Screening Log #29: Bob le Flambeur (1956)

Written by Auguste Le Breton and Jena-Pierre Melville
Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville
Starring Roger Duchesne, Isabelle Corey, Daniel Cauchy, and Guy Decomble

 

 

 

There is a version of Jean-Pierre Melville in my head. I’m not sure how accurately this version of the man who I’ve created may be, but in my mind there’s a distinct correlation between Melville and the eponymous character of his Bob le Flambeur. Melville’s early films, in their methodology and their appropriation of American film-noir tropes, had no small effect on the aesthetic of nouvelle vague filmmakers such as Godard. As such, there’s a certain gravity that pulls me toward conceiving of Melville as a paternal figure, not unlike Bob the high roller, a respected pioneer of an anti-establishment way of living with its own set of rules and honour system. It’s stated by a friend of Bob’s in the film that Bob was the first to drive an American car, and I imagine a similar reverence being held for Melville’s adopting of his influences that would later be employed by younger filmmakers.

Bob, Roger Duchesne, an older gambler and one-time tough, is well known and respected by the people of Montmartre in Paris. He has friends among the police force, is looked up to by a younger generation of criminals and nocturnal folk. He dresses sharply and gambles compulsively, never retiring to his apartment before six in the morning. As the film begins there is a sense that Bob has settled into a comfortable rhythm in life. The film observes him moving among his people, how they give him space. Melville framing of shots, in his wonderful sense of composition, allows Bob his space as well, balancing him against those who share the frame, his presence never overwhelming, but powerful. Bob has an ersatz pupil, Paolo, Daniel Cauchy, who models himself after Bob.

The men float through the nights attracting and losing the favor of lady luck and women in general. A young woman, Anne, Isabelle Corey, enters into Bob’s life and immediately charms Paolo. The seeds seem to be planted for a love triangle, but Bob’s posture toward the situation is too cool, or nurturing even, for him to be bothered. After losing most of his remaining money trying to ride a hot gambling streak at an upscale casino, Bob hatches the plan to rob the safe from the casino. What follows is not unlike a Gallic version of Ocean’s Eleven wherein a team is assembled, a heist is planned, safe cracking is rehearsed, and people are paid to be complicit. There is, of course, a complication that prevents the heist from going off exactly as planned.

Melville’s film stands apart from the countless films that it may have (in)directly inspired through its intense focus on place and character. Bob le Flambeur‘s characters are deeply woven into the fabric of Montmartre, of Pigalle, and Dauville. The third act’s complication and its consequences stem not from any miscommunication or cruel twist of fate, rather, quite the opposite, if a twist in an unexpected direction. Melville’s film is sharp enough to know, as the old song goes, when to hold them and when to fold them; more importantly, Bob le Flambeur knows that the wheel of fortune turns of its own accord and that plot grows organically from how characters react to this turn, rather than dictating where they, or the viewer, go.

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