Bob le flambeur (1956) Jean-Pierre Melville
Criterion Collection DVD (library)
Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur easily draws comparisons to other heist films of the noir era such as Rififi (1955) and The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and even more modern films such as Oceans Eleven (2001) and its sequels, but oddly enough, the film I’m reminded of most is Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992). Like Will Munny in that film, Bob Montagné (Roger Duchesne, above right) is a man who can’t escape who truly he is: a gambler. Like Munny in Unforgiven, Bob may go for long stretches without giving in to his gambling addiction. He might loan a local woman (Simone Paris, below left) enough money to buy a bar, he might take an old friend’s son under his wing, and he might even have once saved the life of a police inspector (Guy Decomble), but none of those things can really change who and what Bob is.
Bob even seeks to rescue a beautiful young girl named Anne (Isabelle Corey, all of 16-years-old at the time, last picture at bottom) from drifting into a life of prostitution. Anne is the pivotal player in the film. Bob is trying to turn her life around before she (like himself) finds herself in an inescapable future. Yet Anna ends up having a far different effect on his life, thanks mainly to Bob’s protégé Paulo (Daniel Cauchy), an impressionable young man who talks a little too much.
But this is a heist film, after all, and heist films almost always have lots of planning scenes. Bob le flambeur is no exception. These scenes (and really all scenes in the film) take their time in developing and if you had to choose one word to describe them, it would be cool. My favorite scene involves one of the members of Bob’s gang practicing his safecracking skills on a safe similar to the one he’s going to attempt to open at the casino they plan to rob. While the rest of the gang is waiting, the safecracker (played by Rene Salgue, who was a real gangster) pauses to leisurely light his cigar, take a few puffs, and then puts on his stethoscope, getting to work on the tumblers. Even the music is cool, giving us a lightly driving rhythm, nothing heavy-handed.
Bob himself is cool. Everyone knows him and everyone respects him, even if he sometimes can’t afford to respect or trust himself. As usually happens in heist films, things go wrong, but you might be surprised at how they go wrong and who is to blame.
Melville was an admirer of all things American, so much so that he adopted the surname of American writer Herman Melville. Yet as much as he admired American films, Melville’s films from his native France have a look and feel all their own. They don’t look like American noir films, but they’re just as effective and have just as much to say about the noir style and lifestyle. They quite literally don’t make them like this anymore anywhere.
Kristina over at Speakeasy has a great review of Bob le flambeur. Check out her review, then check out the movie.