July 22, 2013

Movie Review: Bob le Flambeur (1956)

Bob is a gambler, and not a particularly good one. He usually loses and even when he wins, he loses his winnings at once. Bob also used to be a gangster in the days before they carried guns. He did time for a botched robbery. For the past 20 years, Bob has walked as straight a line as he can. He's well-known in the Montmartre district of Paris where he lives. His protegee is Paolo, the young son of a former associate who died in the botched robbery.

If that seems a sparse way to describe the beginning of a film, it is because that is almost the only way you can describe Bob le Flambeur, Jean-Pierre Melville's masterpiece that presaged the New Wave movement in French cinema and was one of the first "heist" films.

Bob is portrayed with an effortless "cool" (to use Roget Ebert's phrasing) by Roger Duchesne. He's friends with the police because he saved Inspector Ledru's (Guy Decomble) life in that botched robbery. He eschews carrying a gun. He takes in a young streetwalker named Anne (Isabelle Corey) and gets her a job at a bar he funded. She stays at his place at first, but in the loft. Bob sleeps downstairs because, well, that's what a guy like Bob does.

Of course, things cannot continue like this. Bob makes one bet too many and goes broke. He finds out about the safe at the Deauville Casino, which holds over 800M francs on the weekend of the Grand Prix. Paolo tells Anne about it after they sleep together one night. Anne, in turn, tells Marc, a pimp who needs to tell Inspector Ledru a good tip to keep from going to jail. You can see where this is going...

Bob le Flambeur is so unique. It is film noir, with the femme fatale and the flawed anti-hero as the protagonist. It is the beginning of French New Wave, with the handheld camera and jump cuts. And it is an early "heist" film, whose influence can be seen even today: Bob le Flambeur has the assembling of the gang and the walkthrough of the heist (done here on a chalk-drawn floorplan in a field*). These scenes are echoed even today in films like The Italian Job and Ocean's 11.

The lean-ness of Melville's film, combined with the dialogue, helps to elevate Bob le Flambeur to the level of a great film. Arguably, it is Anne who has the best lines. Take this short exchange with Paolo just after they meet:

Paolo: Do you always sleep alone at night?

Anne: Almost.

Just great stuff. It is a confident writer who gives a lesser role some of the choicest lines. Auguste Le Breton and Melville did just that and the results speak for themselves.

There is also a great twist at the end that is hilarious and fitting at the same time. And even then, at the end, Bob is his same cool and collected self.

Bob le Flambeur is a great movie, a "cool" movie, and yet another example that great movies do not need great budgets or great stars. They just need a great script and a talented director.


* Melville literally made this film on the cheap. He found Corey walking around in Montmartre and gave her the role of Anne. He didn't know from day-to-day how much money he had to pay his cast and crew. Duchesne was affordable in part because he had a major drinking problem. The chalk-line walkthrough was a product of keeping costs down. Would Bob le Flambeur have been as good if Melville had a real budget? Doubtful.


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