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Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Bob le Flambeur

Perhaps Jean-Pierre Melville's best known film is 1956's Bob le Flambeur, a noir heist movie that is an obvious homage to American films, most notably The Asphalt Jungle (it is also very similar to Stanley Kubrick's The Killers, which was released the same year). This film has the elements of the heist film, but veer away from them slightly (the heist never takes place) to become more of a character study.

Bob Montaigne (Roger Duchesne), is a professional gambler and ex-con. He did time for a bank robbery, but is living straight, as straight as one can who makes a living playing cards and the ponies. He is described as "an old young man" and when he looks into a mirror he pronounces his face as that of a hood.

He has numerous friends and connections in the demi-monde of Montmartre section, which apparently at the time was seedy. He also is friends with a cop, whose life he saved. Bob has something of an honor code--when a crook comes to borrow some cash to go on the lam, Bob throws him out when he finds out its for pimping and beating up a whore.

He also has some proteges, notably a young hood (Daniel Cauchy) and a young woman he finds wandering the streets (Isabelle Corey). He takes an avuncular interest in her, though you can tell he might like to explore the relationship more. She shacks up with Cauchy, although it is clear that she will partner up with anyone who gives her a place to stay. This becomes a problem when she hooks up with the guy Bob throws out of his apartment.

When Bob's luck runs dry, he hears that a casino has a safe full of 800,000 francs. He then assembles a team, and this section follows time-honored traditions. They need a safecracker, some muscle, and a guy on the inside, a croupier who was once in the can.

It all goes wrong, as these things always do, through loose lips, and because of women. Cauchy brags to Corey about the job, and she tells the pimp. And the croupier's wife gets wind of it and reports it to the police.

But the plot seems less important than the mise-en-scene. Consider the opening shots, which are in gray light (the excellent photography is by Henri Decae, who worked with many of the French New Wave directors) of dawn. Few people are on the street, except for Bob, coming from an all-night gambling session, and Corey, presumably doing the walk of shame after a tryst. He notices her, but she doesn't notice him (she hops on the back of a motorcycle of an American sailor), and that the two will become entwined is a nice shot of the randomness of fate. There are many shots of dark shadows, and the costumes are all noir--raincoats and fedoras and tight sweaters on the girls. Being that it was a French film, there are also some brief shots of nudity.

The script is almost playful in its tip of the hat to American noir. Though a few people get killed, it doesn't have the existential dread of some heist movies (such as The Asphalt Jungle). Bob even gets a great last line--"maybe if a get a great lawyer, I will sue for damages."

As a creature of its time, Bob le Flambeur is misogynist. The character played by Corey, though extremely beautiful, is also extremely passive, a woman to be handed from man to man. The other major female character is the croupier's wife, who is a shrew. This is a film bursting with testosterone, fueled by images of Bogart, who would have certainly made the perfect American counterpart.

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