’re in need of a good Samurai film and have exhausted the library of Kurosawa, then this is a fine film to sate your katana brandishing needs.

Final Score: Scores of fallen foe