Above all else, prisons are rehabilitation facilities. That's what they're supposed to be, anyway. The general public often tends to neglect that angle, regarding prisons as a place where we put all the bad people in order to keep the good people safe. The problem with that sort of thinking is that it reinforces the notion that people who have gone to prison are irredeemably bad, which in turn makes it more difficult for many people with a criminal record to create a better life for themselves in the real world after their release. This problem is examined in simple-but-effective fashion by Jose Giovanni's Two Men in Town, which pairs French screen legends Jean Gabin (Les Miserables) and Alain Delon (Purple Noon) for the third and final time (the two men had previously collaborated on Any Number Can Win and The Sicilian Clan).
Delon plays professional safe cracker Gino Strabliggi, who has just been released on parole after a long stretch in prison. The man responsible for securing Gino's release is social worker Germain Cazeneuve (Gabin), who believes that Gino is a genuinely decent man. Indeed, Gino is completely sincere in his desire to turn his life around and get a fresh start: he gets a job at a factory, receives plenty of moral support from his loving wife Sophie (Ilaria Occhini, The Betrothed) and gladly accepts Germain's advice on how to navigate the complications of a post-prison world.
Unfortunately, not everyone is sold on Gino's decision to go straight. On one side, there's Chief Inspector Goitreau (Michel Boquet, The Bride Wore Black), who is almost certain that Gino is deceiving his parole officers and plotting to return to the criminal underworld. On the other side, there are Gino's old criminal associates, who refuse to believe that their old pal is actually going to quit doing what he does best. The pressure builds on both sides, leading to a moment when everything snaps and Gino is sent into a personal tailspin.
The two leads share a comfortable chemistry during their scenes together, and both find exactly the right notes for the characters they've been asked to play. Gabin's world-weary narration sets the film's tone; his deep, rumbling voice gently asking unanswerable questions. Delon's slyness and movie star magnetism is put to good use in the film's early scenes – you sort of understand why nobody trusts him - but he really hits his stride in the film's final third, as furious despair slowly morphs into bewildered defeat. His sad, confused eyes are the film's best image.
Giovanni's direction is crisp and naturalistic, offering a handful of minor dramatic flourishes but largely presenting the tale with no-nonsense, documentary-style realism. The film's emotional core is effectively located by composer Philip Sarde, whose mournful main theme brings clouds of sadness into the movie long before it starts raining. The concluding scenes are perhaps on the heavy-handed side, but they make a forceful moral argument on the subject of capital punishment. Killing has no place in a rehabilitation facility. France finally learned that lesson. When will America do the same?
Two Men in Town
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 99 minutes
Release Year: 1973