1950s, 4/4, Crime, Jean-Pierre Melville, Review

Bob le Flambeur

#6 in my ranking of Jean-Pierre Melville’s filmography.

Quand tu liras cette lettre was a transitional film from Jean-Pierre Melville’s earlier, less distinctive films to what he would become known for, introducing motifs and visual elements that he would mine repeatedly for the rest of his career. In his next film, Bob le Flambeur, Melville has left behind completely the start of his career and become what he’s known for: a film about crime, men who do it, and they all look great in fedoras and trench coats. Oh, and there are some women around too, not that they really matter.

Bob (Roger Duchesne) is an old gambler who has managed a modest existence in the section of Paris Montmartre. He has an artist’s loft with a great view of Sacre Coeur, and he spends his nights going from one poker game to another dice game, with his little slot machine taking up a closet to welcome him home. He has a friendly relationship with a Parisian police inspector Ledru (Guy Decomble) since they go back to the last criminal job Bob did twenty years prior, where Bob got caught and did time. He’s been clean ever since, and Ledru takes him to dinner from time to time. There’s a young hood, Paolo (Daniel Cauchy) who idolizes Bob, mimicking his every way of life and trying to essentially become him. When Bob picks up the very pretty Anne (Isabelle Corey) and lets her sleep in his bed (he takes the bed upstairs since he’s a gentleman), Paolo becomes infatuated with Anne and steals her right out from under Bob’s nose, not that he minds too much. It’s not like Anne is the type of girl to stick around anyway.

Bob’s been hitting a streak of bad luck, the loss of Anne being the latest setback, and when he hears that the casino in Deauville, on the northern coast of France, carries eight hundred million francs in its safe the morning of the Grand Prix, he goes back on his promise to never take another job and immediately starts plotting. What really helps the movie work so well is the fact that the entire first act is dedicated to building Bob and Paolo, but mostly Bob. This is fully Bob’s story, and seeing the comfortable way he lives as well as how it seems to be on the verge of collapse after a bad bet at the races that nearly cleans him out, the first third of the film, is what drives the action on the back end. He’s still gambling as he develops this plan, but he’s trying to put as much in his control as possible. He’s still betting against the house, though.

Together with Paolo, he assembles a team (it’s very easy to see how this influenced Steven Soderbergh when he made Ocean’s Eleven), and only a couple of these members gain any real prominence or characterization. It’s fine, though, since the point is Bob not the heist. He plans the whole affair with gusto, getting a layout of the casino from a croupier, figuring out the make and model of the safe so that his safe cracker can practice, and draws out the floorplan in a field and practices with his men to make sure that they will all be ready. Involving so many people, though, is opening the heist up to leaks, and leaks do happen.

Marc (Gérard Buhr) is a pimp that Bob refused to help when he ran into trouble. With a chip on his shoulder, he happens to meet Anne who blabs innocently the boasts Paolo had said to her of the heist at Deauville. Marc takes this to Ledru who wants to believe that Marc is wrong, that Bob is not involved in a job. And yet, because Ledru is a good cop, he follows through on the investigation.

The ending is fascinating. The plan is for Bob to play stakeout within the casino to make sure that the coast is clear, but despite his promise to not gamble anymore until after the job, he throws down some francs on a roulette table, and he starts winning. The title of the film is incredibly apt because the whole heist plan is an effort at high rolling, and what he really cares about is the thrill of the gamble. The money increases the stakes, but the heist itself isn’t the point. The point is the experience. It’s why he has a little slot machine in his closet, giving him a little hit of the gamble when he needs it.

When he starts winning, and doesn’t stop winning, he loses all track of time. In the end, the heist gets foiled and Bob gets carted away by Ledru, but despite the death that marks the end of the heist before it even begins, Bob is lighthearted. He knows he’s still winning his gamble. It recasts Bob in a surprisingly bad light, and I’m there for it. He seemed to have a code of honor, but it falls apart when he wins. His code is for when he manages his gambling in smaller doses. It goes out the window when he’s on his streak.

This is full Melville, and it’s easy to see why he secured his own unique corner in French cinema. His combination of American crime film influences, precise, classical framing like John Ford, and a firmly French milieu created a unique mixture that, in the firm hands of Jean-Pierre Melville’s independence, becomes incredibly compelling and involving. It’s cool, it’s smart, and it’s great.

Rating: 4/4

5 thoughts on “Bob le Flambeur”

  1. I’d forgotten that I’d seen this one. So that makes two Melville flicks I’ve seen, though I don’t own this one.

    But this does illustrate my problem with Melville (no, not the lack of a white whale):
    I don’t like his characters.
    I have nothing to hang my hat on, so to speak.
    I have to have someone I admire or at least find interesting. Danny Ocean in the Soderberg Oceans 11 is charming and easy to root for. Bob isn’t. Bob has no admirable qualities, not even the strength of a code, which carries criminal-focused films like Heat, The Mechanic, The Killing and yes, Oceans 11.

    Bob doesn’t even kick ass and bang hot chicks. He’s a degenerate gambler, not even a professional in his chosen career.

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    1. I like Bob. He got bit once, and he’s lived within his means ever since. He’s small time, effectively middle class, quiet degenerate gambler.

      And then he gets his eyes on a big score. His code kind of falls apart with his plan, and that code makes everyone around him suffer. I can dig it. His complete callousness at the end is off putting, but the thing about luck is that it ends.

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