Thursday, December 12, 2019

The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville: Bob La Flambeur (1956)

Bob le Flambeur (1956) 
Directed by: Jean-Pierre Melville.
Written by: Jean-Pierre Melville and Auguste Le Breton.
Starring: Roger Duchesne (Robert 'Bob' Montagné), Isabelle Corey (Anne), Daniel Cauchy (Paulo), Guy Decomble (Le commissaire Ledru), André Garet (Roger), Gérard Buhr (Marc), Claude Cerval (Jean - le croupier), Colette Fleury (Suzanne - la femme de Jean), René Havard (L'inspecteur Morin), Simone Paris (Yvonne), Howard Vernon (McKimmie - le commanditaire).
If you want to talk about what you typically think of as a Jean-Pierre Melville film, it probably all starts with Bob le Flambeur – Melville’s 1956 masterwork, in which we first start to see what Melville would excel at over the next two decades of his career. It is a film of effortless style, effortless cool, with brisk, confident storytelling that lays out a complicated plot with ease, a sly sense of humor, and a lead character who is cool, and lives by a code – even if that code can seem heartless, he stands by it.
That character is Bob – and his played with cool confidence by Roger Duchesne. He is a gambler, living in Monaco, where he stays up all night gambling. Everyone knows Bob – everyone loves Bob. He was convicted of a bank robbery years ago, spent some time in jail, but has given up that life now. Even the cops know and love Bob. His young protégé, Paulo (Daniel Cauchy) hangs on his every word. The young people in Monaco don’t have the same code as Bob – don’t have the same sense of respect, same idea of how things should be.
The plot grows increasingly complicated as it moves along. Bob is pretty much broke, down to his last few hundred thousand francs – and has no other skills other than gambling. A friend tells him that the casino has upwards of eight hundred million francs on Grand Prix day – and even if Bob gave up that life years ago, that’s a lot of money, and he could use it. He assembles a team.
In some ways, the film resembles something like Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11. Bob gets his crew, and they started training – walking us in the audience through their plan on step at a time. It grows more complicated however by the presence of women – they always mess things up, don’t they? Bob meets and befriends young Anne (Isabelle Corey – a teenager when they made the film, and who delivers the best performance in the film outside of Duchesne). She is on the verge of becoming a prostitute, working for Marc (Gerard Buhr) – one of those younger criminal Bob despises. He invites her to live with him – not because he’s a lecherous old man, but because he thinks he may be good for Paolo. Paolo does indeed fall in love with Anne – and does what all young men in love do, tells her things he shouldn’t. Anne isn’t an innocent either, and she turns around and tells Marc (the transition between Anne and Paolo in bed, and Anne in Marc in bed is handled well by Melville). And we already know that Marc is a police informant, so you know what that is going to mean. And even if this doesn’t mess up the plan – the inside man, a croupier, has told his wife – and she gets a little too greedy as well.
In Bob le Flambeur you can see why Melville was an inspirational for the French New Wave filmmakers, who would begin to make films in just a few years. Here Melville is in this film, made on a shoestring budget, shooting on the streets, with an editing style that Godard would adopt shortly. And Bob is a forerunner to those effortlessly cool protagonists of the French New Wave – like Jean-Paul Belmondo, who of course would make some films with Melville later on.
The ending of the film I justly famous, for the ironic way that Melville brings it all to a close – allowing Bob to be back on top, without really making him a criminal again. And yet, of course, people die because Bob – and he doesn’t seem all that bothered by it. He lived by his code after all, and they didn’t – and if they don’t, well then, perhaps they got what they deserved. There is a heartlessness to Bob that goes along with that cool – perhaps you need to be that heartless, to be that cool.

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