986 (118). California Split (1974, Robert Altman)

Screened November 15, 2009 on Columbia Tri-Star DVD TSPDT rank #968 IMDb Wiki

This tight, modest picture may not have the presumptions to Monumental Importance as Nashville, but in many ways it's a more quintessential Robert Altman movie, if not a better film. Whereas Nashville maintains an Olympian perspective on its swarming ensemble, California Split inhabits a more complicated space with its two leads, alternating between celebration and skepticism (but never scorn) of their high-rolling gamblers' lifestyle.  It's a world that Altman knows well and it's what allows him to employ his prodigious gifts with a precision and an authenticity that exceeds even his most famous films. (It certainly surpasses the lesser works, where his attempts at naturalist satire are belied by lazy-eyed lensing and snark characterization.)

Take his groundbreaking use of audio in California Split, his first employment of the multi-track technology he developed.  What he does with 8 audio tracks here makes the 24 tracks he used in Nashville seem excessive. It's a soundtrack that's as consuming as a gambler's weekend casino binge - and that's exactly the point. It plants us squarely in a subjective state, what it's like to be terminally hopped up on the high of tumbling dice on green felt, clicking roulette balls and the polite trash talking of pretty much everyone around you. The soundtrack shifts from one of these nodes to another, restlessly searching for some way in to a special insight leading to a big score. It's a real shame that The Conversation hogged all the attention for audio innovations in 1974, because this film does just as much to integrate its audio into the human experience it brings to life.

There are so many good moments, executed with such a natural flow that it transcends the script's imperative to touch on of all the different types of gambling going on in Sin City: from dingy poker halls to race tracks to grand casinos to putting $20 against a dude at a bar to name the Seven Dwarves. Gould and Segal are excellent, with such lively in-the-moment riffing between them that you wonder if Cassavetes stepped in to direct their scenes. They're matched in rapport by Ann Prentiss and Gwen Welles as Gould's hooker roommates; Altman's camera, in full groupie mode, really gets cozy with them as they lounge around in their apartment. It's small moments and movements like in those scenes that are Altman at his best. They yield the full potential of his excitement and interest in the world and in people, without having to package the former into a big statement or belittle the latter in spite.


The following citations were counted towards the placement of California Split among the 1000 greatest films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

David Ansen, Steadycam (2007) Doris Kuhn, Steadycam (2007) Frank Arnold, Steadycam (2007) Richard T. Jameson, Steadycam (2007) Alain Resnais, Most Important American Films (1977) Peter von Bagh, Most Important American Films (1977) They Shoot Pictures Highly Recommended Films


The movie will be compared with "M*A*S*H," the first big hit by Altman (who is possibly our best and certainly our most diverting American director). It deserves that comparison, because it resembles "M*A*S*H" in several big ways: It's funny, it's hard-boiled, it gives us a bond between two frazzled heroes trying to win by the rules in a game where the rules re-quire defeat. But it's a better movie than "M*A*S*H" because here Altman gets it all together. Ever since "M*A*S*H," he's been trying to make a kind of movie that would function like a comedy but allow its laughs to dig us deeper and deeper into the despair underneath...

At the end of "California Split" we realize that Altman has made a lot more than a comedy about gambling; he's taken us into an American nightmare, and all the people we met along the way felt genuine and looked real. This movie has a taste in its mouth like stale air-conditioning, and no matter what time it seems to be, it's always five in the morning in a second-rate casino...

What Altman comes up with is sometimes almost a documentary feel; at the end of "California Split" we know something about organized gambling in this country we didn't know before. His movies always seem perfectly at home wherever they are, but this time there's an almost palpable sense of place. And Altman has never been more firmly in control of his style. He has one of the few really individual visual styles among contemporary American directors; we can always see it's an Altman film. He bases his visual strategies on an incredibly attentive sound track, using background noises with particular care so that our ears tell us we're moving through these people -- instead of that they're lined up talking to us. "California Split" is a great movie and it's a great experience, too; we've been there with Bill and Charlie.

- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times, January 1 1974

Robert Altman's "California Split," which opened yesterday at the Cinema I, is a fascinating, vivid movie, not quite comparable to any other movie that I can immediately think of. Nor is it easily categorized.

Mr. Altman has been quoted as saying that "California Split" is "a celebration of gambling," which is, I think, to underrate it, at least so it seems to someone who is not a gambling nut. The director, his screenwriter Joseph Walsh and the actors have created a movie of so many associations that it's impossible not to see "California Split" as something much more complex and disturbing.

- Vincent Canby, The New York Times, August 8 1974

One of Altman's surest talents is the creation of a whole world, slightly antic and off-center, so that his movies (like McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Thieves Like Us) have a look of surprise, of the familiar transposed in some evasive but still palpable way. Once again he enjoys the collaboration of his excellent art director, Leon Ericksen, who has constructed an entire casino, brightly seedy and lit like a yellow-fever ward, which Altman populates with 24-hour night people. Their faces are ridden with worry, briefly flush with success. Their babble, their half-heard hopes framed in gambler's jargon, are like the running response of some lost congregation. They are Altman's chorus.

Like all his work, California Split (slang for high-low-split poker) has its own bent rhythm. It gives the feeling of having been made with a stoned offhandedness. In fact, there is a relaxed precision governing everything, even Elliott Gould's mumbled throwaways.

California Split is a rejoinder to the terse, glamorously tense world of The Cincinnati Kid, where the green felt is turned into a field of honor. It may be the first movie about gamblers that does not require any knowledge of the rules of a game. California Split is about compulsion, not betting, so the conventions are disregarded. There are no looming closeups of nervously shifting eyes, sweaty foreheads and shaky hands. Altman's premise is that getting hooked on gambling is the kind of emotional brinkmanship that is suicide by inches. This knowledge runs through California Split like a cold current and is the source of the movie's stubborn power. "J.C.

- J.C., Time Magazine, September 2, 1974


Fed up with the unrealistic dialogue he and other actors were forced to say on a regular basis, struggling actor Joseph Walsh wrote a screenplay about his own gambling addiction in 1971. Steven Spielberg, fresh from directing the made-for-TV film Duel (1971), was originally supposed to direct. He and Walsh worked on the script every day for nine months. The director was fascinated by the characters and would react to Walsh’s script, offering suggestions. At the time, the screenplay was called Slide and the two men had a deal to make it at MGM with Walsh as producer and Steve McQueen in the starring role. The whole story was going to be set at Circus Circus in Las Vegas because the studio owned the casino.

A month before filming started, the studio experienced a shake-up at the executive level and with it came a new set of changes. MGM wanted the story to be a Mafia-related “sting” concept with Dean Martinas one of the two main characters. Walsh would no longer be the producer. He and Spielberg left MGM because he realized that they did not understand the point of the film: “I wanted the picture to be almost a celebration of the gambling, the joy of it, going along with it, and then, at the end, you could see where the trap comes in.” Spielberg and Walsh took the script to Universal Pictures where they had an agreement with executives Richard Zanuck and David Brown. However, Spielberg decided to work on another project called Lucky Lady (1975) leaving Walsh and his film stranded.

The writer’s agent, Guy McElwaine, contacted Altman’s agent George Lito, and the director was given the script, read it and loved it. For years, he had wanted to do a gambling film with “the ambience of gambling, and then point out it had nothing to do with money.” He was drawn to Walsh’s script because he liked to gamble himself, his father was a gambler, and the director knew a lot of gamblers. David Begelman, the new studio chief of Columbia Pictures, was a former agent who knew Altman’s agent and greenlighted the screenplay to be made into a film. Walsh was a novice and unaware of Altman’s reputation for taking liberties with the scripts of for his films. However, Walsh was very protective of his script and argued with Altman numerous times over certain details. The only serious revisions to the script that the director made before filming were to background scenes. The writer had seen other Altman films and wasn’t always satisfied with how these scenes played out. He told the director that they could be changed but that he would rewrite them. Walsh wrote a full script for the background scenes, three to four page scenes for good actors to play.

George Segal was cast early on and Altman mentioned Gould but Walsh, even though he was childhood friends with the actor, held back. Altman and Walsh saw other actors, like Peter Falk and Robert De Niro, but kept coming back to Gould. Finally, the actor called Walsh and convinced him that he was right for the role. According to Walsh, on the set, Gould was full of confidence while Segal was insecure. The writer remembers that on the first day of shooting Gould “was there as that character . . . After seven days, George Segal came to me and said, ‘This guy’s [Gould] unbelievable. He’s an octopus. He is absolutely strangling me to death. I don’t even know what to do.’” Walsh told Segal Gould had lived the life of his character and said, “don’t try to act with him, don’t try to outdeal him . . . be off-base – just what you’re feeling – and it’s all working.”

Altman employed members of Synanon, the rehab organization of former convicts and addicts, as extras. The organization received a flat sum and delivered as many as needed each day. California Splitmarked the first time Altman experimented with the use of the eight-track sound system that allowed eight separate audio channels to be recorded and helped develop Altman’s trademark of overlapping dialogue. To this end, he gave the supporting actors and extras significant emphasis on the soundtrack. On the first day of shooting, the effort to keep eight separate channels clean and distinct made everyone very anxious. Haskell Wexler had originally been approached to shoot the film but Altman opted to go with relative newcomer Paul Lohmann who would go on to shoot Nashville (1975) and Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976).

- J.D., Radiator Heaven

Screenwriter JOSEPH WALSH discusses his original ending of the script - and how it was altered - in Stop Smiling Magazine

"I would say if you are a writer and you could produce a picture with Bob, it would be a very good [situation if] you could be right there," says Walsh, "because Altman would come in and say, 'Oh, I would like for this scene, twenty-two clowns, three hookers, nine dwarfs, and whatever.' And this [scene] is supposed to be about a lonely man and one person in the bar. So I would say, 'Well, why would you do that, Bob? Because I don't see it? Why would you come up with that? That feels like off the top of your head. Let's go into it a little more because, let me tell you, it took me about two and a half months to construct this scene, it all ties together into the thing, and...'

"I don't know, maybe it was a plainness, a bluntness of honesty of how I would ask questions, but Bob would - pout would be a good word. I guess that he would pout a little bit on me. You know he actually stormed out of the room many times on me during the picture, during these conversations, but he would always come back and listen as I got to know him more...

"Bob is really a guy who can't take restrictions. Restrictions of any kind. Just feels hemmed in by them. He's wonderful when he gets enthusiastic. So if he's enthusiastic, if you question that, right away it's a damper to him. Some part of him doesn't want to listen to questions. Eventually, if you say somethign clearly and you're not fighting him - at any level - because I really wasn't fighting him - he listens..."

"Remember, this was going to be Spielberg's picture, THE picture. This was a time when he wasn't making much in pictures. This is the one that really got to him. Steven said to me, 'It is good, but I would have made twenty-five, fifty million dollars with the picture.' Later on, after he had seen it three or four times, Steven said to me, 'The picture is much better than I thought it was. I had to see it again and again and again.'

"Steven would have built that last scene, that gambling scene, into one gigantic orgasm, climaxing the last forty pages of the script until you were on the edge of your seat. He would never have filmed it as loose [as Altman].

"He's a master at building it up, Steven is, whereas Altman comes from a whole different world. More of a European style. Steven could have manipulated that film into fifty million dollars at the box office, and that would have been exciting. But Steven knows it is a really special film. Yes, he might have made more money, but he didn't know if he could have made a better film."

- Walsh, quoted in Patrick McGilligan, Robert Altman: Jumping Off the Cliff.  Macmillan, 1989. Pages 375-376, 381.


Robert Altman's masterful 1974 study of the psychology of the compulsive gambler. Elliott Gould, loose, jocular, and playful, and George Segal, neurotic, driven, and desperate, are really two halves of the same personality as they move from bet to bet, game to game, until they arrive for the big showdown in Reno. As in all Altman films, winning is losing; and the more Altman reveals, in his oblique, seemingly casual yet brilliantly controlled way, the more we realize that to love characters the way Altman loves his, you have to see them turned completely inside out.

- Don Druker, The Chicago Reader

Gould and Segal on some wild casino sprees in Los Angeles and Reno, speeding through a compulsive night world of frenzied overlapping chatter. Like Hawks, Altman feels rather than thinks his way into a subject, with a special interest in how people relate to one another in moments of crisis. In the process he shows more of what's happening in America than most newsreels, coaxes jazzy and inventive performances out of his actors (Prentiss and Welles are particular treats), and asks for a comparable amount of creative improvisation from his audience while busily hopping from one distraction to the next.

- Time Out

California Split begins with Altmanesque babble, which is always in the background. We’re used to gambling movies made in a style as feverish as their protagonists. But Altman sits back and watches the ebb and flow—the traffic of lost souls.

David EdelsteinNew York Magazine

Bob (Altman) le Flambeur. The contrast is between the "daylight gambler and the player at night" (Balzac), the numb drifting of George Segal versus the nonstop vaudevillianisms that Elliott Gould breezes through to cloud his desperation. The two meet among the rummies, bond over bar counter improv: "Twenty bucks says you can’t name the seven dwarfs." "Dumbo... Dumbo flew." In their shadow world, everything is makeshift: Shaving cream is applied to welts, cereal and beer constitute a meal in a stranger’s home. Everything is performance: Segal and Gould pretend to be cops to scare off a jumpy john in matronly drag (Bert Remsen), Gould seduces Segal back into the game with his "one-armed piccolo player" bit. And everything is a bet, from playing basketball with a bunch of teens to slapping half of a night’s winnings on the hood of a car in an attempt to get a mugger’s gun away from your face. Play or get killed, play and get killed. "Don’t think about it, take the money and go!" Nothing enhances Altman’s visual-aural density like the bustle of poker circles, race tracks, boxing rings. The hooker-roommates (Ann Prentiss, Gwen Welles) consoling each other in bed, the barfly yammering about her pooch, the casino janitor surreptitiously slipping a coin into a slot machine -- every character seems to carry an entire comedy of desolation inside.

Fernando CroceCinePassion

This is a film about gambling, a metaphor-for-life which seems to have a particularly compelling pull for Altman. Altman, a self-confessed recovering gambler, returned to the theme with Quintet – a sci-fi picture which stands as one of his strangest and most gripping films – and increased the stakes: play the game or face death. Quintet was set during a future Ice Age in a world with dwindling resources; who lived and who died depended on participation in the game of the title. There's nothing so novel going on inCalifornia Split – a wholly naturalistic picture set in the 1970s – and yet its characters feel just as lonely and pathetic (and lovable) and the outcome of the games they play just as live-or-die important.

The director who pursued California Split most aggressively before Altman became attached was Steven Spielberg. While I don't want to make a snap judgment about what kind of film Spielberg would have made – indeed, his early work (eg Duel [1971], The Sugarland Express [1974]) showed just as much willingness to portray desperation and unhappiness as his most recent work does; it's only mid-period Spielberg which seems to me sappy or unambiguously sentimental – I think it's safe to say that it would have been a considerably different film from what Altman made. The very fact that an atmosphere existed in Hollywood where Altman could have access to properties being pursued by Spielberg – a player and company man even before Jaws (1975) validated him as a money-making player in the eyes of the studios – is astonishing.

But it's some measure of the greatness of this film that this fact is perhaps the least of the astonishing things going on in California Split: Altman's astonishing mise en scène – contemplative of every level of interaction within a room, a bar, a place – has rarely been put to more revelatory or personal ends. It's a masterpiece.

Peter TonguetteSenses of Cinema


California Split (1974) can be taken on one level as another entry into the buddy film cycle, though it manages to escape some of the more uncomfortable sexual evasions and misogynistic attitudes of these films by keeping its emotional level low, by allowing, as few American films do, emotions and emotional relationships to be chancy, fleeting, nondestructive, unscarring. Unlike other buddy films, it gives its women characters equal status and equal strength. Though the Gwen Welles and Ann Prentiss characters are whores, they do not suffer and are not condescended to, nor are they any more oppressed by their situation than their male counterparts are by gambling. George Segal's Bill is sad a good deal of the time, but mostly because he does not experience eitehr the thrills or the agonies in gambling that so many other films on the subject have insisted one must feel.

In California Split, Altman substitutes melodrama a sort of emotional laissez-faire and does so mainly by organizing not only the subject but also the narrative form of the film around gambling. The film's structure is that of a game of chance, a playful, random, offhanded series of events full of accident, coincidence, and peripheral action brought to the center in a more extreme way than in the previous films. But the adjective is misleading, for the film is not "extreme" in any way. If anything, it is extremely gentle and undemanding, requiring only a pleasure in its playfulness and its improvisational effect. The film is carefully crafted to be open not to various interpretations but to various reactions to its juxtapositions and anomalies; it is made to be analogous to the wheel of fortune that closes the film, spinning and stopping where it will.

This is, of course, not improvisation in the usual sense. Though much of the dialogue may have been made up in rehearsal and in preparation for shooting, the structure of chance and coincidence, the joking interplay of events in the film and the expectations of the viewer would have to have been carefully planned. California Split holds an important place in Altman's work: experiement, joke, a game about gaming, it also moves him a bit beyond the generic revisionism of McCabe and The Long Goodbye into a greater revision of narrative structure in general, of the ways movies tell their stories and can be made to tell them differently.

- Robert Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Stone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman. Oxford University Press US, 2000. Pages 384-385.

In California Split... the supplementary sound material has an inventive, dynamic function in relation to the action, serving more as a lively contrapuntal counterline than as a static one-to-one gloss. In the second scene at the local poker parlor, one of Shotlwell's songs begins loudly over a long shot of the card players, becomes faint and is overtaken by these players' dialogue in medium shot, and then resumes loudness over a close-up of Bill - delineating a dodgy kind of fan-dance in relation to a spectator's diverse routes into the scene. And when Charlie and Bill arrive in Reno, Shotwell's jazzy recitative-with-piano and Charlie's independent free-form rap suddenly (and gratuitously) converge on the phrase "nobody there" - a striking demonstration of the blind vicissitudes of chance (such as the curious proliferation of elephants and Barbaras), which operate throughout the film on multiple levels.

In all Altman's best films, the emotional center gravitates around a pronounced feeling of absence - a sense of opportunities lost, connections missed, kindred spirits divided and scattered - and in many respects the independent sound material serves to embody some form of this failed utopia: a "commentary" of lyrical idealism abstractly bridging discontinuous characters.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, Essential Cinema. JHU Press, 2004. Page 84-85

What’s an 8-track mixer? According to the maestro of overlapping dialogue himself, speaking in David Thompson’s Altman on Altman (Faber and Faber, 2006), this is a system developed by Jim Webb known as Lion’s Gate 8-Tracks, and it grew directly out of Altman’s ongoing efforts to make on-screen dialogue sound more real. Sound mixers would frequently complain that some actors wouldn’t speak loudly enough and Altman would counter that this was a recording problem, not a performance problem involving the actors’ deliveries. Plant enough microphones around the set or on the location — in this case, eight — and one could always adjust the volume later, when the separate channels were being mixed together and one could decide which channels should predominate, and in which proportion. In other words, assuming that you had a certain amount of scripted dialogue and a certain amount of “background” improvs being delivered at the same time — the modus operandi of many Altman movies, especially this one — trusting to luck was a matter of recording all this dialogue on eight separate tracks. And listening to voices was what you did afterward — shoot first and ask questions later, working out a hierarchy of what should have the most clarity after the fact. If an improv was funnier or more relevant than a scripted line delivered at the same moment, allow the former to overtake the latter.

Even before the title sequence starts, over the familiar Columbia Pictures logo, California Split has already started to chatter. A steady rush of talk — telegraphed, overheard, sometimes barely audible — spills into the opening scenes like a scatter of loose change from a slot machine, meeting or eluding our grasp in imitation of a strictly chance operation. Admittedly, the overall odds of the game are somewhat fixed because the movie has a script (by Joseph Walsh, a gambler himself), two box-office favorites and hard Hollywood money behind it. But the improvisatory spirit is unmistakable, if only because an alert audience is obliged to ad-lib in order to keep up, compelled to shift its attention as often as the characters.

So using Lion’s Gate 8-Tracks was putting into practice a certain dialectic of chance and control, one of the cornerstones of Altman’s filmmaking style. And this would become even more systematic in the movie Altman made next, Nashville, where instead of having just two main characters, Altman opted, at least in theory, to feature two dozen. (Some of them proved to be much more prominent than others.) And when he made A Wedding in 1978, he arbitrarily decided to double that number to 48.

A compulsive casino gambler, Altman once boasted, “At one time I could stand at a craps table for two days.” And he inherited “by chance” a film project scripted by another compulsive gambler, Joseph Walsh, who had been developing his script with Steven Spielberg, of all people, during his pre-Jawsphase. (Walsh was a child actor in the Fifties and Sixties, prominently featured as Joey Walsh in such films as Hans Christian Andersen and The Juggler and countless TV shows; in California Split he plays Sparkie, a bookie owed a fortune by Bill.)

Of course Walsh was taking a gamble himself by trusting his script to a master doodler like Altman who favored improvs. Nevertheless, figuring out what’s prearranged or not in this movie isn’t always a simple matter, and it’s often the spirit and climate of improvisation that counts more here than anything else. The opening sequence, where Charlie and Bill first encounter one another at a poker table in a gambling hall, certainly looks and sounds authentic, but it was shot on a set designed by Altman regular Leon Ericksen, who redressed a dance hall. Most of the extras were hired from the drug rehabilitation center Synanon, although a few real gamblers were included as well, and some of the background dialogue was loosely plotted if not precisely scripted by Walsh (whose own brother Edward plays a pivotal role as another poker player — a sore loser who accuses Charlie of cheating, and later beats him up). So the mix between real and semi-real, simulated and actual, is pretty intricate, and it’s only because of the DVD commentary by Altman, Walsh, Gould and Segal that we know that Charlie and Bill’s drunken efforts to reel off the names of all the seven dwarfs were invented by the two actors.

Jonathan RosenbaumStop Smiling

Robert Altman's disgruntled comedy California Split, aside from its typically busy soundtrack (it was the first movie Altman used eight-channel audio to capture all the dialogue), seems a relatively straightforward buddy film... But it's also an anti-buddy parable in which George Segal and Elliott Gould's homosocial behavior is equated unflatteringly against their obsessive gambling addictions... Adding emphasis on the homo-ness of their lucrative bond are the repeated instances where the interference of women breaks both their concentration and their hot streaks. (At the climax of the film, a naïve PYT cuts $82,000 worth of momentum by placing a single chip on a game of craps, giggling, "It's my birthday.") At the film's open, Segal's character is separated from his wife and, thus, finds himself wandering amid the dozens of unattractive, pasty women who populate the low-stakes, rec center poker tables. It's almost as though he's predetermined to make another go at his marriage by surrounding himself by two types he's not attracted to: on one hand, chain-smoking, fat-jiggling, muumuu-wearing, cranky old housewives, and on the other, men. But Gould's rapacious mockery of the first category seems, at times, to give Segal pause over testing the viability of the second. Not necessarily because Gould rubs shaving cream into the bar-fight wounds all over their torsos, or because he's at least a more reasonable fuck buddy than Bert Remsen in drag. There's something in Gould, among the few scattered catcalls of "fag" from various bottomless dancers in various seedy floating casinos, that Segal gets. What exactly it is he gets is as mysterious to me as many of the half-caught conversations in Altman's films, but, then again, I am an actual fag with a predictable lack of interest in that definingly macho sport of throwing away my earnings on rounds of wallet-wrestling. People like me, I guess, are too busy spending their copious disposable income on end tables and as many subscriptions to GenreVice, and maybe Adbusters as it takes to cover them. Oh, and reading gay subtext into movies likeCalifornia Split.

- Eric Henderson, Slant Magazine

From Rhett Miller


Altman excels at the sound design of his films. It is commonplace to rely on sound to amp up action and horror films, but as far as drama and comedy go, there are few soundtracks as layered and complex as those found in Altman films. Splitis one of his finest examples of sound gradation, as each location surrounds itself from sounds from all directions. In the masterful opening poker sequence, you get the clanging of poker chips, conversation by the leads, the flutter of cards, people in the background talking about how much they are going to bet, and then finally narration from a television explaining the intricacies of the game. In one sequence Altman is able to convey so much audible information, and he does it with such a complexity that would make multiple viewings even richer, allowing you to focus your ears on different planes of conversation. Altman’s tracks mimic life, in that he gives you the ability to choose a conversation like you would at a party, but those lines of dialogue are there if ever you choose to go back and listen in. Like cinema verité aimed to capture visuals with an unbroken wholeness, Altman’s audio tracks capture locations above your standard boom mic. Sounds come from all depths and amplitudes, and don’t seem confined by the motivations of a script or story. Everything rings with messy authenticity, of an ambience taken right out of the streets and not the back lots of Hollywood. The sound design is paramount in establishing that Altman’s real characters inhabit a real world. Imagining an Altman film without sound would be like imagining a Lucas film without CGI, it couldn’t be.

From Shawn McLoughlin:

dvd_video-9These two prostitutes that play the “heroes” lovers are an absolute joy if only because they also seem real. They aren’t typical downtrodden and drugged up whores. Nor are they of the highest-class call girl stock. But they relate well to each other, and throughout their scenes we get a sense of who they are and what they could be, even though it is never really mentioned. The last time we see them one is holding the other in bed, consoling her after the gambler she had a crush on leaves her. For a good minute this consolation goes on, and there is an importance to the consoler discussing the future even though the characters do not return. It further defines them as people and by this point in the movie it is easy to admire them as such. Without this scene, the film would be at a loss, because the audience would be without knowing their story. They parallel the gamblers and are just as important. It is almost too perfect a match play.

dvd_video-5From Adam Lippe:

Luckily, California Split was made before Altman developed this hatred for his casts, when his focus was more on developing his style. Here his methods are the long, slow zoom-ins, his cross cutting of sound – forcing the viewer to pay close attention if they’d want to catch everything (packing in as much information audibly as De Palma does visually, check out the side conversation in an early scene at a bar, where a mother begs her half-naked stripper daughter to spot her $30 so she can gamble) – and an ear for casual dialogue, which appears rambling at first, but is clearly carefully chosen. It falls in line with the way that he seems to be learning about his settings and locations as we do. Like Gould’s house in The Long Goodbye and the whorehouses in McCabe & Mrs. Miller, he hasn’t made up his mind about how he feels in advance. Altman’s lighter touch, allowing the movie to build around the actors, means that Elliot Gould and George Segal have no fear about making fools of themselves, yammering nonsense and even singing and dancing – badly – to old minstrel songs. Just one year later, Altman would use poor singing against his characters, in Nashville, by having a female disrobe and embarrass herself on stage, (probably the first instance in which his cruelty was so exposed.) This style of mocking is never evident in California Split. Altman easily could have made the part time hookers the butt of the joke and the cross dresser would have been just as easy bait, but he avoids the nastiness to his own credit.

- Adam Lippe, Shawn McLoughlin and Rhett Miller, posted on A Regrettable Moment of Sincerity


Film Misery ranks California Split as the 10th best Altman movie of all time.

As one of the most deliriously entertaining movies ever made about the sport of gambling (and it is a sport, given the mental and physical punishment these men endure), California Split is Robert Altman at his best, complete with all of the standard features — overlapping dialogue, casual asides, random noises, and effortless, seemingly unscripted banter. Elliott Gould and George Segal star as, yes, “loveable losers,” but they never resort to manipulation in order to secure our empathy. If truth is to be told, they couldn’t care less what we or anyone else might think, as they’re fevered engines of compulsion — always pushing forward in search of that next fix. From poker parlors to the gaming tables of Reno, these two men always seem to be chasing the big score, yet even when they realize their dream, it never seems to be enough. After Segal’s big poker win against the likes of Amarillo Slim (who makes a brief appearance), Gould says, “It doesn’t mean a fucking thing, does it?” Of course it doesn’t. And why would it? Gambling, at least in terms of an obsession, has little to do with money and everything to do with feeling alive for yet another day. Why else engage in deliberate recklessness?

The wide-screen compositions are typically lush and buzzing with activity, and despite the lack of plot, we accept Altman’s vision because we’re having too much fun to care. And let it be said: Elliott Gould, now an all-but-forgotten entity, was, for a brief time, a genuine screen presence. In back-to-back Altman features (this film and 1973’s The Long Goodbye), Gould was so engaging as to be the perfect representation of the Everyman, although an Everyman who was smarter, sharper, and more appealing than anyone else. He could size up the competition (in a great sequence at the backroom poker game), beg for credit from the cashier, attempt to use a Milky Way as an ante, and play nickel slots with all the gusto and seriousness of a master gambler, all without seeming forced or obvious. Segal is more desperate, while Gould is the sort of man who would (and does) laugh in the face of an ass-kicking, and argues — persuasively, I might add — with a gunman in a casino parking lot. Now this is a man I’d like to have at my craps table.

- Matt Cale, Ruthless Reviews

Bill and Charlie are the heroes of California Split, if such a term can be applied. The performances by Elliot Gould and George Segal are perfect; there is a naturalism here that makes the whole thing feel so off the cuff, improvised. The interplay between the two of them is endlessly fun to watch. Both actors are very engaging, and they do well with the hilarious script by Joseph Walsh. This film came on the heels of MASHMcCabe & Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, and was made a year before Nashville, but California Split seems not to be mentioned as often. The film could most closely be compared to MASH, as both films are funny, cynical, gritty, and feature two frazzled main characters. Despite the similarities, California Split is the better film. Altman was obviously trying the same thing, but here he nails it, perfects every theme he hits on.

The acting in the film is terrific, but the direction is masterful. There are more audio and visual layers in this film than there are in any ten films. The way Altman weaves in and out of comedy and tragedy is assured, and we follow along willingly. We do not have to know anything about gambling to enjoy this film, and in the end we know something that we did not know before.

California Split has an almost documentary feel to it, both in the improvisational way the actors perform, and in the style in which the film is shot. We are there with Bill and Charlie, from top to bottom, in every bar and track, at every mugging. We feel for these guys, and Altman creates a palpable world for them to exist within. The script is solid, and the supporting roles are fully realized.

- Dylan Grant, Movie Freak.com

As always in Altman’s films, the roster of supporting performances add indelibly to the movie’s richness and charm. In this case, Ann Prentiss (Paula Prentiss’s sister — their resemblance is uncanny) and Gwen Welles shine as a pair of “happy hookers” who take on decidedly unusual jobs — including, in one of the film’s funniest sequences, spending “quality time” with an “elegant” transvestite (Bert Remsen). Welles’ romantic interest in Segal — and the ultimate outcome of their potential tryst — is handled especially well. Equally impressive is Altman’s ability to evoke the various milieus of the gambling world — poker halls, race tracks, boxing rings, casinos — with characteristic attention to detail; throughout the film, we genuinely believe we’re “there”, wherever we are.

Towards the end, California Split becomes somewhat challenging to sit through, simply because we feel such anxiety about Segal’s situation (he owes a loan shark, played by screenwriter Walsh, $2200 — but instead of paying him off once he secures the funds by selling his car, he goes to Reno to gamble instead). Ultimately, however, this simply demonstrates how well Altman has done his job: we really get itthat gambling is an addiction like any other, one that has the potential to ruin lives within just a few short hours. It’s a good thing Altman made this one a comedy rather than a tragedy, or we’d really be clenching our teeth.

- Film Fanatic.org

There are a few things in the film that stand out for me as being especially well done. At the beginning, we see Gould watching an instructional film in the casino and a voiceover explains not only the rules of poker, but also much of what the audience is seeing on the screen. This brilliant stroke is reminiscent of the final intercom narration at the end of Altman’s M*A*S*H. The two men’s continued insistence on turning everything into a wager is also a nice touch, most notably when Bill bets Charlie he cannot come up with the names of the Seven Dwarfs. The humor in Charlie’s struggle to name them is matched by the seriousness in which he approaches the task.

- Clydefro Jones

The film does have a truly terrible strained scene, that seems dropped into the film from some other universe. It involves the sudden introduction of a pair of transvestite `dates' of the girls Charlie lives with(for one 5 minute too long scene). Actor Bert Remsen humiliates himself with full commitment playing an old nervous transvestite (he does a great job). It's a mis-fired comedic bit that calls too much attention to itself. It feels completely artificial in a movie that had seemed utterly real previously. Thankfully the scene is not very long and the movie goes right back to being as honest and authentic as it had been before.

Interesting Trivia

It turns out this is one of Altman's most personal films.  He had a gambling addiction, he identified completely with these characters which is why he wrestled the project away from up and coming Steven Speilberg (who had t.v.'s Duel and the feature Sugarland Express under his belt at this point). That left Speilberg free to do JAWS!!!

- Chris Jarmick, Viewpoints.com

The screenplay's masterstroke—seemingly improvised through Gould and Segal's rapid and relaxed deliveries and Altman's trademark overlapping style, but which is credited to Joseph Walsh (his only writing credit)—is that it never places judgments on its characters or subject matter. This is not a film designed to condemn gambling or gamblers. It's like a film about alcoholism that admits that sometimes, drinking can be fun—when you're gambling, it's possible to win as much as lose. That this idea comes across more here than in other films about gambling addiction (James Toback's The GamblerOwning Mahowny) may be because it often has the look and feel of a comedy, albeit a hard and cynical one. The film manages to find humor in its own desperation, with scenes that are often as funny as they are sad—both the sequence in which Charlie and Bill bet on who can name all Seven Dwarfs, and the one in which Charlie risks his life at gunpoint to talk down a mugger's asking price, come to mind.

- Patrick Bromley, DVD Verdict

“California Split” is an unbelievably entertaining movie. Altman’s choices are so surehanded. I was stunned anew at his unself-conscious genius when I saw the tracking shots that follow Bill and Charlie through the streets of Reno, on the way to the casino: Bill walks as fast as he can, and Charlie buzzes along by his side, making small talk and idle suggestions. I get the feeling little of this was scripted, that Altman just told Segal to walk with singleminded determination and advised Gould to riff on that. In these few breezy shots, which cover less than a minute, Altman establishes the physical and emotional milieu for the thrilling climax. Moviemaking — the alchemy between actors and director, between form and content — doesn’t get any better.

- Ben, Ill-Informed Gadfly

It's a film wherein Altman is in his most excessive. The overlapping dialogues make an entry right from the start with an introductory lesson on poker-playing overlapping with Charlie's monologues turning into a very heightened and exciting game of poker (which Altman denies us from actually taking part in). We only see what Altman wants us to see. He envelopes us immediately with an atmosphere of constant chaos; the same chaos that addicted gamblers breath and take in as fuel for their supposed streaks of good fortune. It takes time for the audience to get used to Altman's unsparing techniques, yet its quite rewarding. There's so much to observe from Altman's filmed surroundings (the other gamblers' quirks and characteristics, the whore in the casino-bound bar and her gambling mother, the like-minded excitedness of those betting on their favorite horses or boxers). California Split is much a film that delights in the gambling subculture as it is a film about the two buddies' road to huge dollar wins.

- Oggz Cruise, Ogg's Movie Thoughts

That there's no palpable despair or discernable anger in Altman's realization of this is why California Split remains one of the filmmaker's finest accomplishments. As rambling and anarchic a comedy as M*A*S*H, but devoid of that film's gag-writer broadness, this sober but kind-hearted paean to the dignity of losing winds up feeling awfully precise in its seeming looseness.

Clarence Beaks, DVD Journal

Working from a script by Joseph Walsh but appearing to be almost totally improvised, this was director Robert Altman's tribute to gamblers and gambling, turning out what was really a film for insiders rather than casually interested parties who had never so much as dabbled in the pasttime. The whole film has the ring of authenticity when it comes down to the performances and Segal and Gould were rarely better as the shady friends whose easygoing nature - Gould in particular - masks a desperation to win, a need to succeed as far as the next race or poker game.

- Graeme Clark, The Spinning Image


NOTE: Gregory tells us (August 2009): I just been informed re: my California Split review that currently streaming version of this film on Netflix is in complete form without music edits that are on DVD. The DVD rented from them most likely will have the same edited version currently available, so it's strictly on-line version. ***

NOTE (as sent to us in email): Unfortunately, music rights problems have obliged Columbia to remove almost three minutes of footage and make several soundtrack alterations. Their end product is perhaps the most extreme home viewing travesty since those notorious early video transfers of The President's Analyst. The cut/rescored scenes are as follows:

1- 11m 42s. A 32-second shot has been cut during Bill and Charlie's initial conversation. This showed Bill scat singing while Charlie informed him that "I love to play poker with those redneck fish. Y'now, who think they're Nick the Greek. Love to get 'em steamed. Easy to beat. Suckers".

2- 31m 50s. A scene showing Bill and Charlie at the racetrack ends as Charlie says "Let's go see a man about a horse". This scene originally continued for an additional 8 seconds as the men walked off singing together.

3- 35m 30s. After Barbara (Ann Prentis) opens the door of her house, Bill and Charlie enter. Charlie then turns to a man standing in the doorway, gives him a coin, and says "Here you are, Mr Tenor". This will make no sense to anyone who has not seen the original version, which contained an additional 24 seconds of footage showing Barbara opening the door and finding 'Mr Tenor' singing 'Happy Birthday To You'. Bill and Charlie then appeared and joined him in the song (while Barbara insisted "It's not my birthday").

4- 52m 32s. As Bill enters the strip club where a poker game is taking place, we see a basketball-themed cartoon playing on a television. In the original version, we also heard the song ('Basketball Joe') that accompanied this cartoon. (Incidentally, this animated clip can also be seen - and heard - in Hal Ashby's Being There.)

5- 77m 20s to 79m 16s. The two Phyllis Shotwell songs - 'Goin' to Kansas City' and 'Me and My Shadow' - heard during Bill and Charlie's journey to Reno have been replaced with an instrumental piece. 'Me and My Shadow' provided one of the film's most striking moments. As Shotwell arrived at the line "We never knock, 'cause there's nobody there", Charlie gestured at a passing car and shouted "there ain't nobody there". Although this scene is visually unchanged on the DVD, Charlie's line has been removed from the soundtrack (at 79m 2s). Incredibly, Joseph Walsh can be heard describing this moment (which he refers to as "a miracle") on the commentary track!

6- 86m 46s to 88m 4s. As Charlie walks away from the poker table, the sound of Phyllis Shotwell singing 'You're Nobody 'til Somebody Loves You' has been replaced with Shotwell's rendition of 'The Lonesome Road' - a reprise of the song we'd already heard her singing a mere 85 seconds ago!

7- 90m 12s to 90m 53s. A shot of Bill playing poker no longer includes that Shotwell song heard dimly in the original.

8- 92m 9s. After Charlie leaves Bill at the blackjack table, a 1m 40s scene has been cut. This showed Phyllis Shotwell behind a piano singing 'Georgia On My Mind'. While Charlie struck up a conversation with a fellow gambler sitting near Shotwell's piano, Bill continued playing blackjack, and we saw that the woman dealing him cards was wearing a badge revealing her name to be Barbara (making her the last of this film's many Barbaras). Columbia's editing has Charlie return to the blackjack table only a few seconds after he left. **** Here's what Altman said about the cuts (from an interview in StopSmiling magazine):

"And a lot of them weren't [released] because of music clearances, or certain copyright problems. We had to make adjustments. The cost of the music track on California Split was so high that Columbia just couldn't put it into video or DVD. That kept it out of circulation for years. Finally, Elliot Gould went in to find out why they weren't releasing it. When they told him it was because of music, he said "Isn't there something we can do about that?" So I made some cuts and took a couple of songs out. We got it into what they considered a reasonable budget. The picture wasn't hurt by it. And that's out now. It doesn't make any difference, the quality of these things. It's as good as anyone sees them..."

- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver

In the commentary, Altman says that California Split is his least plot-driven film, and while that may be debatable, this is a great example of how concentration on two protagonists can result in a fascinating character study. Screenwriter Joseph Walsh is responsible for many of the highlights of the film, including a scene where Charlie refuses to give a robber all of his winnings and offers him half instead, but filming in sequence allowed Altman to take advantage of the many improvisational scenes, and it's through these scenes that we gain most of our insights into the personality of both of the leads. Segal and Gould's quick wit are responsible for the amusing conversation where they both try to remember the names of the Seven Dwarves (surely an influence on Quentin Tarantino's extensive pop-culture name-dropping in Pulp Fiction and beyond), but it's the continuity filming that allowed Altman to take advantage of this spontaneous creativity.

Image Transfer

The slightly inaccurate colors are typical of films of the '70s, but skin tones are good. There's a fair bit of grain, but black levels are good, and there are no distracting compression artifacts.

Image Transfer Grade: B

Audio Transfer

Altman's multi-tracked audio comes through clearly despite the limited fidelity. There are a few scenes where it's difficult to make out the dialogue, but this is clearly intentional and not a limitation of the transfer.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

Disc Extras

Altman is joined by scriptwriter Joseph "Joey" Walsh and stars Elliott Gould and George Segal for a commentary track that is continuous, except for brief interludes where they pause to appreciate a few select scenes. From their occasional attempts to recall details, it's obvious that they haven't seen the film for a while, but this is a relaxed and amiable chat. Altman gives us details of location shooting versus constructed sets, and claims that this is his first film to use the Lions Gate 8-Track Sound System (which seems at odds with the multi-tracked soundtrack from M*A*S*H). Walsh explains how many of the scenes in the film were based on his own experiences, as well as those of his relatives, and explains some of the character motivation. There are some amusing anecdotes, such as how they forced newbie George Segal to spend a night gambling his own money, which to their dismay unravelled when he won. While not the most enlightening of commentaries, it's enjoyable and reasonably informative.

Trailers for Easy Rider and Big Night are presented full frame, and Altman's latest movie, The Company, is shown in an anamorphic 2.35 transfer.

Extras Grade: C

- Robert Edwards, Digitally Obsessed


IMDb Wiki

The Elliott Gould Zone - with bio, filmography, articles, interviews, trivia, etc.

Elvis Presley never made it. Bob Dylan did but he was more than three decades into his career at the time and the Al Hirschfeld illustration pictured him serenading Lucille Ball. Clint Eastwood, perhaps the most durable film star of the past 30 years, made it but had to share the honor with fellow superstar Burt Reynolds.

The "it" to which I refer is the cover of Time magazine, once considered the ultimate sign that one had arrived at the pinnacle of fame and cultural significance. After all, Time is not Photoplay or People but a newsmagazine whose pages chronicle world leaders and world events that impact the lives of people around the globe. It’s one thing for FDR or Adolf Hitler to be designated the week’s top story, but for a performer it is heady stuff indeed.

Presley, perhaps the most popular entertainer of the 20th century, and certainly one of the most influential, was never favored by this prestigious publication, the editors having found his swiveling hips distasteful and his singing "awful" (their description of his performance on a 1960 Frank Sinatra TV special). Dylan was condescending to the media, aggressively challenging a Time reporter’s values in a memorable scene in Don’t Look Back. Before his double Oscar victory for Unforgiven, Eastwood made genre movies mercifully free of pretention and, therefore, he made the grade only in tandem with the even less pretentious good ole boy Reynolds.

Ah, but Elliott Gould, with only six movies in release, made the cut, hogging one of Time’s 52 covers for the year 1970. "He embodies an inner need to be hip at the risk of seeming silly, the struggle not to give in to the indignity and/or insanity of contemporary life," Time wrote, calling the shaggy haired actor a "star for an uptight age."

- Brian Fairbanks

To grow up Jewish in the 1970s was to be in the thrall of Elliott Gould.

Sure, the suburban teenage Semite had his Woody Allen for comic relief and his Paul Newman for confirmation that he was, indeed, a member of a Chosen People, but the sight of the mangy, Jew-fro-covered head of Gould on the big screen during that long-forgotten decade got more than a few movie geeks through adolescence.

“I was such a scared kid,” he said.

So, naturally, Gould went into acting.

“No, I went into song and dance, because I was shy, repressed, inhibited — but I found that if I learned routines and memorized them, I could communicate.”

The result, of course, was an actor who did more than communicate. He created an entirely new Jewish cinematic archetype.

“He was a superstar,” said Jake Perlin, programming associate for BAMcinematek.

Perlin said that most filmgoers would focus on the three Robert Altman films in the series — “M*A*S*H,” “The Long Goodbye” and “California Split” — but the real gems are Peter Hyams’s “Busting” and Ingmar Bergman’s “The Touch.”

“In both movies, he’s incredibly brave,” Perlin said. “He puts it all on the line. Actors today are so unwilling to play a conflicted or negative character. And when they do, it’s still so neutered. Elliott Gould in ‘The Touch’ is anything but neutered.”

Gould offered his take on working with Bergman, plus his thoughts about the other films in the fortnight-and-a-half of fun:


“It was so fabulous for me to be so free [in creating the role of Trapper John]. That performance was more spontaneous and freer than anything I could do in real life. Altman originally offered me Tom Skerritt’s role. I never question an auteur, but I told him I’d drive myself crazy playing a southerner, so he gave me Trapper John. Good thing, too, because Trapper John gave me the juice and the spirit.”

The Long Goodbye

“That movie was my favorite, because it came out when I could not get myself arrested. I was out of work for a year and a half. I thought the script was a little old-fashioned, but I was looking for a job. Peter Bogdanovich [the original director] didn’t want to use me, because he thought I was too young. But then Altman directed, and he called me.”

California Split

“That was semi-autobiographical — though I am the character that George Segal played. I only got the role because Steve McQueen dropped out. On this film, I finally learned how to work with Altman. On ‘M*A*S*H,’ he thought I was my enemy. I said, ‘Don’t look at me — I’m always in character.’ But on this movie, he finally got me.”

The Touch

“Working with Bergman, I learned that I couldn’t fully accept all the privileges I was given, because I was given them too soon. Bergman said to me, ‘You’ve gone beyond your limits, and you’ll have to live more to understand what you’ve done.’ The great privilege is to be conceived, born and know yourself and everything else follows.”

- Gersh Kuntzman, The Brooklyn Rail, July 24 2008

968 (110). Le Deuxième souffle / Second Breath (1966, Jean-Pierre Melville)

screeened May 14 2009 on Criterion DVD in Brooklyn NY TSPDT rank #928 IMDb Wiki

Jean-Pierre Melville's last feature in black and white is an extended study of a gray terrain: a criminal underworld that's less dark than cloudy, where truth, loyalty and honor stumble through a mist of greed, distrust and hubris. Melville immerses the viewer in a similar experiential haze by casting a sprawling narrative that spreads gaseously through the oblique and largely unstable relationships among its ensemble; it's not until the masterful heist sequence at the midway point that the film finds its focus.  It's an ambitious gambit, carried over largely by Melville's assured deadpan style, working through scenes with a consummately professional attention to detail mixed with emotional detachment. The lack of the latter spells the doom of tough but aging ex-con Gu (Lino Ventura), whose plans for one last big score are usurped by the compromising of his good name, ironically incited by a police trap that exploits his insecurity over his reputation. This professional code is the real protagonist of the film, demonstrated in virtually every scene and mediated through each character's decisions and the viewer's responses.  Predicated on a world of crime, the code itself is not an absolute good, as it enables Gu and his accomplices to justify killing innocent cops along with more deserving double-crossers and agitators. As with the resistance fighters in Melville's Army of Shadows, the code is an imperfect talisman guiding its followers through a world of overwhelming danger and corruption; among the criminals in this film it proves to be just as fatally insufficient. Nonetheless, it remains Gu's sole remaining principle as he makes a furious bid to redeem his professional honor at all costs, an act of equal parts salvation and suicide.


The following citations were counted towards the placement of Le Deuxieme souffle among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?

Mika Kaurismaki, Sight & Sound (2002) Robert Fischer, Steadycam (2007) Wilfried Reichart, Steadycam (2007) Jean A. Gili, Positif: 10 Favourite Films 1952-2002 Sight & Sound, 360 Film Classics (1998) They Shoot Pictures Highly Recommended Films

Titles by Jean-Pierre Melville in the 1000 Greatest Films:

#240 - Le Samourai #559 - Bob le flambeur #573 - Army of Shadows #734 - The Red Circle #786 - Les Enfants Terribles #928 - Second Breath

Le Deuxième Souffle is less well known than such celebrated films as Le DoulosLe Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge, and has been regrettably neglected due to its long unavailability. The long overdue home video release reveals a transitional film between the romantic genre play of Bob le Flambeur and Le Doulos and the austere and existential Le Samourai. The moments of light humor and romantic diversions from his earlier films have been banished from this portrait of the criminal underworld and the romantic code of underworld honor comes at a steep cost. Melville's direction is more stripped down and austere, his camera more sensitive to the minutiae of detail and his exacting pace and meticulous editing attuned to the weight of time. The careful casing of a room and the tense wait for the arrival of a target are as meticulously measured as the exacting details of a robbery or a shoot-out. It's all there from the brilliant opening scene, a prison break where we never actually see the prison, only the abstract pieces of walls and doors and guard towers that the three convicts must navigate to reach their freedom. In the gray light of early dawn, they wordlessly make their leap, the oldest of the three straining to keep up with the youngest, huffing as he tramps through the forest and races to catch an open boxcar on a passing train.

The film is based on a novel by José Giovanni, the pen name of Joseph Damiani, a real-life petty thief who started putting his experiences and stories to paper while serving eight years of a life sentence. Melville, In his interviews with Rui Nogueria (published in the book Melville on Melville), proclaimed that "I retained everything that was Melvillian from the book and threw everything else out." Melville scholar Ginette Vincendeau, in her book Jean- Pierre Melville: An American in Paris, observes that his adaptation is in fact largely faithful to the original novel, but that the minor changes are also defining. Melville cuts minor characters, removes private lives from his professional characters and makes Gu an isolated loner too proud to accept the charity of his friends. He also restructures the story, providing a strong, clear narrative line through the complex web of relationships and betrayals and the multiple story strands that he slowly winds together: Gu's life in hiding and his scheme to from France, the platinum heist masterminded by his old friend Paul (Raymond Pellegrin), the bad blood with Paul's unprincipled brother (Marcel Bozzuffi) and the dogged investigation by maverick Commissaire Blot (Paul Meurisse), a cagey Paris cop with a savvy understanding of the politics of the underworld. "He isn't your usual killer," he warns his men as they close in on Gu. "He's doomed and he knows it." But Gu does have something to lose. When a less disciplined cop leaks to the papers that Gu snitched on his fellow gang members, Gu becomes almost feral as he risks his own life to restore his honor and redeem his reputation.

Melville began pre-production on Le Deuxième Souffle in 1963, but a long legal battle with another production company (who had also purchased the rights from Giovanni, who apparently thought Melville's option had lapsed) delayed the start until 1966. Ventura has originally been set to play Commisaire Blot opposite Serge Reggiani (from Le Doulos) as Gu. By 1966, Reggiani was out (over a contract dispute, according to the actor), Ventura took over the lead and Melville reworked the role of Gu from an exhausted and fragile older man to an aging but still robust veteran. According to Melville, Simone Signoret was originally signed to play Manouche and the rest of the film was almost entirely recast. The film was rushed into production in February under "extremely difficult conditions" and shut down in mid-March for three months, according to Melville. "When we started again on 7 June, it seemed like a miracle." Even after it was finished, Melville ran into problems with censors over a scene where the police, during their interrogation of Paul, put a funnel in his mouth and pour water down his throat. The Censorship Commission demanded the scene be cut because: "This is not normal practice in the French Police." It was, however, an echo of recently revealed Army interrogation practices in Algeria, which may have made the scene even more troubling to the censors.

Le Deuxième Souffle is at heart a romantic fantasy of underworld loyalty and lives of calculated risk and violence anchored by brilliantly staged and shot set pieces, from the opening prison break to the precision execution of the armored car a heist. But there is a harder edge to the moral compromises made in the name of professionalism (notably the cold-blooded killing of two motorcycle cops played out with the cold dispassion of a military attack, an act Melville doesn't shy away from but neither condemns). For all that thematic darkness, the film became his biggest hit to date and firmly established the maverick auteur as a major mainstream director.

- Sean Axmaker, Turner Classic Movies

Early in Le Deuxième Souffle, police investigator Blot (Paul Meurisse) preemptively details the various phony-baloney stories some criminals involved in a shootout plan to tell, though the crooks' threadbare tall tales still prove successful at keeping them out of the slammer. Jean-Pierre Melville's 1966 film functions in a similar fashion, its story a compendium of well-known, somewhat tired characters, situations and tropes that the director nonetheless utilizes effectively, and thrillingly. In its most basic outline, the plot concerns Gu (Lino Ventura), a thief who breaks out of prison and both commits murder to protect his devoted sister Manouche (Christine Fabréga) and partakes in an armored car robbery for 200 million francs. As with most of the French auteur's noirs, however, the ensuing action defies easy summarization, so unstable and evolving are all of its underworld figures' allegiances to each other.

Written with José Giovanni (based on his novel), Melville's film is another of his meditations on predestination, with Gu's plans to escape from the cops (and France) as futile as any would-be stabs at fleeing his fundamental self, an existential endeavor the roughneck doesn't for a second even consider, so convinced is he that only death awaits. Gu's criminal code of ethics (don't rat, don't betray) is also typical Melville, though the director's handling of these pet themes is, compared to Le Doulos or Le Samouräi, occasionally more sluggish than scintillating, thanks mainly to a script that indulges in a few too many silent, protracted sequences that are gripping in the abstract but, strung together, hinder momentum. Taken as a series of bravura showcases for the director's unparalleled modulation of tone, rhythm, texture and mood, however,Le Deuxième Souffle smolders, its portentous fatalism generated from hyper-composed camerawork and an experimental jazz score that help couch the proceedings in a nowhere-world situated between dream and reality.

Characteristic of Melville's crime canon, the film's rigorously mannered aesthetic creates a decidedly artificial environment, and yet that environment is so meticulously, thoroughly realized that it's breathtakingly immersive. And at no point does Melville's blend of the natural and the self-consciously synthetic produce greater results than during the centerpiece heist, during which the director's masterful command of cinematic grammar—especially his dazzlingly swift transitions in perspective—proves both viscerally and intellectually heady.

- Nick Schager, Slant

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, Movie Martyr

A 1966 film by Jean-Pierre Melville, one of the great eccentrics of the French cinema. Melville specialized in severely stylized versions of American gangster films, bringing out their unspoken existentialism through a camera style that sometimes evokes the minimalist purity of Bresson, sometimes the seamless studio realism of William Wyler. Second Breath, one of his few commercial successes, is a painstaking account of an aging gangster (Lino Ventura) who escapes from jail and plans an elaborate armored-car robbery to prove he's still in the game. It isn't an easy film to watch, perhaps because it moves so deliberately in comparison to its American models, but this somber, repressive, and perverse work displays a ferocious moral and formal integrity.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

Melville's great film noir Le Deuxieme Souffle (Second Wind), one of the pinnacles of the French crime movie, is based on an icily knowing novel and script by ex-Death Row inmate Jose Giovanni, the writer of the noir classics Classe Tous Risques and Le Trou. It stars that magnificently dour, Bogartesque hard guy Lino Ventura as Gustav “Gu” Minda, a famous (in the underworld and among the flics), hard-bitten career criminal who escapes from jail and gets entangled in a doomed heist.

The movie is beautifully shot in crisp, gloomy black and white by cinematographer Marcel Combes, and the supporting cast includes Paul Meurisse of Jean Renoir's Picnic on the Grass (as the bemused inspector Blot), Raymond Pellegrin (as fellow crook Paul Ricci) and The French Connection‘s assassin-on-the-El, Marcel Bozzufi (as the other, badder Ricci brother Jo), and blond anti-femme fatale Christine Fabrega as Gu's good angel Manouche.

Le Deuxieme Souffle was greatly influenced by Robert Wise’s moody, jazzy 1959 American heist thriller Odds Against Tomorrow, which was one of Melville's three favorite films (the others are John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle and William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives). Melville's veneration for Wise's picture extends even to his duplicating the wallpaper here from Robert Ryan’s apartment -- but what he captures more than anything is that mesmerizing, fatalistic, anti-heroic quality of the great American noirs, that sense that crooks and cops are ensnared together in a web of fate that will not release them until the end of the road. Certainly this is what happens to Gu, the most tragic of all Melville's gangsters, a man without a country in a world without a moral compass.

- Michael Wilmington, The Isthmus

From the novel Un reglement de comptes, by José Giovanni, Le deuxième souffle is among Jean-Pierre Melville’s most morally complex and visually captivating works. The film opens as gangster Gustave (“Gu”) Minda and another inmate escape from prison, thus winning a “second breath” of freedom. An overhead shot, because of the design of the prison roof, entombs upright officials in an enormous coffin-like space, suggesting a limit to all breath and “second breaths.” The two escapees jump a train, but the younger man, who jumps off for his destination, ends up a suicide when cornered by the law intent on sending him back to prison. This could have been Gu, whose pilgrim’s progress during his “second breath” the film follows.

Cold, clear-eyed, exceptionally brutal, Melville’s black-and-white Second Breath boxes viewers in a mental coffin, steeping them in an intricate mortal world of cops and criminals. Not for the first or last time in Melville, the drop of a hat off a shot-dead man’s head releases a poignant reminder of our ultimate vulnerability.

- Dennis Grunes

deuxieme souffle 2.jpg


Like many of Melville’s later films, Le deuxième souffle is a kind of “minimalist epic” that has the precision of a scalpel and the intensity of a full-blown melodrama, without being restrained by the coolness of the one or the histrionics of the other. It is a contradictory and paradoxical work in which the pulse of life appears to be pumped in and withdrawn at the same time. These qualities are directly related to how Melville represents physical actions and gestures. Gu’s movements throughout the film are both organic—they seem natural and appropriate—and regimented by the closed-in environments he is placed within. For much of the first half of the film, we watch Gu as he waits for the opportunity to break free from the tawdry, cell-like microworlds he is forced to hide in. Ventura’s performance emphasizes his stocky physicality, the on-set tension between director and actor perhaps bringing a very real sense of hostility and irritableness to his character (though like other Melville characters, he also displays an extraordinary, almost Zen-like patience that is linked to his professional typology). Also typical of Melville, there are numerous shots and scenes that show us characters traveling in cars, but here these act less to open out the landscape and allow these figures the freedom of mobility than to show the restrictedness of the space they occupy and move within (one of the most hypnotic sequences involves Gu traveling on a series of buses, his bulky frame squeezed into ill-fitting seats, to reach his next hideout).

In Melville’s cinema, characters are rarely given a complex psychological dimension and are defined and judged by the “purity” of their actions. Gu is a brutal, driven, and pared-down figure who gains respect, even from Inspector Blot (the wonderful Paul Meurisse), who recognizes his murderous brutality, because he ultimately conforms to and doesn’t break from his “code.” In fact, the key crisis for this character occurs after he is tricked by the police into informing on his criminal collaborators. His hysterical reaction, including an attempt at suicide, underlines the definitional importance of his inscrutable ethical code. But this code or typology is also central to the ethics of the film, and Gu is rewarded with a degree of respect and a heroic death for maintaining it.

Like many of Melville’s films, Le deuxième souffle pivots on a dazzling set piece that relies upon these qualities of observation, varied perspectives, and an almost documentary-like rendering of actions. This central heist sequence is a study in contrast. Whereas most of the film is defined by its cramped and dank interiors, or the minimalist gaudiness of some apartment and nightclub settings, the heist is staged in a vast, windswept, and elemental environment that almost seems to visibly shock the gang. The sequence is a model of both restraint and meticulous detail, showing us a series of actions, gestures, and perspectives that constitute the event. It shows Melville as a complete master of framing, mise-en-scène, and montage, combining and fragmenting each to give us the full sense of this dramatic episode, including its atmospheric brutality. The precision of the sequence mimes the matter-of-fact but bravura professionalism of the gang, as well as the epic minimalism of the film itself. It is a remarkable display, but it is also absolutely in keeping with the pinched, battened-down, almost parched theatrical realism of the rest of the film.

A little too much has perhaps been made of the fact that Melville was an avid cinephile who actually lived above his own film studio, actively blurring the distinction between the world of cinema and everyday life in much the same way that his films do. Nevertheless, much of Le deuxième souffle can only be accounted for in terms of its immersion in and refinement of the iconography and generic conventions of Série noire, film noir, and the American gangster film. Melville’s films in this mode have the quality of afterimages, modernist apparitions of established models fueled by a ghostly world-weariness and the characters’ self-consciously ritualized actions and gestures. A wonderful example of this occurs in the second half of Le deuxième souffle, when Orloff (Pierre Zimmer)—a loyal compadre who offers the desperate Gu his place in the gang—arranges to meet the other gang members to discuss Gu’s inadvertent betrayal of them to the police. As in Melville’s next film, Le samouraï, the main preoccupation in this scene is with process, the meticulous preparation that leads toward what we might call action. Both Orloff and a member of the gang “case” the arranged meeting place first, looking to gain the upper hand, but also preempting the generic requirements of the scene. These preemptory actions highlight the gestural and sartorial qualities and definitions of these characters, their movements having both a narrative and an archetypal function and origin. Orloff seems to be rehearsing the poses of his archetype—and he really is little more—theatrically prestaging the various postures and stances of the standoff that will occur. His awareness of the situation, of his place in the world, and of how this scene will unfold is characteristic of the existential, worldly, and ritualistic nature of Melville’s world. Similarly, it is not until Gu changes into clothing more closely resembling that of a gangster that he is able to break free, even if only briefly, from his clandestine existence.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Le deuxième souffle is its treatment of time. This emphasis is clearly signposted by the almost maddening preponderance of dates and times that appear on the screen, drawing attention to both the procedural and quotidian dimensions of the film we are watching. This play with time, its fragmentation and our awareness of it, places Le deuxième souffleclearly within the realm of the sixties European art movie. But Melville’s film is actually one of the most contemplative and quiet of all crime films, and his concern with time also has more profound implications. Love, friendship, communication, self-respect, and “life itself” are not impossible in Melville’s cinema but are explicitly finite or time-bound. The bittersweet, gruff, highly stylized but deeply felt quality of the director’s work suggests that his preoccupation is less with feelings of contemporary isolation—common in sixties art cinema—and the opportunities that sound and image “situations” offer for compositional abstraction, à la Antonioni, than with the melancholy contemplation of the play of intimacy and inevitable betrayal. Ultimately, Le deuxième souffle offers one of the richest and starkest portraits of the Melvillean universe.

- Adrian Danks, The Criterion Collection

Melville's ninth film and last to be shot in black and white, Le deuxième souffle (known in English as Second Breath or Second Wind) is, I'd argue, the one most indebted to the Hollywood gangster films he famously loved. It's not his best by some margin, ranking roughly in the upper middle of his impressive output, but no other film Melville directed could so easily be pictured as a potential Warner Bros. success starring Cagney and clocking in at just over half the 150 minutes of Le deuxième souffle. What Melville does is take a fairly basic story, which he co-adapted from the José Giovanni novel with the author, and quite literally turn it into an epic. The plot is plucked almost directly from any number of pictures where a convict escapes from jail and takes on what he perceives to be a final job, only for things to eventually go awry. There are several nuances that keep this idea eternally fresh and relevant, but Melville falls for few of them. He instead seems to consciously position his film as an alternative to the fast-paced entertainment of the Warner Bros. gangster movies. Le deuxième souffle is no one's idea of being fast-paced.

From the opening prison break and through the planning, execution, and fallout of a platinum heist, Melville's Hollywood adoration mixes nicely with his desire to add some extra meat to the thin bones of the American gangster film. Every little decision and ramification gets probed and prodded. The utter banality of an unofficial profession seemingly exciting to a fault becomes fascinating in the sheer detail used. We see the methodical nature of the heist and its planning, waiting, and clean-up. This isn't Rififi or Melville's superior Le cercle rouge, but it's certainly in that same vein at times. A single job is still the centre point and it serves as the catalyst for everything that happens before and after. The quick, yet violent efficiency employed during the heist is almost hypnotic in its matter-of-fact style. By also sketching out relationships that Gu is entwined in, either romantically with the icy blonde Manouche or through tacit friendships with men like Orloff, Melville adds some gravity to the proceedings. Gu is intimidating to the point of being likable, but he's hardly redeemable. This is a criminal through and through - guilty, convicted, imprisoned and escaped, and still unable to leave well enough alone before making another violent run for the money. Where Le deuxième souffle struggles for elbow room is in convincing the audience that these people are worthwhile at all.


Those even remotely familiar with Melville's other films may be able to guess at the final result. For all his interest in these gangsters and criminals, Melville certainly seemed unimpressed by their plight when it came to stamping out a fate. Over and over again, the men at the centre of his films die violently. They either accept this conclusion or they struggle to overcome it, but there's ultimately no escape. The twinge of melancholy for Gu is established in his counterpart, a police commissioner identified as Blot (Paul Meurisse). He's played superbly by Meurisse as someone just as interested in the unwritten code of his profession as Gu. When Melville lets criminals be his protagonists, he usually makes sure to attach the ethics of the trade near their murderous hearts. Blot is a total funhouse mirror of Gu with the obvious distinction that he's chosen the other side of the law. There's an interesting distance maintained between the two for much of the film, though this seems as incidental as it is necessary. Those paying attention may notice that Michael Mann tends to wear his Melville influence on his sleeve in a handful of crime-related films. The relationship between Ventura and Meurisese isn't entirely unlike that between De Niro and Pacino in Heat. The main difference lies in allegiances. Few will watch Le deuxième souffle and hope for Meurisse's Blot to triumph while Pacino is positioned more as the protagonist in Heat. Mann tends to follow this line of placing sympathy in the direction of the good guys in a couple of his most Melville-influenced films, notably the excellent Miami Vice (with Thief being more classically in the spirit of Melville).

Aside from the either painfully or deliciously patient approach used, depending on one's perspective, Le deuxième souffle seems intent on establishing every last demon contained within Gu's deceptive freedom. The film progresses and his liberation increasingly feels like a trap at most every turn. Since Melville peddles in tragedy as much as he does character-oriented crime tales, the expectations for the protagonist's future should be limited, but if you're watching intently then you're probably in his corner to a certain extent. The existential wave had not yet completely fallen over Melville by this film, but where Gu goes and where he has to go become basically identical. The commentary on this disc even goes so far as to question whether Gu could be subconsciously suicidal. On some level, that may be a valid reading. His actions don't necessarily resemble those of a man content to live out his life on a beach somewhere. Part of what makes Melville's films so endearing is his reluctance to romanticise the crime genre despite allowing the characters to exist within a warm, though still detached, frame. The director doesn't really seem indifferent to them, but he's ever the realistic pessimist. In the world he created on film, he has reason to be.

- Clydefro Jones, DVD Times

On its release, ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’ was an instant hit and is one of Melville’s most commercially successful films. The Parisian underworld was familiar territory for Melville, and the obsessive glare with which he repeatedly explored such a troubling and seductive milieu meant he took great pleasure in romanticising and glamorising the exterior world of the hardened criminal. Masculinity was a key thematic motif and the imagery of the underworld in ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’ is one that holds a deep prejudice towards women, and patriarchal rituals that occur between the male characters in many of Melville’s films are evident in how the central protagonist and anti-hero, Gu, has no real desire to abscond with his lover, Manouche. Instead, having already escaped from prison, Gu is lured back into the underworld when he is offered the chance to help pull a lucrative heist in the foothills of a desolate Marseille landscape.

When Gu is framed by the police as an informant, he goes to extreme lengths in order to clear his name and prove to the underworld of his religiously devout adherence to a moral code that can never be compromised or corrupted in anyway by righteous institutions like the police. Redemption rarely ever exists in the world of Melville’s crime films, and Gu is another in a long line of stylish, likable criminals who are made to suffer at the hands of a nihilistic underworld that cannot offer any kind of escape. Escape becomes almost like a form of humiliation in ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’, and though this macho attitude espoused by Gu is spectacularly conventional in how it is manifested in the final sequence in which he goes seeking some kind of payback, it also functions as an extended metaphor for a repressed desire to seek death at the hands of morally dubious men like himself.

If conventionality in terms of genre is something that finds itself quite visible in the narrative, what separates ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’ from Hollywood crime films is Melville’s intricately detailed and visually minimalist manipulation of framing, composition and camerawork; technical elements that would are usually rendered obsolete and unoriginal in most Hollywood mainstream genre films are deliberately fore grounded so that when a character enters the frame, where they are going to position themselves within the frame becomes a point of active interpretation that is intellectually rewarding for the spectator.

The heist sequence in any Melville film is a real dramatic high point, and in ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’, the heist of an ordinary armoured van is made altogether more gripping for Melville’s instance to set the action in the scenic landscape of rural Marseilles. Melville’s greatest tool for making the heist sequence in his films a genuinely enthralling spectacle was the rejection of a bombastic Hollywood soundtrack used by many filmmakers to create a false kind of emotional investment. Silence, minimal dialogue and natural sounds in the heist sequence forces us to observe rather than become preoccupied with the nature of the event. Such a primitive technique used by early cinema pioneers works superbly in the hands of Melville, making us value and experience the micro details that are typically excised in traditional crime films.

Though his characters are infinitely stylish and have a wonderfully eclectic dress sense, Melville more than anything wants us to see the edges to the stark reality of the life that Gu must lead once he has escaped from prison. It is a life made up of living in the shadows, hiding and making oneself invisible to the naked scrutiny of an unforgiving society that views criminals as a cancerous disease. When Gu is killed at the end in a hail of bullets, nobody mourns his life except Manouche, his lover and the only female character in the film, but even she can now finally see the worthless and indispensable nature of the underworld and how treats its own occupants, citizens and loners with nothing but contempt.

- Omar Ahmed, Ellipsis

Le deuxiéme souffle was adapted by Melville from the book and screenplay by José Giovanni, the real-life criminal who also wrote Classe tous risquesand the jailbreak picture Le trou, the latter based on his own famous prison escape. Giovanni rarely resorts to gangster movie clichés, instead writing his scripts more like reportage. To match this, Melville and cameraman Marcel Combes shoot Le deuxiéme souffle in a pseudo-documentary style, almost like French Noir Neorealism. They use real locations and a loose, fluid camera style that follows the action rather than dictating where the action goes, maintaining a spontaneity even in the carefully planned crime sequences or Gu's overly cautions travel patterns. The platinum hijacking is shot as a virtuoso action scene, each moment planned to the tiniest detail, and with the patience and precision of the jewelry store break-in in Dassin'sRififi (later aped by Melville in Le cercle rouge). The men don't speak, they just fulfill their roles. Yet, even with this eye towards realism, the director doesn't abandon the expressive shadows of old-school noir completely. Take, for instance, when Manouche goes to see Blot, and the police station corridor is so dark, we can barely see their faces. It's questionable whether Manouche is being led to her salvation or destruction.

Giovanni's felons are only glamorous in the sense that they come off as lone warriors trying to stave off change, to continue to operate within a system that is becoming obsolete. Lino Ventura played a similar criminal type in Classe tous risques, the older thief who is ready to get out of the game. Melville likely saw something in these men that appealed to him. His crooks are professionals who do their jobs and they do them well, or else they might lose their lives, much in the same way hardboiled gumshoes of American detective fiction managed to maintain a level of good in a rotten world by sticking to their manly code of personal ethics and the structure of "how things are done." The ultimate expression of this ideal would come a year later, realized by Alain Delon in Le samourai, but Le deuxiéme soufflehas a trench-coated precursor to Delon's hitman in Orloff (Pierre Zimmer), the movie's ultimate get-it-done man. He's the one who hooks Gu up with the platinum heist, forgoing the big money himself, all because he respects Gu and knows he needs the work. Orloff doesn't even want credit for it, forbidding anyone to tell Gu he was responsible even while vouching for the older hood's viability. Orloff says Gu can do it, and that should be good enough; likewise, when things do go wrong, there is nothing more important to Gu than clearing his name.

And trust me, it's not a spoiler to reveal that things go wrong. From the very start of Le deuxiéme souffle, there is a sense of impending doom hanging over Gu. It's not just that calendar, either, though that does serve as reminder of time running out--not that we know when the deadline is, just that one is coming. Before Gu even appears on screen, a title card informs us that some believe that man's only true power in life is to choose the time of his own death, though for any one of us to give up simply because we are tired is to waste everything we have experienced prior. Once we read that, we know that Gu can only have one destination, it's just a question of how he gets there. In one sense, I suppose, we know he can never escape and just retire, that wouldn't fit Melville's mission statement. We also can't believe someone as meticulous as Gu would walk into his own death without at least having some plan for escape. No, Melville never intended his little lead-in to be taken so literally.

Rather, the director was giving us something to chew on, like the Eastern proverbs he would use in Le samourai and Le cercle rouge, little pearls of wisdom for the audience to roll around in their heads while watching the drama unfold. As our existential hero, Gu isn't looking to end his life, but instead he attempting to take back his right to choose his own fate, to wrest it away from the cops and criminals who are trying to dictate how he will go out. This solidifies metaphorically as his eventual quest to clear his name, to prove to his peers that he is not a rat. The one time he actuallydoes attempt suicide, it's a desperate, flailing attempt to silence the lies. In a hard-bitten society like this one, actions must trump words. Honor matters, but it's what a man does that proves he has it.

As the credits roll, Le deuxiéme souffle leaves one with the strange satisfaction of a self-fulfilling prophecy. While in other instances, Gu's fate would be cause for sadness, in this case, it comes off more as a job completed. It still gives us reason to reflect, but not to lament.

- Jamie S. Rich, Criterion Confessions


"You have to choose, to die or to lie," prefaces 1962's Le Doulos, French slang for "informer." Le Deuxième Souffle (1966) begins with, "A man is given but one right at birth: to choose his own death." Cowboy gangster Jean-Pierre Melville almost always chose to die and almost always violently. Thieves, murderers, fugitives, solitary men coming into contact with one another to reassert their honor and betray their friends, Melville's heroes usually get Le Deuxième Souffle's "second wind," but to call it fleeting ascribes time too much elasticity. Le Doulos' B-grade noir heist film piles up bodies faster than Jean-Paul Belmondo can drop a dime or get Richard Widmark on a dame, but Belmondo never quite achieves full focus of character. Melville can't make up for his own script, which drags even for the director's usual measured pacing. Serge Reggiani (Casque d'or) shines like a single bulb swinging in an attic murder, his hushed tones and hunted glances unforgettable. A vintage interview with Reggiani documents his decadelong professional "blackout," in which he refused to keep up with the Joneses. In this case, that's Melville favorite Lino Ventura, of recent Criterion gripper Classe Tous Risques, as well as the great Paul Meurisse (Diabolique). Ventura opens Souffle escaping from "the can," hot as his henchman's luger, out to settle some scores, dodge Meurisse, and pull one last heist on his way to Sicily. Melville's every bit as methodical, but his material's better and his leading men titans of French film. At nearly 2½ hours, almost every minute clenches its jaws in gangster predestination. Behind Melville were Criterion essentials Les Enfants Terribles and Bob le Flambeur; ahead lay Le Samourai,Army of Shadows, and Le Cercle Rouge, also gold-bullion DVDs. In these bloody B&W sieges, Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973) lay down with death and got up once again on equal footing with William Wyler (The Desperate Hours), his American idol.

- Raoul Hernandez, The Austin Chronicle

The heist is only one part of the film. What Melville is primarily interested in is Gu's sense of honor, the code he lives by, and that he hopes others adhere to. Ventura was forty-six at the time of filming, and is presented as a guy who is starting to get old. Minda makes the leap across the prison roof, but barely is able to catch the freight train that takes him to Paris. Christine Fabrega's Manouche is a woman still attractive, but no longer youthful. Added to this mix is Paul Meurisse as Blot, a police detective who is so familiar with the Parisian gangsters he deals with that he can supply them with their own fantastic alibis before they are offered, spoken with deadpan, sarcastic delivery. Le Deuxieme Souffle is about people who know that they have limited futures. This may be best seen in a shot of Minda, alone on New Year's Eve, ripping off the last page of a daily calendar, leaving only a blank page.

Much of the action takes place in empty, or nearly empty spaces. The buildings are crumbling, while the interiors are shabby and in need of repair. It is not surprising that the only thing shiny and new in Minda's hideout is the lock that isolates him from the outside world. The heist takes place on a rocky stretch of road that gets little traffic. The heist partially takes place in the rain, while another scene is of Minda interrogated in a muddy lot. As in his final film, Dirty Money, Melville likes to put is characters in a nowhere town stuck in crappy weather. Melville's Paris seems empty of people, even during the daytime. Against this austerity is the what appears as a visual non sequitur, at least initially, of a dance troupe performing in a dive more bar that nightclub, appearing in the early Paris based scenes. There is really no reason for the girls to be in the movie from a narrative standpoint, but they do look good making their moves against the cool jazz style score ofBernard Gerard. In the end, Le Deuxieme Souffle is about people who are alone, even when they are with other people, fighting to maintain their individual sense of integrity in the face of compromises imposed by others.

- Coffee, Coffee and More Coffee

Why is Gustave Minda — I guess I’ll call him “Gu” from here on in, like everyone else does, even though the nickname is incongruously babyish — such a sympathetic figure? Or at least a figure you find yourself rooting for? He’s more than just a hard, hard man, after all; he’s a killer equally capable of killing people from a distance (like the guys on the motorcycles guarding the van full of platinum) or close up. (Gu has a thing for taking people on drive through the countryside and killing them while the car is still moving — it’s unclear whether this is a way of ensuring he’ll have fewer witnesses to the crime or if the gun, the victim, the highway, and the moving car are a peculiar constellation of elements that satisfy some inchoate psychopathic compulsion deep inside his brain.)

Maybe it’s that shot early in the film of Gu clumsily climbing aboard a train car shortly after climbing over the prison wall, barely able to run fast enough to keep up with the car, and then barely able to swing his leg up into the open cabin. (According to Ginette Vincendeau’s audio commentary on the Criterion DVD of the film, Melville instructed the engineer to make the train go faster than Lino Ventura was expecting in order to achieve precisely this level of unathletic awkwardness.) Maybe it’s the sight of Gu later in the film trying to keep a low profile as he travels to Marseilles: he’s grown a fussy little mustache and wears a pair of glasses as he rides a seemingly endless series of buses to his destination, looking like a dumpy office manager who can’t afford a car and has to take public transit on his business trips. Is it the shot of Gu showing up at his old flame Manouche’s apartment, his head bizarrely appearing at the bottom of the half-open door, like a five-year-old cautiously spying on his parents? Is it the little domestic glimpses we get of Gu holed up in various cramped hideouts, briskly shaving in anticipation of a dinner with Manouche, or enjoying a cozy solitary dinner on New Year’s Eve, smearing a thick coating of pâté onto a piece of toast? Or is it the genuine agony he displays when Commissaire Blot tricks him into identifying his partner in the platinum heist, branding him forever as a police informant?

Gu is the character we get to know best in Le Deuxième Souffle, and yet by the end of it, we feel as though we barely know him at all, or why his inevitable doom affects us the way it does. Except for Blot, the characters don’t speak much, and they operate according to obscure motives and codes of criminal conduct. (It was reassuring to listen to the DVD commentary and hear Vincendeau and fellow Melville expert Geoff Andrew admit that the plot is kind of confusing the first time through — I was starting to think I was just slow.) The characters have a certain glamour, thanks to the charisma of the movie stars playing them, but they live drab, joyless, sexless lives that no one watching them would envy.

Maybe it’s Melville who I truly envy: the restraint of his storytelling, his treatment of violence as a grubby, matter-of-fact reality instead of an occasional for spectacle, his ability to take this complicated set of criminal plots and counterplots and transform it into a nearly abstract meditation on loyalty, honour, and age. Strange that a director so austere and grown-up — it’s impossible to imagine any of Melville’s characters ever being children — should have been such an inspiration to a filmmaker as exuberantly adolescent as Quentin Tarantino.

Stray Observation: As in Le Doulos and Le Cercle Rouge, Melville stages a couple of scenes in a nightclub and pauses the action so we can enjoy the kooky floorshow — this time, it’s a bunch of girls in black cocktail dresses and cigarette holders striking poses together to cool jazz music. I love these scenes, although I’m always amazed at how these little clubs can afford to keep a team of 10 dancers on staff every night along with all those waiters and bartenders.

- Paul Matwychuk, The Moviegoer

For me, there are two primary aspects to consider when judging a film: what does it have to say, and how does it say it. A flick can succeed or even excel in one department, but it's all for naught if it lets viewers down in the other. Case in point, Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Deuxième Souffle, a French gangster noir with a hell of a story on its hands. The film's main aim is to question the idea of honor among thieves, of whether those engaged in such seedy activities truly abide by any sort of shared moral code. Melville has a great concept to work with, but the laborious way in which Le Deuxième Souffle moves along ends up almost crippling the movie's burgeoning coolness factor.Casting an introspective eye on the criminal underworld is all well and good, often doing Le Deuxième Souffle a great thematic service. But it's in moving away from overtones and towards building up an actual story that Melville makes the first of numerous missteps. Most of the time, watching the film is like watching him play Pin the Tail on the Donkey — sometimes he's right on the mark, and other times he might as well be in Timbuktu.

The trouble is that Melville's focus is way too inconsistent. He builds up the pivotal heist sequence throughout the film's first half, but once it's over and done with, he just sort of meanders his way through the crime's aftermath. You can almost see him let the camera keep on rolling as he goes off to make a sandwich or something. The film's style and sharp look (which, thanks to the Criterion Collection's restoration, is nothing short of gorgeous) begins to emerge as dressing that barely covers up the bitter taste left by Melville's prolonging of the plot. Aimless scenes abound in the latter two acts, with Melville eventually losing his storytelling finesse and, disappointingly, ending the rather messy affair in an obligatory hail of bullets.

- A.J. Hakari, Blog Critics.com

Le Deuxième Souffle was, when it was released in Europe in 1966, the last film to be shot by Jean-Pierre Melville in black-and-white. The French master's first color film was Le Samourai in 1967 and was followed within two years by Army of Shadows, two inarguable masterpieces that the US wanted nothing to do with at the time. Like few other directors, Melville took naturally to color, uncovering a deeper isolation in an array of tones that had seemed simply tragic in his peerless black-and-white work. Recently remade in France with Daniel Auteuil in the lead, Le Deuxième Souffle, which literally translates into "The Second Breath," might be considered "minor" Melville in comparison to the towering giants that followed it, but even that would rank it among the best crim films of the 1960s.

Deuxième Souffle is perhaps Melville's most elementally structuralist affair. The acting is superbly restrained, the movement and space mapped meticulously. It is perhaps the most fluidly edited of the master's films. In this respect, though, it is thoroughly apolitical, the film foresees the globe-trotting paranoia of Army of Shadows and the director's late-era crime epic Le Circle Rouge rather than representing the penultimate work of Melville's black-and-white period.

Few things in Melville's oeuvre rival the centerpiece heist of the police transport, executed with the precision of a Swiss stopwatch. Bernard Gérard's unhinged jazz accompaniment is suspended while Melville focuses on procedure and movement, ingratiating the scene with the permanence of the hold-ups and shoot-outs of Ford and Hawks. Like those two directors saw the myth of America in their westerns, Melville sees the cold efficiency of the French bourgeoisie in his teeming underworld, two worlds he often remarked as being nearly one and the same.

Of all the gangsters, thieves and hoodlums that populate Le Deuxième Souffle, few have the presence that Pierre Zimmer gave the properly-named Orloff, a gigantic, reserved gangster who passes the heist to his old friend Gu and remains one of the few people who sticks with the aging thief when he accidently rats on Paul. Possessed of nearly the same frosty manner as Ventura, Zimmer dominates his scenes with stiff physicality and a collected expression, especially in a nerve-wracking sequence where he looks to be cornered by Jo and Antoine. That this was Zimmer's debut performance renders it near-astonishing.

Not many of Melville's crime sonatas end happily and Souffle is no exception. Tracked by a corrupt police force, Gu ends up stuck between Jo Ricci and his thugs and Commissar Blot (the great Paul Meurisse), the investigator who has been following him throughout. Like the doomed samourai that he so often filmed, Melville became increasingly fatalistic while approaching his 55th birthday, seeing as both his father and grandfather had suffered fatal heart attacks in their 55th year. Eerily, he suffered the same fate only two months before his 56th birthday in 1973, a year after releasing his swan song,Un Flic, in France and two years before it would see release stateside. Like Gu, there is a sense he saw his fate coming and, rather than let his reputation succumb to uneasy modernity, simply said "To hell with it!" and continued to make brilliant, tight-lipped noirs like this.

- Chris Cabin, Film Critic.com

It all came affirmatively back to me: the geometrized prison break in the cold gray (black-and-white) dawn; the seven silent minutes to the first line of dialogue; the five-minute unobtrusive single take as the prissily sardonic police inspector (Paul Meurisse) sizes up the scene of a nightclub shooting, supplies all the answers and alibis to his own questions, and proves himself in the course of this virtual monologue the equal of Melville (or vice versa) as an aficionado of the underworld; the pregnant first look between the escaped convict and the cotton-candy-haired gun moll at their reunion, matched and surpassed by their pregnant last look much later on; the protagonist’s trademark killings in a moving vehicle; the mountain-road stickup of an armored car; the superb ruse by which the policeman gets the gangster to spill a single bean; the evocative shots of dark-coated figures in a landscape, scantily clad chorines on the dance floor, abstract polygons of light and shadow; the spare, neurotic jazz score; the stoic camaraderie and the stern judgmentalism about good people and bad, whether crooks or cops. And through it all, that great block of granite, that craggy colossus of the French screen, Lino Ventura — a block with worrisome cracks in it (is he over the hill? all washed-up?), a block that undergoes liquefaction over his deviously induced betrayal of his cronies and his principles, an unnerving turn of events that can only be put right by doffing his fusty mustache-and-glasses disguise, donning a regulation trenchcoat, and doing penance by way of a two-gun suicide.

Near the end, my most treasured sequence in all of Melville leaves Ventura out entirely, and centers on a subordinate figure in the large population of characters, a natty iceman (Pierre Zimmer) with the sinister name of Orloff. “He’s all style and no action,” someone appraises him. Well, let’s see. It is he who is tabbed as the protagonist’s go-between at an assignation with three ticked-off mobsters. As a precaution, he visits the meeting place ahead of time, picks out a spot atop an armoire where he can stash a gun out of sight from normal human height. He practices standing with his back to the armoire, reaching up over his head, pulling down the gun with the business end forward. He goes away satisfied. Then the gypsy triggerman from the hostile trio also checks out the meeting place beforehand, finds the gun, keeps it. He’s satisfied as well. Comes the meeting. The talk turns testy. Orloff sidles over to the armoire, positions himself in front of the empty hiding place. The gypsy tenses in anticipation, eggs him on. Mr. Cool Cat is about to have his fur ruffled. You’ll need to see the film to find out what happens next, a moment even more magicianly than the one in Le Samourai when the professional assassin unveils his white gloves from beneath a washroom towel. And, as I would tell the undergraduates, this alone should suffice to deter us from a life of crime: we’re not smart enough.

To object that Melville glamorizes his subject would be to miss altogether the point of a film that is manifestly a movie buff’s fantasy. Aside from that, the film is doubtless a “meditation,” as they say, not just on the gangster genre but on themes of loyalty and trust, aging and death, sang-froid and savoir-faire,arbitrarily in gangster garb. Any piddler of course can meditate on such stuff. It takes a true artist to arrange his thoughts and feelings into a form that will fully express and validate them. Many a filmmaker loves gangster movies, pays homage to them, imitates them. Melville improves them. His love runs deep. I can’t say that the extra twenty-five minutes, when I could identify them, added anything to the film but length, two and a half hours all told. Mere length is not nothing, however, in a film I never want to see come to an end. The extra minutes necessitate no revision in my previous opinion of it.

- Duncan Shepherd, The San Diego Reader

The films of Jean-Pierre Melville are obsessed with detail. Consider the scene in Le Deuxième Souffle, in which Gu and his associates conduct a carefully-planned heist. Every single detail of this heist is outlined with cautious observation. Melville wants to give us a sense of where everyone is and what they are doing at all times. This is not uncommon for a heist sequence; many films have examined such scenes in careful detail. What sets the work of Melville apart is the fact that gives every single scene in his movie an equal level of artful attention. The director is equally fascinated by the conversations and actions of every character related to the situation. The set-up is just as important as the event itself, and more surprisingly, so is the aftermath.

Le Deuxième Souffle gives us yet another Melville film that offers up one compelling sequence after another. I would love to know what the average shot length is in his films. I know that it has to be considerably higher that it was for most directors of the era. Melville's lets his camera run on and on and on, sometimes sitting still and sometimes slithering in a voyeuristic manner across the room. However, I don't think Melville is showing off. The shots do not draw attention to themselves, and they are always quietly supporting the action rather than outshining it.

That may be largely because Melville provides such engaging characters for his camera to study. Here there are two important performances that are equally fascinating. The first comes from the rugged Lino Ventura, who takes Gu across a long and carefully-modulated character arc. Ventura is quiet and reserved most of the time, dealing with each new situation with a low-key efficiency. Then watch him in the moment when he is asked to participate in the heist. He is told that his friend Paul is involved. "Paul!" he says excitedly. It's the first little burst of emotion we see from the character. When he reaches his loud scenes towards the conclusion, they have an explosive impact due to Ventura's patient and finely-tuned portrayal.

The other notable performance comes from Paul Meurisse as Blot, the man on the side of the law. Meurisse has less screen time than Ventura, but he does a lot with his scenes. Meurisse is the most charming and charismatic character in the film, blending wit, sarcasm, kindness, and intelligence into the character. We are constantly surprised by the way Blot reacts to certain situations. He has an unusual ability to see the truth of any situation. Consider a moment when others in the police department suggest several tactics they might use to catch Gu. Blot smiles gently and dismisses them all, declaring that there's more or less nothing than can do until Gu makes some sort of mistake and leaves some sort of clue. This is a man who can follow the smallest of leads to a conviction, but he is honest enough with himself and the department to know that he might as well be shooting at gnats unless he finds a starting point.

Once again, Melville successfully blends many aspects of American gangster and noir genre films with French culture. His movies do not look or feel like most of the French films being released during the 1960s, and they have a unique vibe that can't really be found anywhere else. His films have the aesthetic of a Bogart movie, but the meditative and reflective qualities of a European film (though not necessarily a French film). Many American noir efforts combined a gorgeous visual style with a breathless narrative speed, but Melville is too much in love with the genre to permit himself to breeze through it. He wants to soak in each moment, stretch it out, give viewers time to fully appreciate every detail of it before moving on.

- Clark Douglas, DVD Verdict

Melville clearly has a taste for the existential and the absurdist—with character names like Gu and Blot (the chief inspector), it sometimes sounds as if we're in a late-period Beckett play, Endgame with guns, or something. There are some absolutely extraordinary sequences in the picture, without question—the most notable would have to be the central heist, a 200-million-franc job that's too sweet for Gu to resist, even though he's hot as blazes. It's kinetic and tense and visual, Melville at his best, sort of both a tribute to and a conscious attempt to outdo Rififi. But other scenes make you feel as if you're in some sort of noir echo chamber, scenes that bear little or no relationship to real life, or even to the story, but are there simply to conjure up the mood of the gangster pictures so close to Melville's heart.

Titles pop up with date, time and location, alerting us that we're barreling toward the inevitable and unpleasant climax—it's a familiar noir device, maybe most famous from Stanley Kubrick's The Killing. And the odd brother/sister relationship is in many respects at the heart of it all—there's something a bit untoward and overly intimate about their relationship, and he seems at other times ready to pimp out Manouche, who understands the power she can exercise over men. Her interactions with Blot are especially charged and dangerous. (Christine Fabréga is beautiful and ice cold in the role.) But it's also unquestionably an excessively long picture—it clocks in at two and a half hours not because it's got a tremendous amount of ground to cover, but because it's a little too in love with or impressed with itself.

- Jon Danzinger, Digitally Obsessed

Review by Glenn Erickson for DVD Talk

Review by Mick LaSalle for The San Francisco Chronicle


Criterion's disc shows minor signs of age and wear and some chemical degradation across some reels (noticeable mostly in darker scenes), but it's eminently watchable and a welcome release for the rarely screened Melville film. The DVD features commentary by Melville scholar Ginette Vincendeau and critic Geoff Andrew, who intersperse their reading of the film and observations of style with production details, and a new video interview with filmmaker and critic Bertrand Tavernier, who worked as an assistant and publicist for Melville in the sixties and shares stories about the director. Also features a pair of archival interviews with Melville and Ventura: a short four-minute newsreel piece (which includes a brief clip of actor Jose Ferrer, who is not in the finished film but was apparently cast in the film at one time) and a more formal 26-minute interview from the French TV series Cinema. An accompanying booklet features an essay by film professor Adrian Dirks.

Sean AxmakerTurner Classic Movies

Aside from a few more noticeable artefacts in the darker scenes of the beginning - this Criterion transfer settles down to have some fairly strong moments. It appears to have a few more earmarks of Criterion digital restoration magic which I, actually, never found overly obvious but it seems to have helped smooth out the source inconsistencies. I wouldn't say it is a perfect transfer but for the most part it looks quite competent and reasonably clean. It is anamorphic (in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio), progressive and situated on a dual-layered SD-DVD.  Hopefully the screen caps below will give you a good idea of what it will look like on your system.

- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver

The Video:

Criterion has done a nice job with the 1.66.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of Le Deuxieme Souffle on this DVD. The black and white image is nice and stable and while eagle-eyed viewers will probably spot a couple of minor compression artifacts in some of the darker scenes, overall things are pretty stable. Contrast looks set properly and there aren't any problems with any serious print damage save for a couple of fleeting instances that thankfully don't last too long. Only some specs and grain now and again are constant. Detail levels are pretty strong despite occasional softness in some of the far away shots and a tiny bit of edge enhancement.

The Audio:

The French language Dolby Digital Mono audio track comes with optional subtitles in English only. While it's a little on the flat side there aren't any serious problems with it to report. Dialogue remains clean and clear throughout and the levels are all properly balanced. A little bit of minor distortion is noticeable in a couple of spots but unless you're listening for it you probably won't pick up on it. All in all, the movie sounds just fine.

The Extras:

Ginette Vincendeau, the author of Jean-Pierre Melville: An American In Paris joins BFI programming head Geoff Andrew for an excellent commentary track. Both participants have a fair bit to say about this film, putting it into context and comparing it to Melville's other pictures and pointing out some interesting notes about both what we see on the screen and about what we don't see. Much attention is paid to Melville's use of shadow and about the film noir style employed but the pair also discusses the intricacies of the plot and detail the history of the film and those who made it. As far as critical commentary tracks go, this one is pretty impressive.

From there, check out the twelve minute interview with film critic and publicity agent Bertrand Tavernier (11:36) who speaks about his involvement with this film and his working relationship with Melville and who lends some unique insight into the picture's history. Up next is a four minute archival piece from a French television show entitled Province Actualities(3:59) that is essentially a news clip that gives us a quick look at the set of the film while it was in production - basically Melville, Lino Ventura and Paul Meurisse discuss the film briefly while sitting at a bar. A lengthier twenty-six minute interview segment entitled Cinema (25:50) features Melville and leading man Lino Ventura being interviewed by television host Francois Chalais. This is considerably more in-depth than the first interview is and it's a joy to listen to the sunglasses wearing Melville talk about his work on the film and to hear from Ventura about his contributions to the picture as well.

Rounding out the extra features is an anamorphic widescreen trailer (2:18) for the film, some classy menus, and chapter selection. Inside the keepcase is an insert booklet that features an interesting essay on the film written by film critic Adrian Danks.

- Ian Jane, DVD Talk


IMDb Wiki

The following quotes are found on the They Shoot Pictures profile page for Jean-Pierre Melville:

"Melville was a precise, methodical director with a predilection for themes of war and crime. The former preoccupation was attributable to his own experiences, and the latter was the probable result of his nostalgic admiration for the Hollywood cinema of the 30s...Beginning in the early 60s, Melville worked with larger budgets and with name stars like Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon and showed an increasingly technical mastery of the medium." - (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)

"He had a built-in breathlessness, in fact, an adopted resignation to transience and mutability that is partly an eccentric individualism and partly what Melville inherited from American mobility and obsolescence. It gives his gangster films a true supercharge - "en quatrième vitesse" - and he transformed Belmondo and Delon into beautiful destructive angels of the dark street." - David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)

"Powerful endings and memorable set-pieces have a place in all Melville's work, even the earlier films, some of which are far removed from his later world of 'flics' and gangs', where the night-time photography glitters as cold and metallic as a gun barrel." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Film Directors, 1999)

"Betrayal, revenge, and the criminal mind are significant elements in the work of Melville. His films are not so much reflections of the Hollywood crime genre as indications of a unique sensibility creating from the same source material - crime and criminals." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

Tribute by Mystery Man on Film features more quotes and an excerpt from a 1961 radio interview between Melville and Gideon Bachmann.

Jean-Pierre Melville said it himself: "I have a bloody awful character." In 1972, towards the end of his career, glowering at the world through smoked glasses under a Texan ten-gallon hat, the man whom some consider to be the "father of the nouvelle vague" listed the collaborators for whom he still felt gratitude after 25 years in the business. None of his stars stars got a mention; neither Belmondo, Delon, Lino Ventura nor François Perrier. Nor, outrageously, did his his great director of photography, Henri Decaë. Melville told the journalist Rui Nogueira, author of The Cinema According to Jean-Pierre Melville (1996) that he only felt gratitude to Pierre Charron and René Albouze. Charron chose the furniture for his films; Albouze was a prop man.

This is as good a clue as any to the character of this provocative, morose, secretive, private and perverse man, whose life was a running battle with collaborators, former admirers and critics. He once said he was "a solitary to the power of five - myself, my wife and three cats."

It was of course this sacré caractère which drove Melville to employ the independent methods of a "new wave" director well before the nouvelle vague. Melville made his first feature in 1947; the nouvelle vague proper did not appear until 1959. Frustrated by the film establishment, which regarded him as an amateur, and angered by what he saw as the "communist dictatorship" of the unions, he built his own Studio Jenner, in 1947, the only director to have one. It was destroyed by fire in 1967.

Melville's hardboiled world is really that of the film buff, but a skilled one. He involved himself in every aspect of film-making; set design, writing the script, running the camera, and designing his heroes' fetching gangster gear. Here we come to a puzzling contradiction. Alongside his seemingly obsessive gangster pastiches, Melville was perfectly capable of producing work that was restrained, precise and sensitive with no reaching for decorative symbolism.

- Peter Lennon, The Guardian

The career of Jean-Pierre Melville is one of the most independent in modern French cinema. The tone was set with his first feature film, Le Silence de la mer, made quite outside the confines of the French film industry. Without union recognition or even the rights to the novel by Vercors which he was adapting, Melville proceeded to make a film which, in its counterpointing of images and a spoken text, set the pattern for a whole area of French literary filmmaking extending from Bresson and Resnais down to Duras in the 1980s. Les Enfants terribles, made in close collaboration with Jean Cocteau, was an equally interesting amalgam of literature and film, but more influential was Bob le flambeur, a first variation on gangster film themes which emerged as a striking study of loyalty and betrayal.

But by the time that the New Wave directors were drawing from Bob le flambeur a set of stylistic lessons which were to be crucial to their own breakthrough—economical location shooting, use of natural light, improvisatory approaches, and use of character actors in place of stars—Melville himself had moved in quite a different direction. Léon Morin, prêtre marks Melville's decision to leave this directly personal world of low-budget filmmaking for a mature style of solidly commercial genre filmmaking that used major stars and tightly wrought scripts to capture a wide audience.

This style is perfectly embodied in the trio of mid-1960s gangster films which constitute the core of Melville's achievement in cinema. Melville's concern with the film as a narrative spectacle is totally vindicated in these films, each of which was built around a star performance: Jean-Paul Belmondo in Le Doulos, Lino Ventura in Le Deuxième Souffle, and Alain Delon in Le Samourai. Drawing on his 1930s viewing and his adolescent reading of American thrillers, Melville manipulated the whole mythology of the gangster film, casting aside all pretence of offering a social study. His criminals are idealized figures, their appearance stylized with emphasis on the belted raincoat, soft hat, and ever-present handgun. Their behavior oddly blends violence and ritualized politeness, and lifts them out from their settings. Melville had no interest in the realistic portrayal of life. He disregarded both psychological depth and accuracy of location and costume. The director instead used his stars to portray timeless, tragic figures caught up in ambiguous conflicts and patterns of deceit, relying on the actor's personality and certainty of gesture to fill the intentional void.

Le Samourai, a perfect distillation of the cinematic myth of the gangster, remains Melville's masterpiece. Subsequent attempts to widen his range included an effort to transpose his characters into the world of Occupation and Resistance in L'Armée des ombres, as well as a film—Le Cercle rouge—that combined his particular gift for atmosphere with a Rififi-style presentation of the mechanics of a robbery. These films are interesting but flawed works. Melville's frustration and dissatisfaction was reflected in his last work,Un Flic, which completed the passage towards abstraction begun in the mid-1960s. It offers a derisory world lacking even the human warmth of loyalty and friendship which the director had earlier celebrated. In retrospect, it seems likely that Melville's reputation will rest largely on his ability, almost unique in French cinema, to contain deeply felt personal attitudes within the tight confines of commercial genre production. Certainly his thrillers are unequalled in European cinema.

Roy Armes, Film Reference.com

multiple perspectives
Bob le flambeur

In 1963, Raymond Durgnat pertinently suggested that “Melville has a way of watching, rather than sharing, his characters' perplexities. He seems not to mind what they do, provided it suits them. He is not unkind, but feline.” Durgnat's astute reading of Melville's work nevertheless over-emphasises the purely detached and relatively amoral perspective that it offers. The subtle scene described above is one of many moments in Melville's cinema in which his mostly male characters appear to be both within and outside of a dramatic situation, able to engage in the emotion of the moment while also stepping outside of it to contemplate a configuration of events, actions and bodies. Bob recognises his complicity and involvement in the coupling he sees staged in his bed but he also recognises the beauty of this staged composition, its 'rightness,' in a way. In a similar fashion, the lone assassin protagonist of Melville's most celebrated film, Le Samouraï (1967), both enacts his crimes and observes the patterned compositions he creates through his meticulous movements and steely actions. There is another moment in Bob le flambeur where Bob looks, as many of Melville's characters do, at his unshaven face in the mirror. Though this provokes a momentary shock of existential awareness – the notation of age and a concomitant world-weariness – it is also a moment of pure contemplation; the character simultaneously sees both from within and outside himself. Typical of Melville's aesthetic style (and his ethical perspective), we are shown these moments and events through a mixture of seeming point-of-view shots and a vast array of detached perspectives (which rarely repeat camera set-ups). Thus, while the characters are both 'interior' and 'exterior' to the situation, we are also both inside and outside their view of it, engaged in the film's action while also observing it. It is this combination of direct engagement and distanced contemplation, of feeling character and observing actor, as well as the joining of real-time observation – which Colin McArthur describes as a “cinema of process” – and aesthetic abstraction (heightened or drained colours, self-consciously staged compositions) that defines Melville's cinema. Melville himself has been careful to place his work within the context of a composed or synthetic tradition of filmmaking: “I am careful never to be realistic.… What I do is false. Always.” But this statement encapsulates only 'half' the story, as John Flaus suggests: “He [Melville] does not seek to simulate the world but to create anew from the materials of the world. The severe form, the precise detail, the delicate effect are part of a style which shows rather than refers to its subject.”  Essentially, Melville's cinema is a highly complex and regulated thing within which nothing, not an edit, a gesture, a sound or a camera movement, is wasted (though it is also a cinema that is often also stylistically adventurous). His films present a collection of minute observations and actions played out in what seems to be real time, while also reveling in self-conscious displays of what could pass for pure style. Melville combines this with an overwhelming sense of lived experience. His films are often, all at once, highly personal, non-naturalistic (full of attenuated shades and colours or self-consciously fake back projections), dream-like fictions, and documentary-like narratives. His style often also revolves around the meticulous placement and withdrawal of certain cinematic techniques. For example, despite the head of the character of the niece being consistently framed in Le Silence de la mer (1949), she is never given a close-up until the penultimate point of the film.

Les Enfants terribles

Melville is a filmmaker that almost everyone seems to admire, but few know what to do with (other than those who attempt to slavishly copy or evoke his work). Similarly, many accounts of his cinema focus only on his gangster films, finding it difficult to encapsulate the trio of films he made about the war-time occupation of France into an overall understanding of his work; particularly any 'summary' which attempts to present a teleological narrative that moves from the initial 'literary' works such as Le Silence de la mer to the explicitly cinematic genre and audio-visual abstraction characterising his last film, Un Flic. Critical discussion of Melville's work is also obsessed by the American affectations of his films and his personal style (the car he drove, the Stetson he wore, the Coca-Cola he drank, the evocative New York-based or influenced films he made such as Deux Hommes dans Manhattan and L'Aîné des ferchaux [1962]), as well as his status as perhaps the first truly self-conscious cinéphiliac director. It is in these obsessions that most critics see Melville's talismanic importance to the nouvelle vague, as an exemplar of particular critical proclivities and independent production processes. Nevertheless, Melville seems to belong to a separate generation or movement (closer to other singular figures of French cinema like Robert Bresson, Georges Franju and Jacques Becker). His valediction of such highly classical directors as William Wyler, John Huston, Robert Wise and Charles Chaplin points toward an unflinching, or aspirational, classicism in his own style; expressed in his films' attention to detail, deployment of iconographic objects and often restricted emotional, tonal and aesthetic palette. But his films, particularly from Le Doulos (1962) onwards, also seem to belong to an explicitly modernist tradition in which the world created appears predetermined, patterned, almost geometric – and such patterns or geometries emerge as key themes and visual preoccupations of films such as Le Samouraï and Le Cercle rouge. Thus, although Melville would like to be connected to names such as Huston, Wyler, William Wellman and John Ford, he belongs as much to a formalist cinema defined by its compositional clarity and spatio-temporal experimentation, and thus should be examined equally alongside such directors as Yasujiro Ozu, Alain Resnais, Bresson and Jacques Tati. Melville's cinema is essentially tonal: a sensibility (melancholy, poetic, unhysterical) which is founded upon a 'purity' of style, performance and narrative action. It is this 'sensibility' or 'tonality' – existential, ritualistic and formed around the incapability of the individual and their community – that preoccupies most critical accounts of Melville's cinema. John Flaus has suggested that Melville “is a self-confessed addict of the structure & ethos, but not the tone, of the Hollywood crime genres.” Thus Melville's films often appear as intricately choreographed shadow plays in which the elements of genre become isolated, detached and abstracted. This abstraction goes hand-in-hand with a career long fascination with totemistic objects brought either to the foreground of a shot or arranged purposely in the background of the frame. Melville's films are full of moments in which characters fix on a particular object or fetishise certain keepsakes or elements of mise-en-scène. This isolation of individual shapes, objects and actions is playfully noted in the scene in Le Samouraï where the character of Weiner is asked whether he can identify the man (Jef, played by Alain Delon) he passed in the foyer of his lover's apartment block. Not being 'observant,' he cannot recognise the 'person' of this man but constructs a readily identifiable composite; he points out a hat, a coat and a kind of face that he remembers brushing past...

The endings of Melville's films tell us much about the moral codes and frameworks that they set up. In many of his films the majority of the central characters end up dead. These endings – which often have the feeling of ritual – reestablish the intimate connections that have been created between characters whose relationships are made impossible by a variety of legal, social, moral and criminal codes. In this sense they have much in common with the cycle of 'chamber' Westerns made by Budd Boetticher with Randolph Scott; in fact the moral climates, dilemmas and group dynamics of Melville's films often seem closer to the Western than film noir. It is also in respect to this focus on the relativity of social roles and functions (often with characters on either side of the Law), as well as their explicit revision and abstraction of the crime genre, that one can see the clear influence of Melville on directors such as John Woo, Johnny To, Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann and Quentin Tarantino. It is also in these endings, particularly in his last five films, that Melville tells us something about the end of a kind of classicism; of a classical world of archetypes, moral and physical integrity, and ritualised ceremony that is passing from view. They also prefigure the end of a cinema that Melville considered to be a “sacred thing.”

- Adrian Danks, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

Classical cinema, basically, had to do with heroes, so-called modern cinema is to do with grubs. I have always refused to go along with this regression… I always arrange my characters – my 'heroes' – to conduct themselves within their environment, whatever it might be, the way I would conduct myself […] To be frank, I'm only able to become interested in characters who reflect some aspect of myself. Egocentric, paranoiac, megalomaniac? No: quite simply the natural authority of the creator.

- Melville, as quoted by Danks in Senses of Cinema

961 (103). The Getaway (1972, Sam Peckinpah)

screened Friday March 27 2009 on Warner DVD TSPDT rank #865  IMDb Wiki

Even the likes of Pauline Kael turn their noses at Sam Peckinpah's most commercially successful feature as a formulaic genre exercise done mostly for the paycheck. But Peckinpah's creative investment is apparent from the opening sequence, a dense montage that weaves multiple layers of time to establish a cold, mechanistic world in which ex-con Steve McQueen and wife Ali McGraw (who, with his consent, sleeps with a prison warden to ensure his release) rediscover each other with tension and tenderness. The overt mechanical elements of this opening, such as the numbing, clacking sounds of prison doors and work equipment, might be Peckinpah's way of acknowledging the trappings of heist film formula with which he must contend.  The film is far from resembling the satire on the genre he had planned, but it expresses his candid, problematically misogynist views on sexual relationships and loyalty perhaps more complexly than any of his features, though as usual the depth lies more on the male side of the ledger.

This time Peckinpah's Man, that molotov cocktail of helplessness and violence grubbing for salvation, is imbued with a cold professionalism unparalleled in his filmography thanks to McQueen's tightly coiled appearance of masculine assurance: unflinching eyes incessantly assessing everything around him; a body that betrays nary a twitch of unnecessary movement. He's among the least sentimental of Peckinpah's heroes, but this should not be confused with a lack of pathos; McQueen's character finds redemption in a job well executed, and the upholding of a moral code throughout - involving repeated beatings of McGraw whenever she messes up. Peckinpah validates McQueen's behaviors by contrasting him with Al Lettieri, a heist accomplice who betrays McQueen, then kidnaps a doctor who saves his life and seduces the doctor's voluptuous, dim-witted wife (Sally Struthers), enacting a comic and nightmarish opposite of McQueen and McGraw's Ideal Man and Woman. While I don't have that much use for Peckinpah's worldview, and consider his prominence largely a sign of pervasive misogyny in Hollywood culture (I'll reconsider my position the day that Hollywood regularly produces eloquently man-hating movies by female directors), I have to admit that few directors are as good at dramatizing their pathologies as Peckinpah.



The following citations were counted towards the placement of The Getaway among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures Don't They?

Angela Glaser, Steadycam (2007) Katja Nicodemus, Steadycam (2007) Klaus Lemke, Steadycam (2007) Larry Clark, indieWIRE (2006) Kinema Junpo, The Greatest Foreign Films (1999) Maxim, The 100 Greatest Guy Movies Ever Made (1998) Premiere, 100 Best Action Movies on DVD (2003) Taschen Books, Movies of the 20s-90s (2003-2007) TV Today, The Best Movies on DVD (2004) They Shoot Pictures Recommended Films

If The Getaway had just rolled off the studio assembly line, the work of a competent craftsman, it could pretty easily have been passed over and forgotten. It is, however, the work of a major American film artist. Sam Peckinpah's 1969 western, The Wild Bunch, looks even at this distance like a great film, and his other movies, from 1961's Ride the High Country to last year's Straw Dogs, form a body of work as substantial as any other contemporary film maker's. Such a director is owed more than a measure of indulgence and loyalty. But in The Getaway, Peckinpah is pushing his privileges too far.

The Getaway is basically a streamlined heist-and-chase movie, but Peckinpah keeps stumbling over his subplots. Moreover, his two stars, Steve McQueen and All MacGraw, are unregenerately narcissistic. They appear as a husband and wife, professional thieves, who knock over a small-town Texas bank and spend the rest of the time speeding across the state to Mexico, pursued by the cops and crews of greedy confederates.

It has lately become Peckinpah's ironic pleasure to refer to himself in interviews as a "whore," and, appropriately, The Getaway works on that same kind of disinterested, mechanical level. There are a great many scenes of action and bloodletting, professionally handled and exciting. But the viewer is always aware that he is being manipulated very coolly and cynically.

McQueen is primarily a deep-frozen presence, although he handles a variety of guns with impressive familiarity. As a screen personality, MacGraw is abrasive. As a talent, she is embarrassing. Supposedly a scruffy Texas tart. MacGraw appears with a complete designer wardrobe and a set of Seven Sister mannerisms.

Peckinpah seems perfectly aware of all this, but instead of trying to do some thing about it, he puts her down — lit erally. She and McQueen stow away in a garbage truck and come spilling out in a gush of trash onto the town dump. Peckinpah's chuckling is almost audible.

- Time, January 8, 1973

Another bank heist, and the wholesome, clean-cut robber pair take forever to make it across the Mexican border with their loot. The audience hoots her line readings and applauds when he smacks her around; maybe this audience participation helps to explain the film's success. Sam Peckinpah directed in imitation of Sam Peckinpah; it's a mechanical job, embellished with a vicious, erotic subplot involving Al Lettieri and Sally Struthers.

- Pauline Kael

An evident precursor to The Driver (Walter Hill scripted both, this one from Jim Thompson's novel). The major strength of The Getaway rests solidly on McQueen's central role, a cold tense core of pragmatic violence. Hounded by furies (two mobs, police, a hostile landscape), he responds with a lethal control, blasting his way through shootouts that teeter on madness to the loot, the girl, and Peckinpah's mythic land of Mexico. Survival, purification, and the attainment of grace are achieved only by an extreme commitment to the Peckinpah existential ideal of action - a man is what he does. Peckinpah's own control of the escalating frenzy is masterly; this is one of his coldest films, but a great thriller.

- Time Out

It's too bad they didn't really film Jim Thompson's novel, which remains one of the most astonishing pieces of pulp fiction ever written, yet Sam Peckinpah does a professional job with this much-watered-down version (1972). It becomes a conventional chase picture with Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw as an outlaw couple fleeing for the Mexican border after a bank job; Al Lettieri is the sadistic, double-crossed partner on their trail.

- Dave Kehr, The Chicago Reader

It is the fate of films from under-recognised areas, such as the action film, to suffer the arbitrary stock market fluctuations which broker reputations, as well as a progressively hazy blurring of distinctions and accomplishments generally. The Getaway is a typical and instructive case (the unique novelty of the film is that it was duplicated with a different cast in 1994 with very few changes or additions to Walter Hill's 1972 script or to the directing, casting, and structuring strategies of the original). When The Getaway was released, Sam Peckinpah was a high-profile auteur on the basis of Ride the High Country (1962), The Wild Bunch (1969) and Straw Dogs (1971); he was at the centre of a violence-in-films controversy pushed along by his considerable self-promotion efforts as a “Hollywood maverick”; and he was a currently-practising action specialist taken seriously by the film intelligentsia. He was probably overvalued as a director, undervalued as a writer. His films popularised the use of slow-motion in action sequences and he has come now to stand as the sign for that large area of post-war Hollywood cinema marked not only by his own accomplishments, but also the rather larger ones of Anthony Mann, Don Siegel, Robert Aldrich, Budd Boetticher and Sam Fuller.

Seen now, The Getaway is more interesting as one of the early prototypes of the modern US action film, following from the headwaters (Dirty Harry, 1971): clean-lined, built for speed, self-effacing but an intricately worked object nonetheless. It was a product of Hollywood's then-booming independent sector, in this case a production company controlled by the film's star. This hints at one of the problems the project holds for Peckinpah: Steve McQueen is too obdurate and self-contained an actor to fit easily into Peckinpah's preferred ensemble method – although even in this Scandinavian-furniture, streamlined concept film, the director manages to stuff members of his baroque stock company into the cracks (providing Peckinpah's cherished redneck comedy are Slim Pickens, Bo Hopkins, Dub Taylor and Roy Jensen). Although too early for a Walter Murch-style “Sound Design” credit, the soundtrack work is complex and sophisticated: beyond jazz veteran Quincy Jones' score lies elaborate use of sound-as-music as well as sharp punctuation – observe the interplay and progression of images and sounds in the opening sequence, one of the most impressive passages in the film. Whenever possible, events are presented kinetically, that is, for maximum visceral effect (The Getaway is not a reflective film; it doesn't have time to be).

Another site of interest is the script. Adapted from one of Jim Thompson's novels, screenwriter Hill discards most of the novel's interesting but difficult aspects – the psychological portrait of the hero, Doc; the quirky, complicated deployment of characterising details; the imperceptible slide into a surreal world of symbols; and a ghastly black humour ending. With what remains, he fashions a concept-film script exactly as spare as that of Reservoir Dogs (1992) – situation: a bank job gone wrong; imperative: the central couple need to escape the pursuing assassins; complicating problem: Doc's reactions to Carol's necessary infidelity. An extremely mean antagonist is provided (Al Lettieri here, reprised in Mr Majestyk [1974]; Michael Madsen in the 1994 reconstruction). With a minimum of characters, Hill works out a geometry of parallel actions and scenes as the central section of the film, particularly effective when Lettieri and his hostage/lover Sally Struthers cartoon the jealousy/adultery theme complicating Doc and Carol's life.

Hill's script is dedicated to Raoul Walsh for appropriate reasons, not least of which is Doc's request, upon being released from prison, to be taken to a park (see Humphrey Bogart's Roy Earle in Walsh's High Sierra, 1941). What it surprisingly does not do is provide the usually plentiful epigrammatic lines of dialogue which make most Peckinpah movies endlessly quotable and which are, perhaps, the most basic element of his style (it does manage to include the usual misogyny, particularly abetted here by Sally Struthers' performance). The script looks forward as well as backward: the opening sequence with its themes of imprisonment versus freedom and its use of animals is a striking forerunner to the opening sequence of Hill's 48HRS (1982). The elaborate and elegant final shoot-out in the El Paso hotel has nothing to do with the way action sequences are sculpted in other Peckinpah films, and everything to do with the speciality item Hill developed them into in his own directing.

An interesting point of intersection then, a crepuscular Peckinpah with a nascent Hill, a traditional story and genre with the beginnings of the contemporary “concept” approach. Except for some romantic imagery required by star egos, a trip through a cold, hard-hearted world which makes its characters do extraordinary things with their suspect virtuosities in order to buy a chance at a happy ending.

- Rick Thompson, Senses of Cinema

We usually think of excess when we think of Peckinpah, most readily from the trademark slow-motion violence of 1969'sThe Wild Bunch. We don't often think of his nuts-and-bolts filmmaking. Yet despite the gunplay and occasional slow-mo in The Getaway, the movie is ample evidence that he could really tell a story in more traditional ways, too. The crisp opening detailing the grinding monotony of Doc McCoy's prison stint, the cross-cutting among all the elements of the heist and a tense sequence in which McQueen scours a train for a con man who bamboozled Carol out of their bag of ill-gotten money are all textbook examples of visual storytelling. Peckinpah and McQueen had just come off of the flop Junior Bonner together (another fine collaboration), while McQueen laid a more high-profile egg before that with Le Mans, so the emphasis here was to make a crowd-pleaser, and they definitely succeeded.

Balancing the crime story is the romance between Doc and Carol. Their relationship has to survive the fact that she slept with a member of the parole board (Johnson) in order to get Doc out of jail, as well as overcome the stress of being outlaws on the run. This part of the story doesn't date as well as the brisk action. McGraw's performance has always been flat, but her star power gave it a big boost when the movie was new (this was her first film after the pop culture phenomenon that was Love Story). She's beautiful, and we don't doubt Doc's affection for Carol for a moment (indeed, McQueen and McGraw each divorced their spouses to be married after falling in love during the shoot). But, 30+ years later, McGraw comes off as awfully dainty for the rough-and-tumble role. Typically for a Peckinpah movie, the stars bump into all sorts of colorful supporting players during the story, many, like Johnson, familiar faces in the director's movies. These include Dub Taylor, Slim Pickens, Bo Hopkins and Richard Bright.

- Paul Sherman, Turner Classic Movies

The violence in The Getaway is largely mechanical and dehumanized; it operates without the emotional pain and trauma that are its familiar accompaniments elsewhere. Furthermore, as Robin Wood notes, in that film Peckinpah cannot seem to detach himself from the brutish Rudy Butler (Al Lettieri), a professional killer pursing Doc McCoy, and the elaborate tortures he inflicts upon a veterinarian whom he has kidnapped. (Wood finds the humorous approach to the latter character's suicide, and Butler's response to it, to be "in all Peckinpah's work to date the moment that is hardest to forgive.")

- Stephen Prince, Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies. Published by University of Texas Press, 1998. Page 121

Peckinpah uses a number motifs to bring out subsidiary themes. Heavy machinery is often a focus, especially in a threatening manner: the opening credits in prison include numerous closeups of heavy, pounding machinery, and one of the most threatening segments of the picture involves a harrowing encounter with a garbage truck. This emphasis on machines as an enemy to happiness and freedom is intertwined with extended references to the question of whether life is a game. While McQueen insists that this is nothing but a game, Carol is more grounded and takes the position that life is something more. It's surprisingly philosophical in its approach to an action drama, but then Peckinpah always manages to surprise.

- Mark Zimmer, Digitally Obsessed


The following passages are taken from Peckinpah: A Portrait in Montage by Garner Simmons. Published by Hal Leonard Corporation, 1998:

"The Getaway was my first attempt at satire, badly done... To many people took it too seriously. Five times in that picture I have people saying, 'It's just a game.' I was dealing with a little bit of High Sierra there and a couple of other things. It was a good story, and I thought I had a good ending. It made my comment."

- Sam Peckinpah, quoted p. 157

"Sam and Steve got into a big argument over that first love scene in The Getaway. Steve wanted to rape Ali. That's the way he saw it. This guy's been in prison for five years, and he just comes home and really takes what he feels is rightfully his. He couldn't understand what Same wanted him to do. He thought it was phony. But Sam insisted and again it played perfectly. Really one of the most sensitive love scenes on film, I think.

Then for the scene which follows - I think it's supposed to be the next morning - Steve had written seven pages of dialogue, you know, explaining the whole thing. Well, Sam got him into that cooking thing where he's got eggs and catsup and all this stuff in a frying pan on the stove. And Steve was just really in his element. He loved it. He's very good with props. Then when Ali comes down they embrace, and I think they maybe have a couple of dozen words between them total, and that was it.

"So after they saw the dailies, Sam said to Steve, 'And that was what you wrote seven pages of dialogue to explain?' And Steve laughed and said, 'Well, you know better than to listen to me, Sam.'"

- Cinematographer Lucien Ballard, p. 158

"Sam and Ali got along great. Sam was wonderful with her. He loves to holler and scream. It's his way of letting go of the things that have been building up inside of him. But Sam also has this tremendously gentle side, and that's the side he showed to Ali. And she really performed magnificently."

- Producer David Foster, quoted p. 162

"After we had completed The Getaway and I looked at what I'd done in it, I hated my own performance. I like the picture, but I despised my own work. I really couldn't look at it... I adore Sam as a director. He is really a marvelous man, a sexy man. He really knows how to get through to a woman when he wants [her] to do something in front of the cameras. It is very difficult to be objective about my own work in the picture, but I would love to work again for Sam Peckinpah."

- Ali McGraw, quoted p. 162

It was during the filming of The Getaway that Sam Peckinpah married for the fifth time, this time to Joie Gould, the English secretary he had been living with off and on since making Straw Dogs. It was done, Peckinpah recalled, as an act of contrition. "We had gotten into an argument, and I slapped her with my open hand. I really felt bad about it. So in a moment of remorse I agreed to marry her - in Mexico where I knew that I could get a one-day divorce. That's what I thought. Well I was wrong. When things fell apart it took me a year to get the divorce and it cost me my shirt, my pants, and my embroidered jock strap! But some you win and some you louse. So she took all the money I got on Getaway and took a trip around the world at my expense. We were not exactly what you might call star-crossed lovers."

Following their disastrous entanglement, Peckinpah would swear off the state of matrimony as being both costly and dangerous. To prevent his romantic nature from taking advantage of his better judgment, the director decidd to place a clause in each of his film contracts that would stipulate that should he marry during the course of making a given picture, he would forfeit all of the money due him from the project. (p. 163)


I never thought of myself as any kind of hardcore Sam Peckinpah fan before. That’s probably partly due to the piecemeal way I’ve been catching up with his filmography—randomly watching this movie or that one, one every couple of years, as likely to choose The Osterman Weekend as I am Straw Dogs. So it’s taken me a long time to figure out that Peckinpah has never once disappointed me. I even thoughtThe Osterman Weekend was pretty terrific. Now, granted, I haven’t seen anything from that streak of movies he made during the years of his mid-’70s decline—Cross of Iron, The Killer Elite, Convoy—but if they've got even a fraction of the spark that animates The Getaway, Peckinpah's place in my personal pantheon of great American directors is assured. (Yeah, yeah, I know: stop the presses! Sam Peckinpah is awesome! Cut me some slack—I was slow to catch onto him, okay?)

Has there ever been a director of “guys’ movies” with a more poetic eye than Peckinpah? The Getaway has one of the most fascinatingly edited opening 10 minutes I’ve ever seen in an action movie—images of the numbing routine of prison life, of Steve McQueen being turned down yet again for early parole, fantasies of lying in his bunk and feeling the caress of his wife’s hand on his shoulder, all shown out of sequential order, tumbling around in such a way that the fantasy mingles with the reality, all set to the numbing, repetitive sound of the mechanical loom McQueen operates in the prison workroom.

And then, when McQueen does get paroled, there’s another great sequence when he and Ali MacGraw drive to a picnic area set up beside a lake—Peckinpah shows you McQueen and MacGraw diving into the water, so happy to be together again that they don’t even bother taking their clothes off. It’s filmed so dreamily that you think it’s just another one of McQueen’s fantasies—until you see McQueen pull MacGraw to the side of the water, whereupon Peckinpah jump-cuts to the two of them arriving home, their clothes still soaking wet. It’s such a sexy, adult sequence—it’s like a bit from Don’t Look Nowgot dropped accidentally into the middle of Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. What are the chances that a modern action picture would ever try for a mood this oblique? Unless Steven Soderbergh were directing it, almost nil.

I loved every nasty, violent moment of The Getaway, and it may be the most misogynist movie I’ve ever gotten this much enjoyment out of. There’s an amazing subplot, for instance, involving Al Lettieri, who plays a fellow bank robber that McQueen shot and left for dead, and who spends the rest of the film on his trail, determined to snatch the cash for himself. He forces a veterinarian to tend to his wounds at gunpoint, and then takes the guy and his wife hostage. Amazingly, the wife (Sally Struthers!) has apparently been dreaming her entire life for a brutal thug to whisk her away from her boring existence, and she volunteers to become Lettieri’s accomplice and lover the very first chance she gets. (The Quincy Jones music that plays under this scene is wonderfully sleazy.) Her behaviour is so appallingly slutty that it’s hilarious—even the scenes where Lettieri ties up her husband and forces him to watch them have sex are played for comedy.

The flipside of this scene is a moment that takes place between McQueen and MacGraw by the side of their car on the side of a highway. She’s just shot the criminal who’s set up the bank robbery (who’s also the guy on the parole board that she slept with earlier), and McQueen still can’t believe she’d do something that stupid. So he slaps her. And he slaps her again. And then he slaps her a couple more times. It’s a really ugly, vicious scene—one that feels absolutely right for the character, but which makes you recoil from him in a way that again I doubt any modern Hollywood studio (or male star) would have the stomach for.

But the movie’s misogyny is inextricable from its themes—the screenplay is all about these parallel stories of a “good” unfaithful wife and a “bad” unfaithful wife. Which may be why the only bum note is the happy ending, with Slim Pickens giving McQueen and MacGraw his benediction for a blissful life in Mexico. It’s quite a departure from the insane, cannibalistic final chapter in Jim Thompson’s original novel, but the problem isn’t that Peckinpah is unfaithful to his source (which probably would have been unfilmable anyway); it’s that after two hours of emotional violence every bit as bloody as the shootouts, the idea of any married couple living happily ever after seems highly dubious.

- Paul Marwychak, The Moviegoer

It’s not very popular to assert the opinion that The Getaway is your favorite Sam Peckinpah film. As just a casual Peckinpah admirer, I might be able to get away with it, but I know I’m skating on thin ice among the faithful. I can only imagine the dismissive reaction I’d have if someone called Sabrina their favorite Billy Wilder movie. It could be generational. Peckinpah’s films now feel very much like the product of a bygone era. They’ve influenced countless filmmakers, but show almost zero modernity in comparison to what’s come along this decade. His patience is not particularly in style nowadays. Yet, that laconic quality is part of why I appreciate The Getaway so much. The film takes its time from start to finish. It’s an action movie with very little action.

As far as movie stars who understood subtlety in the ’60s and ’70s, the discussion begins and ends with Steve McQueen. The idea of him overacting is inconceivable. Detractors might view this as an emptiness, but I’d beg to differ. While the method style of acting gained notoriety for overdoing emotions to the point of fake realism, McQueen didn’t choose this particular path. His style was far more contemplative. A look from McQueen could eliminate half a page of dialogue. I’d love to have seen what Jean-Pierre Melville would have done with him. Instead, we know what Peckinpah was able to achieve while working with the actor both here and on Junior Bonner, two of McQueen’s four or five best films. In The Getaway, he’s Doc McCoy, who suffers the remedial prison life until his wife (Ali MacGraw) pays a porn-like visit to a man with bureaucratic pull named Benyon (Ben Johnson).

His sequence on the train in this film is probably my favorite, where a small-time con man thinks he’s lucked into the fat case of money only to have Doc track him down and administer a beating to the point of unconsciousness. McQueen says maybe a line or two (”when you work on a lock, don’t leave any scratches”) and demonstrates what it means to be a screen icon. The black suit with thin black tie helps, but none of his peers (even Paul Newman, who was McQueen’s unofficial rival and a better actor) could have so convincingly pulled it off with so few lines. This is the beauty of The Getaway for me. Peckinpah trusts McQueen (who also had final cut) enough to allow him to hardly say anything throughout the entire picture. It’s a movie with a minimum of dialogue, and little action, but played out with surprising coherence, never leaving the viewer uninterested.

His sequence on the train in this film is probably my favorite, where a small-time con man thinks he’s lucked into the fat case of money only to have Doc track him down and administer a beating to the point of unconsciousness. McQueen says maybe a line or two (”when you work on a lock, don’t leave any scratches”) and demonstrates what it means to be a screen icon. The black suit with thin black tie helps, but none of his peers (even Paul Newman, who was McQueen’s unofficial rival and a better actor) could have so convincingly pulled it off with so few lines. This is the beauty of The Getaway for me. Peckinpah trusts McQueen (who also had final cut) enough to allow him to hardly say anything throughout the entire picture. It’s a movie with a minimum of dialogue, and little action, but played out with surprising coherence, never leaving the viewer uninterested.

- clydefro

THE GETAWAY looks surprisingly good for a film that was disowned by its director. During the production Peckinpah and McQueen had more than serious creative differences with the actor having the upper hand, receiving the backing of studio heads and making sure that the final cut would be his and not Peckinpah's. Because of that, many of those who think of Peckinpah as a great director often have a low opinion of THE GETAWAY. This opinion is unjustified because Peckinpah's talent nevertheless managed to survive McQueen's intervention. Perhaps this film is bellow the highest standards of Peckinpah, but it looks like a masterpiece compared with the most of action films made today. The reason for that could be found in the realism that is present throughout the film - in authentic Texan locations, characters and motivations that resonate with people we might meet on the street, and in the action that is spectacular yet not beyond the realms of real life. From the first haunting shots that show the depressive monotony of incarceration, the audience is thrown to the world that doesn't look like a Hollywood fantasy. In this world heroes are often damaged or morally questionable, marriages aren't the fairytales in which people live happily ever after, and the crime is often in the form of petty thefts or small-time cons. Peckinpah nevertheless manages to turn this simple and prosaic reality into something truly exciting. One of the finest examples is the scene in a train, which uses rather simple yet unexpected plot development to create suspense of Hitchockian proportions.

- Dragan Antulov, All-Reviews.com

Like any old-time Western--a genre Peckinpah enjoyed updating and reinventing--"The Getaway" ends in a big shoot-out, so there's no questioning that this is an action movie. Still, you'll find a good deal of character interaction along the way, some of it fun, some of it illuminating, some of it tedious. Make no mistake, though: This is a Peckinpah picture, so expect the violence to be more realistic than in most previous Hollywood movies. Today, we take blood and guts for granted in action and adventure movies, but it was directors like Peckinpah who began the trend toward greater realism. He practically started the sights of blood-soaked bodies, slow-motion deaths, and the like. Nevertheless, the violence is not excessive, especially by recent standards; indeed, one might say it is almost quaint by comparison to some of our more contemporary films.

- John J. Puccio, DVD Town.com

Yes, The Getaway has a healthy dollop of McQueen coolness. And yes, it has the traditional drawn-bow tension and pacing of a Peckinpah film. But in the end, it's just a '70s outlaws-on-the-run potboiler; a poor man's Bonnie and Clyde. That doesn't make it a bad film; it's actually a good potboiler. But it does stand out in both the McQueen and Peckinpah canons as a primarily commercial, and not artistic, venture. It's neither artist's finest moment, but there's certainly no reason for them to be embarrassed by the film.

Unsurprisingly, the weak link in the film is Ali MacGraw. MacGraw is certainly a lovely woman, and she appears (at least in the rare interviews she gives) to be both intelligent and personable. But she was thrust into the limelight mainly because she was pretty and Robert Evans's girlfriend, not because she was an elite actor suited to be matched with talents like McQueen. McQueen ate her alive in The Getaway, completely overwhelming her (probably deliberately, knowing his personality) on the screen. And off it, too—by the end of the shoot, she and McQueen had abandoned their respective spouses for each other; their tempestuous marriage lasted five years. Frankly, that developing attraction is the best thing about her performance here. She clearly cares about Doc because she really cares about Doc. But her best and most real moment came when she wasn't acting—the infamous "slap" scene.

When Doc pulls over to the side of the road, gets out, and confronts Carol about her role in Benyon's double cross, Doc slaps her hard. A few times. The story behind the story here—something that, ironically, isn't discussed in this film's commentary track, but is discussed in the definitive The Essence of Cool documentary included as an extra with Bullitt—is that there was no movie trickery at work in the scene; McQueen really did hit MacGraw, and pretty hard to boot. Not only that, he told Peckinpah he was going to do it, and the two of them agreed that she shouldn't be told in advance. So Carol's response to Doc's actions are totally realistic—because MacGraw was reallybeing smacked around by Steve McQueen, and didn't know it was coming, and just responded as anyone would do in that situation.

Because of the magnitude of the tabloid fodder that the McQueen-MacGraw romance generated, it's easy to forget that this was not only a Sam Peckinpah film, but the second film he had done with McQueen. The first wasJunior Bonner, a sad, elegiac film about the death of the traditional American West, as seen through the character of a broken, over-the-hill rodeo rider. It was nothing like Peckinpah's "normal" films—nobody died, there weren't gallons of bright-red blood spraying around, and nobody had a slow-motion gun battle. Although Junior Bonner was a fine film, it flopped miserably at the box office—primarily because it was marketed as a McQueen action film. The two apparently enjoyed working together, though, and when McQueen (through his production company, Solar) approached Peckinpah about directing an adaptation of Jim Thompson's (The GriftersAfter Dark, My Sweet) novel, Peckinpah jumped. The Getaway had more action than Junior Bonner—but it still was no Wild Bunch or Straw Dogs. Was this a blatantly commercial venture? Did McQueen and Peckinpah view this film as a way to recoup some of the cost of the more personal and intimate Bonner? We'll never really know—but it was the most commercially successful film in Peckinpah's career, and arguably the most "mainstream" film he made. I guess sometimes you make a film for the love of the craft, and sometimes you make a film to pay your mortgage.

- David Ryan, DVD Verdict

As for [Peckinpah's] reliance upon blood, and the blood appearing real (although in today's sense, it looks very soupy and ketchupy, but I can only imagine back then), only helps reinforce his destructive qualities and render you helpless in regards to what's occurring on screen. Peckinpah's characters don't necessarily thrive off of what they have to do, they're just people making use of situations that were never meant to have rosy outcomes. These are people who use violence as not a means to an end, but rather, as a means of escape, as a means of restoring harmony to their narrative developments. Peckinpah does appear to relish these moments, shooting them in a very balletic style, allowing for the associated horror on screen to be juxtaposed with the very beautiful qualities told through his filmmaking. It works spectacularly, and while not at his particular best here (The Wild Bunch), he's still breaking boundaries not quite explored before with such panache.

- Newell Todd, Chud

Peckinpah’s skill is immediately in evidence with the opening, a lengthy montage which flicks backwards and forwards in time to give us a vivid impression of the monotony and aching frustration of prison life. Combined with brief flashbacks of Doc and Carol’s lovemaking, this vibrantly establishes the relationship between the central characters which Carol’s deal with Benyon – which involved sex as well as the robbery – puts in jeopardy. Throughout the film, Peckinpah’s style is crisp and straight to the point, driving the story forward with a raging momentum. His slight self-indulgence in the use of slow-motion is easy to forgive when placed in such a focused context. Sam also uses ellipsis to great effect, often giving the bare minimum of explanation and relying on us to fill in the gaps. It’s never directly stated, for example, that Carol slept with Benyon in order to get Doc out of prison. But it’s obvious in the unspoken looks between Doc and Carol, in Benyon’s self-satisfied manner, in Doc’s confused anger at his wife and his own post-prison impotence. Incidentally, it’s in this sideline of the story that we see Peckinpah’s own puzzlement and fury at women being reflected and it’s surely no accident that Doc’s slapping of his wife is so sudden and brutal. Yet the irony is that Carol is often as much of an active force in the film as her husband – it’s she who makes the deal and she who shoots Benyon for his assumption that she would happily kill her husband for her own safety. Although Ali McGraw’s blank-faced performance tends to mask this a little, Carol is a tough and intelligent woman and it’s not hard to see that this is one of the key factors keeping her and Doc together.

The relationship between Carol and Doc is pure Peckinpah, both in its vicious twists and turns and its ultimate fairy-tale ending. Sam was just as much of a romantic as he was a misanthrope and his feelings towards women were finely pitched between adoration and disgust. This also comes out in the subplot where the injured Butler forces a timid veterinarian to tend to his wounds and then decides to seduce his wife. The wife, played by the TV actress Sally Struthers, is deliberately and crudely sketched as the living embodiment of a sexist joke and I see her as the summation of Peckinpah’s negative feelings about women as unfaithful whores who want it rough because that’s the only thing they understand. If this were the whole of Peckinpah’s view of women then the labelling of him as a misogynist might have something to it but there’s also the tender, admiring side which comes out in complicated characters like Ida Lupino’s Ma Bonner in Junior Bonner and Isela Vega’s tough-as-nails heroine in Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia. Indeed, Sam is often at his best when the two attitudes collide as in the character of Carol in this movie, in Straw Dogs and, most interestingly, in The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Having accepted that the Struthers character is an unashamedly sexist creation then it’s easier to appreciate some of Sam’s black humour such as the brilliant food fight in the car and the fact that what Butler actually wants is to humiliate the husband far more than he wants to screw the wife.

Indeed, one of the things which defines much of Peckinpah’s work in this period is his use of a stock company of technicians and actors whom he happened to find agreeable. He wasn’t able to use many of them on Straw Dogs - hence the appearance in his filmography of John Coquillion who later took over regular DP duties – but they’re all here bar one. Lucien Ballard is the cinematographer, doing a superb job with the extensive location shooting in Texas. Robert L. Wolfe is the editor, working alongside Roger Spottiswoode, and they produce some stunning stuff, particularly in that opening montage, the famous garbage truck scene and the climactic hotel shoot-out. Indeed, the action in The Getaway is superbly achieved throughout – although there’s less of it than you might expect and it’s never allowed to overtake the careful plotting and character development which Walter Hill’s screenplay takes such pains to achieve. In many respects, it’s very close to the original novel but it’s less cynical and the ending is completely different. Thompson’s ending is darkly brilliant as Doc and Carol find themselves in a living hell but I tend to agree with most other writers that this wouldn’t have worked in this kind of film. Thompson’s central couple are mean-spirited and opportunistic while Peckinpah’s are likeable and have their own sense of honour. I suspect the new happy ending was a commercial decision but I think it’s the right one. Peckinpah certainly wasn’t averse to downbeat endings per se, however, as a look at Pat Garrett and Alfredo Garcia will confirm.

- Mike Sutton, DVD Times

Other reviews:

- Rusty White, EInsiders.com

- Mark A. Rivera, Genre Online


The Getaway appears slightly more detailed than the simultaneously released Bullitt on Blu-ray from Warner and both are probably exact duplicates of their HD-DVD editions.  The image quality shows some grit and minor grain. It probably looked quite similar to this theatrically over 35 years ago.  This is only single-layered and one of the earlier classic brought to hi-def disc. Colors seem brighter and truer than SD could relate although it can tend to look blocky at times. Skin tones seem quite warm - contrast exhibits healthy, rich black levels. Daylight scenes are more impressive but nothing is overly dark. This Blu-ray has a nice realistic feel with the only black-mark being the stock footage used in the film which comes across quite poorly.  By modern standards this is fairly tame visually but as a representation of the original - I doubt much more could be done. This Blu-ray probably looks like the film The Getaway and it advances beyond the last DVD editions in several key areas - notably detail and colors.

Audio :

No boost going on here - its a mono track pushing mostly through the center channel. I like the authenticity but fans who indulge for their Surround systems will be left empty handed with The Getaway. Quincy Jones does a great score switching moods and encapsulating strong emotions with his deft arrangements. The closing harmonica theme music seems absolutely perfect and sounds crisp enough without range or depth.

Extras :

The supplements appear to duplicate the SE DVD with the fine Redman led commentary. The 'Virtual' Reel One Commentary by Steve McQueen, Ali McGraw and Sam Peckinpah is s nice nostalgic SD touch for about 10 minutes. There is an SD featurette on Jerry Fielding and The Getaway Reel 4 Bank Robbery Sequence with alternate Jerry Fielding Score in HD. As an audio-only bonus - we get the Alternate Jerry Fielding Score and a trailer gallery of Sam Peckinpah Films. Overall the commentary is the king and very much worth indulging in.


I loved revisiting this film in 1080P and got a lot more out of it noticing plenty of Peckinpah 'socially soured' touches. As an action/thriller this holds up just as well today and the chemistry of McQueen/McGraw is perfectly implemented into the story. This is infinitely superior to its Basinger/Baldwin remake and a great film to have on Blu-ray in my opinion. I doubt we're going to see it looking any better and I recommend!

- Gary Tooze, DVD Beaver

Video: Warner made a similar misprint of The Getaway's packaging as it did with Bullitt, swapping the two films' aspect ratios. Despite what the flipside of the case claims, The Getawayis presented at its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and it looks fantastic in high-definition. Admittedly, its early moments in particular seem excessively dark, and the palette is dingy and heavy on browns, something that may be intended to reflect its dusty western setting. The image is crisp and smooth, richly detailed and light on the film grain I would've expected from a movie of this vintage. It's a marked improvement over the simultaneously-released HD DVD of Bullitt in that respect, and aside from potentially being a touch too dark, there really aren't any flaws of note -- the authoring seems adept, there are no nicks or specks in the source, and it's devoid of the telltale signs of excessive noise reduction. Very nicely done.

Audio: The Dolby Digital Plus audio sounds strikingly like a 35 year old mono track -- and that's exactly what it is -- but even if The Getaway isn't the most aurally impressive release, it's still reasonably robust. There's no thundering bass, of course, and the audio is obviously routed through a single speaker rather than dishing out a multichannel assault, but the film's dialogue is rendered cleanly and clearly, and Quincy Jones' score has an understated but decent presence. Nothing remarkable but no real complaints.

Monaural tracks are also offered in Spanish and French alongside subtitles in all three languages.

Extras: Although McQueen and Peckinpah are no longer with us and MacGraw doesn't seem keen on participating in DVD extras, Warner has compiled a virtual commentary with the three of them for the first ten minutes of the film, culling soundbites from vintage interviews. They each get a fair amount of time to themselves, discussing what drew them to the story and commenting on the lead characters, such as how universal and easily relatable Doc and Carol are even if they are bank robbers. They also each have their own angle to discuss: McQueen revealing that his Doc McCoy is a Bogart tribute and how he immersed himself in a maximum security prison alongside hardened criminals, MacGraw on her inexperience as an actress and her preference for working with strong directors, and Peckinpah on his response to the material and his thoughts on the movie some years later. It's too short to offer much insight but is fairly interesting nonetheless. Unlike a traditional commentary, the audio doesn't play over the movie itself, instead placing a timecoded version of the first reel of the film on the left of the screen while stills of MacGraw, McQueen, and Peckinpah appear on the right.

There is a proper audio commentary for the entirety of the film, moderated by Nick Redman and featuring three authors on Peckinpah and his films: Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle. They naturally devote little time to the behind the scenes comments that typically litter commentaries, instead relating The Getaway to the rest of Peckinpah's body of work, pointing out familiar themes and how the deliberate pace of the movie would never make it past studio marketeers today. This sort of emphasis on critical analysis isn't really my usual bag, but it's a welcomed change of pace from a traditional audio commentary.

Though not directly addressed as such, one topic briefly touched upon in the commentary is what Steve McQueen hoped to get out of the score by bringing in Quincy Jones. The score for The Getaway had originally been composed by frequent Peckinpah collaborator Jerry Fielding, and the remaining extras revolve largely around his involvement with the film.

In fact, Warner has gone to the impressive lengths of reinserting Fielding's music back into the film with an isolated score. Fielding's compositions are bouncy and somewhat country-flavored, placing particular emphasis on the snare drum, while Jones' has a more traditional funk flavor, heavy on bass and accompanied by strings and a guitarist mashing a wah pedal. It's surprisingly difficult to find all that many scenes to compare and contrast the two scores -- it's often the case that one track has music and the other is silent.

The late Jerry Fielding is also the focus of a half-hour featurette. Although it's named "Main Title 1M1: Jerry Fielding, Sam Peckinpah and The Getaway", that's somewhat misleading asThe Getaway is only touched upon for a few short minutes. This wonderful featurette pairs Camille Fielding, the composer's widow, with Peckinpah assistant Katy Haber as the two of them reminisce about these deeply creative men. Fielding introduces her husband's work by speaking about his early life and how he broke through the blacklist, and the remainder of featurette focuses almost entirely on the composer's tumultuous relationship with Peckinpah, even showing the text of a memo Peckinpah sent Fielding about his "overscored, pretentious" music for The Wild Bunch while screening dailies in a Mexican laundromat. The discussion about The Getaway includes notes about how unusually pleasant the experience was putting this film and its score together and how shattered Fielding was that McQueen replaced his score with one by Quincy Jones, so much so that it had lasting repercussions on the family cat. This featurette offers a sweet, charming look at these two men and is very much worth setting aside the time to watch.

- Adam Tyner, DVD Talk

Other reviews:

- Peter M. Bracke, Hi-Def Digest



Quotes found on the TSPDT profile page for Peckinpah:

"His preoccupation with the omnipresence of violence and the ambivalence of morality made for complex characters, never sure of their identity or their moral standing. But there was nothing ambiguous about Peckinpah's own view of man as an ignoble beast, though many questioned his insistence that the gratuitous gore in his films was in truth an expression of the director's quest for a better world." - (The MacMillan International Film Encyclopedia, 1994)

"American director who has made some of the most exciting gun duels and action scenes ever put on screen. Nor was it all blood and thunder: the human spirit was never better celebrated than in some of Peckinpah's early work. Unfortunately, after The Wild Bunch, things did not develop quite as one would have hoped." - David Quinlan (Quinlan's Illustrated Guide to Film Directors, 1999)

"The more that emerges on Peckinpah the man, the clearer it is that he was in brazen pursuit of his own fantasies - and expecting others to pay for it. A very dangerous man, because he could be so damn good. Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid makes Clint Eastwood look like a carpetbagger." - David Thomson (The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, 2002)

"The dying of the American West has been the subject of his best efforts (Ride the High Country, 62; The Wild Bunch, 69; The Ballad of Cable Hogue, 70). Lately, however, he's taken to projects containing mindless violence, limp plots, and surface characters (Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, 75; The Killer Elite, 75)." - William R. Meyer (The Film Buff's Catalog, 1978)

"I want to be able to make westerns like Akira Kurosawa makes westerns." - Sam Peckinpah

On the 29th December 1984, the day after Sam Peckinpah died at the age of 59, a small obituary appeared in The New York Times. It claimed that Peckinpah, "best known for his westerns and graphic use of violence. attained notoriety for such films as The Wild Bunch, a brutal picture that was by several thousand red gallons the most graphically violent Western ever made and one of the most violent movies of all time." (2) With the release of The Wild Bunch (1969), Peckinpah became known as "Bloody Sam". In 1971, Straw Dogs hit the screen and the cult of notoriety was cemented: Peckinpah became a marketable, yet controversial director. Much sought after, he gave contentious interviews to a variety of newspapers and magazines including GamePlayboyFilms and Filmmaking and Take One, while also writing letters to newspaper editors justifying his work and slamming his detractors. (3) Under the microscope of feminist film theory his sometimes aberrant treatment of the representation of women and his "excessive" use of violence was noted and condemned. The critical uptake of the notion of Peckinpah as the "master of violence" and the momentum of the debates that ensued affected not only the discussion of his so-called "violent films" but also the reception of his more "gentle" ones. Peckinpah made numerous television serials and three films before The Wild Bunch, none of which was heralded as brutal, or violent. After The Wild Bunch, he made The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), and after Straw Dogs he made Junior Bonner (1972). Both The Ballad of Cable Hogue and Junior Bonner are about individuals who are running out of time and space-but they are also full of the affirmation of life.

The Wild Bunch
The Wild Bunch

In working through the criticism that has evolved around Peckinpah's 14 films, what becomes evident is the concentration on specific moments in this working history. The personal mythology surrounding Peckinpah is inscribed in much of the writing generated by these films. A drunk, a coke addict, a sentimental romantic, possibly schizophrenic, a little man with a big chip on his shoulders-Peckinpah is said to be many things. Yet it is obvious from the large body of critical literature, which includes reviews, articles and numerous books, both critical and biographical, that Peckinpah is not a "neglected" filmmaker; rather, there is an unwillingness to deal with the paradoxical nature of his films. In an allusion to Pauline Kael, the 1995 Peckinpah retrospective held by the Film Society of the Lincoln Centre was entitled: "Blood of a Poet". (4) In this short phrase Kael captures something elemental about Peckinpah's films, something that is often ignored-that the intensity, resonance and vitality of these films' aesthetic expressiveness, be it violent or utopian, takes us into the realm of the poetic.

Charting the path of Peckinpah's critical and personal reputation is something like taking a roller coaster ride. From the late '60s through to the '70s, Peckinpah was both celebrated and condemned as the cinematic poet of violence. After this brief period, although occasionally producing films that express the strength of his artistic vision, he went into an erratic artistic and physical decline. By the end of the '70s, he disappeared into obscurity; yet after his death, he slowly began to re-emerge as an influential presence who left us with a disparate but rich cinematic oeuvre. In 1993, the BBC produced Sam Peckinpah: Man of Iron (Paul Joyce, 1992), a feature-length documentary dealing with his personal life and films. Retrospectives have also been staged at the Cinémathèque Français in Paris, at the University of Missouri in Columbia, and at London's National Film Theatre, while Film Comment and Sight and Sound have published reappraisals of his work. Major publications in the last ten years include David Weddle's 1994 insightful biography, Paul Seydor's 1997 "Reconsideration" of his 1980 text Peckinpah: The Western Films (1980) and two collections of essays on The Wild Bunch(5) Michael Bliss' Justified Lives: Morality & Narrative in the Films of Sam Peckinpah, which was published in 1993, is one of the few texts that deals with all of Peckinpah's films; while Stephen Prince's Savage Cinema: Sam Peckinpah and the Rise of Ultraviolent Movies explores Peckinpah's work in the context of changes within the industry and the social milieu in which this filmmaker was working. Some of the most insightful and thoughtful work on Peckinpah's films has been produced by theorists and critics such as Bliss, Terence Butler, Jim Kitses, Mark Crispin Miller and Paul Seydor who address Peckinpah's films within the context of an American literary tradition and the western genre. Bliss and Seydor have picked up where Jim Kitses started, claiming Peckinpah as the son of an American cultural tradition that includes Cooper, Emerson, Hemingway, Faulkner and Mailer. Both these writers address his films in the context of the western, discussing his tarnished approach to the original ideal. These major reappraisals, the re-release of The Wild Bunch and the retrospectives have all helped to re-ignite interest in Peckinpah's legacy as both a mercurial personality and an important director whose influence is acknowledged by many contemporary filmmakers, including Kathryn Bigelow, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and John Woo.

- Gabrielle Murray, Senses of Cinema Great Directors Biography

The first point that must be made, here in the 21st century, is that Peckinpah's films are not terribly violent. That's how he made his reputation: as "Bloody Sam", the man who never met a bucket of theatrical blood he wasn't willing to splash around, and who always made certain you knew when the blood was about to flow, by means of slow motion. Still, by today's standards, the better part of the Peckinpah canon is not terribly violent - not when judged against today's rivers of gore. There are, in Peckinpah, no fountaining bodies, no bits of brain tissue splattered about. Anything released in the last 20 years is quite a bit more repellent. Seen any of those Saw movies?

And the very last thing Peckinpah shot? Right before his death? Julian Lennon's music videos for Vallotte and Too Late for Goodbyes. Did he need the money? Did he like playing the underdog? Was there something moving about musical advertisements for the son of a famous victim of violence? However you answer these questions, there's something starkly beautiful about Valotte. Julian Lennon, his features and his voice so unsettlingly reminiscent of his late father's, sits alone at the piano in a recording studio, as the camera seems to hover, as if from hereafter itself, at the uppermost corner of the ceiling above the performance.

There's nothing flashy or cheap about the video (in an era when cheap was the order of the day), and everything about it feels understated, even graceful. But whose heavenly ken is depicted therein? From the top of that ghostly staircase? John Lennon's point of view, lamenting a son he insufficiently came to know? Peckinpah's, who knew his time was short and that his vision, as realised, was incomplete? Maybe Valotte was a sort of funeral oratory, too - one, as in David Warner's speech from Cable Hogue, in which the orator was unable to lie.

- Rick Moody, The Guardian

Sam Peckinpah on Facebook


Stories of Steve McQueen's troubled childhood and roustabout adolescence never squared with the fastidiousness of his screen persona, the aristocracy of his best roles. McQueen did not need to act snobbery and elitism; his whole being vibrated with a sense of natural superiority. Only once, in The Thomas Crown Affair, did he play the wealthy and powerful man he was in real life, and then the role fitted him as perfectly as his tailoring.

Repressed loners in search of standards were McQueen's speciality. His wintry blue eyes, neat movements, and clipped unemotional voice told you everything you needed to know about life on the road, in the trenches, in prison, or on the trail. He did not mind being unsympathetic; audiences knew he was a cut above those around him, and identified with his locked-tongue loneliness, his private obsession—something Peckinpah explored (and exploited) to great effect in The Getaway.

The best McQueens are in the 1960s. His ambitious young professional gambler in The Cincinnati Kid, psychopathic World War II G.I. in Hell Is for Heroes, World War II pilot in The War Lover, itinerant jazz musician in Love with the Proper Stranger, and rootless wanderer in Baby the Rain Must Fall all flirt with villainy, particularly in their callous attitude toward the women who love these driven men. His Frank Bullitt in Bullitt is no better, but when, in the final enigmatic scene, he returns to his apartment after the bloody airport shootout, sees his mistress sleeping, and impassively washes his hands before joining her, the line between hero and clod is decisively drawn.

John Baxter, updated by John McCarty, Film Reference.com