DVD, Criterion Collection / Home Vision
Why does everybody think that the French hate Americans, when they've done such a gorgeous job of imitating us in the past?
Take Jean-Pierre Melville, for instance (who even took the name of one of our authors — with the birth name Grumbach, who would blame him?). One of the first French filmmakers to make movies reflecting a love of U.S. genre films, he gravitated toward "men's stories" — tales of gangsters and the like, in which underworld codes of conduct parallel those of vanished social classes (as, obviously, in Le Samouraï, a cult favorite that was revived in arthouses a few years back).
Bob Le Flambeur, just reissued on DVD by the Criterion Collection, is a perfect example of this infatuation, and of the way the French put a unique spin on our legends. Coming five years before Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, it foreshadows that more famous film in style and theme.
But while Godard gave us the Bogie-worshipping Jean-Paul Belmondo (yes, it's true — hip Frenchmen are required to have two first names), Melville's film revolves around an elegant loser who embodies the Bogart ideal rather than emulating it. Known as Bob le Flambeur ("Flambeur" being slang for "high roller"), he's a silver-haired, trenchcoat-wearing gambler who's seen as an elder statesman by the hoods around him, despite having forsaken crime years ago.
Though he lives in a luxe apartment, a streak of bad luck has eroded Bob's savings, making him susceptible to the oldest pipe dream in crime films, the notion of "one last, big job." Bob recruits a large crew to rob the Deauville casino on the busiest day of the year.
Melville collaborated on the screenplay with Auguste Le Breton, who'd just had a success with another landmark crime film, Rififi. Unlike Rififi, in which a safe-cracking sequence is so captivating that it dominates the picture, the actual heist in Bob takes a back seat to Melville's loving portrait of the Montmartre-centric underworld his characters inhabit. Holding court in bars and cafes, Bob tries to steer young hoods in the right — or less wrong — direction: he won't abide pimps, and puts himself out in an attempt to rescue a young girl from a fate she doesn't seem to mind in the least. (The Bardot-ish girl, Isabelle Corey, was a teenaged non-actress cast by Melville when he saw her walking down the street.)
While the camera loves Roger Duchesne (Bob), the director takes a subtly wry view of him and his world. From the opening scene, in which a narrator melodramatically claims that "Montmartre is between Heaven and —," as the image cuts to a tram descending a steep slope and the musical score plunges, hinting at some cartoony version of Hell, we know we're not meant to worry too much about Bob's fate.
By and large, the story is told straight, but the tricky way the plot is resolved — where vice becomes a lucky charm, and luck isn't necessarily something to be desired — is so full of good-natured irony that it transforms film noir's typical fatalism.
Though Melville has been accused of misogyny, the women in this film are not the source of all evil, as they often are in American noir. Instead, they merely bring problematic situations to a head, exposing the flimsiness of the plots men concoct.
The young hoods who aspire to Bob's status are continually struggling with the new role of the gangster in Post-War France; according to an interview with Daniel Cauchy, who plays Bob's apprentice Paulo, something like "honor among thieves" actually existed in France before the Nazi occupation. During the War, though, some hoods sided with the enemy and destroyed any sense of underworld solidarity that might have existed.
It's tempting to mock Cauchy's nostalgia for Pre-War hoodlums, but Americans certainly surpass his romantic view (The Godfather, anyone?). Melville's feat in this film is his ability to combine that romanticism and Hollywood iconography with a carefully crafted tone that makes the point, often avoided in crime movies, that identifying with gamblers is for suckers. — John DeFore