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The caper is almost an afterthought in Jean-Pierre Melville's venerated Bob le Flambeur (1956), although it's quite a caper. It involves cracking the safe at the casino in Deauville after Bob, an aging gangster and mostly unlucky gambler, hears that the safe can contain as much as 800 million francs after a busy night. Melville (1917-1973) was the godfather of postwar French crime movies and one of the forerunners of the French New Wave. He loved American movies, particularly gangster movies and the fatalistic genre the French christened film noir. Born Jean-Pierre Grumbach in Paris, he renamed himself in homage to Herman Melville, wore Ray-Bans and drove a big American car. In the film, one of the things that sets Bob apart from his circle of lowlifes is that he drives a fully-loaded two-tone Plymouth Belvedere convertible, the mere presence of which devastates the Citroens around it.
Bob stands apart from everyone else, but not because he's flashy. In his belted trench coat, collar and tie, and silver hair neatly combed straight back, Roger Duchesne evokes Jean Gabin in his stocky solidity. But he's finer-featured, never smiling, wary and squinty-eyed as he glides with comfortable familiarity through his Parisian world of racetracks, casinos and backroom card games. The film begins with him coming home to roost after an all-nighter, lulled by the sights and smells of his Montmartre neighborhood coming to life in the dawn - a water truck spraying the gutters, early-shift workers scurrying to their jobs, a just-opened newsstand, where Bob tips generously for the morning papers on his way home to a penthouse that speaks of more prosperous days. The film's title translates as Bob the High-Roller, but it's clear that most of his high-rolling is behind him. He wins a small jackpot at the track, only to lose it at a casino. The only time he doesn't lose is when he plays a slot machine he keeps in a cupboard in his digs. He has no illusions about himself. He acknowledges that he's a sucker.
But he's a sucker with style. He has dignity, and he's generous. How generous? During one of his flush periods, he staked an old friend, Yvonne (Simone Paris), to the bistro she now owns. It's one of his hangouts. But he always pays for his drinks there. When he picks up a young woman, Anne (Isabelle Corey), who has just set up as a prostitute, he addresses her as a "pavement princess," and makes his quarters available to her. He doesn't try to sleep with her. He can see that his protg, Paolo (Daniel Cauchy), is gaga over her. So he takes a hands-off approach for the sake of the young man, son of a former partner in crime. He's perhaps the only one in his world with a touch of nobility about him. Everybody likes Bob - his concierge, Yvonne the bistro proprietor, the news vendor, even the commissaire in charge of his district (Guy Decomble), who owes Bob ever since Bob saved him from a bullet.
Old-school, classy, understated, underplayed Bob is a soft touch for everyone except a pimp, Marc (Gerard Buhr). When the latter, in trouble with the police, asks Bob to hide him, Bob throws him out because he doesn't like the way the pimp treats women. Bob is larger than the life he leads. He himself questions the futility of his existence. But old habits die hard. Or not at all. After having gone straight since a prewar jail stretch for bank robbery, he finds himself gravitating to thoughts of a last big larcenous caper after a prolonged slump at gambling. Beneath his stoical exterior and his quite believable toughness, he's a sentimental and sentimentalized criminal, marching shoulder to shoulder alongside his Hollywood counterparts - the tough, self-sufficient males with male codes of honor out of Hawks and Huston -- but, Bob being Bob, a la style francaise.
Film noir sidles into this gangster caper with the story's two bad-news women - the streetwalker, who hears of the Deauville scheme from Paolo when he's trying to impress her in bed, and the wife of the ex-con croupier they recruit as their inside man. She'd rather blow the whistle than risk seeing her husband behind bars again. Anne blabs injudiciously at the nightclub where she's employed. So the odds keep growing steeper against Bob and his gang as he obliviously prepares on a grassy field near an aerodrome, reproducing the casino layout and having his fellow heist-meisters walk through the job by way of rehearsal. The farther things move toward the showdown, the worse it's starting to look for Bob, although Bob doesn't know it. Yvonne tries to deflect Bob. Decomble's quite simpatico cop bends over backwards to try and dissuade him. You don't see how Bob and his confederates can possibly pull it off. All you want, as the cars start converging on Deauville, is for Bob to come out of it whole.
Melville, who began his career under the wing of Jean Cocteau (the latter supplied an early version of the script), made his first films on a shoestring. This forced inventiveness. He beat New Wave pioneers Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard to hand-held camera use, jump cuts and taking the camera out of the studio and into the streets. For his part, Godard openly declared Melville an influence on Breathless (1960) and cast him in a small role in it. That film's now legendary tracking shot filmed from a moving baby carriage was inspired by Melville shooting with a camera attached to a delivery bike. In his economy, pared-down dialogue and stress on actors embodying their characters rather than declaring them, Melville showed Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol & Co. how to keep things simple, yet elegant.
When he got bigger budgets, Melville went on to make films that left no doubt of his supremacy at refashioning American tough-guy movies. Le doulos (1962) with Jean-Paul Belmondo, Le samourai (1967) and Le cercle rouge (1970), both with Alain Delon, are genre masterpieces. Melville's masterpiece, L'armee des ombres (1969), starring the inexplicably neglected Lino Ventura, elevated gangster tropes into the best film about the WW II Resistance. (Melville rejected Delon for the role of Bob's protg, incidentally, because he was afraid Delon's good looks would steal the film.) But Melville's mastery began with Bob le Flambeur. He brought the genre back full circle to Hollywood, influencing not only Neil Jordan's remake, The Good Thief (2002), but Ocean's Eleven (1960, 2001), Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Hard Eight (1996), to name but a few. The French have long had a way with the English language as well as with Hollywood films. Proof? The felicitous transfer of a French political commentator's description of Barack Obama's chief attribute - le coolitude - to Melville and Bob le Flambeur. Both have it to spare.
Producer: Jean-Pierre Melville, Serge Silberman
Screenplay: Auguste Le Breton, Jean-Pierre Melville
Cinematography: Maurice Blettery, Henri Deca
Music: Eddie Barclay, Jo Boyer
Film Editing: Monique Bonnot
Cast: Isabel Corey (Anne), Daniel Cauchy (Paolo), Roger Duchesne (Robert 'Bob' Montagn), Andr Garet (Roger), Grard Buhr (Marc), Guy Decomble (Commissaire Ledru), Claude Cerval (Jean, le croupier), Howard Vernon (McKimmie, le commanditaire), Colette Fleury (Suzanne, la femme de Jean), Simone Paris (Yvonne)
by Jay Carr