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the first of Jean-Pierre Melville's astonishing and unique cycle of
films, which have been variously called 'ironic', 'structuralist',
'post-modernist', 'doconstructionist', 'existential', 'Lacanian',
'philosophical' etc. Their influence on modern cinema has been
- Melville's creative indepedence, location shooting and low-budgets
inspiring the nouvelle vague; his filming of violent men in action everyone
from Scorcese and Coppola to Tarantino and Woo; his deconstruction of genre
encouraging Bava and Leone.
Yet in many ways, 'Bob' is the least typical of Melville's thrillers. Where, say, 'Le Samourai' exists in a sparse, abstract, geometric, dreamlike Paris, the Montmartre of 'Bob' in vibrantly alive, with its nightclubs, bars, stray GIs, petty hoods, casual sex, late-night gambling. Where in 'Samourai', the hero's character is pared down to psychological abstraction, Bob is a recognisable human being, stern, but sweet, honourable, a Chandlerian knight, with back-history and motivation. Other characters are plausible, if elusive, also. Where 'Samourai' is a masterpiece of tone, in which direction, acting, cinematography, narrative, sound, colour, decor all cohere into a perfect whole, 'Bob' is a riot of clashing modes, more reminiscent of the gleeful iconoclasm of the nouvelle vague - parody and action, humour and seriousness, dream and realism, co-exist in fertile, thrilling tension.
The hero is what the title suggests, a man who can't stop gambling, moving from one late-night backroom poker-game to another, betting most of his money on horse-races, leaving his diet to a throw of the dice; he even has a fruit machine in his well-appointed flat, where his art collection seems to consist of framed carpet. Yet, ironically, he is a methodical man, keeping to the same routine, the same hours, one night losing a fortune, another making one. Gambling is his only vice now; formerly a con, he did time 20 years previously for a failed bank job - he now considers himself too old for the criminal grind.
After one particularly unprofitable spree, and a chance conversation with a pimp-turned-croupier, Bob and an old friend decide to rob the casino safe at Deauville, and begin rounding up the usual experts and investors, minutely orchestrating the heist. Almost immediately the plans fall through - the dissatisfied wife of the inside man informs the police, as does a thug Bob once refused to help. The casino boss is informed, the police lie in waiting. And yet Bob goes ahead...
For a man who took his pseudonym from one of the great novelists; who adapted most of his films (including 'Bob') from books; and who wrote his own screenplays, Melville has little patience with words, and the story of Bob is brilliantly encapsulated in a series of establishing images. The opening narration eulogises Montmartre with shots defining milieu in realistic terms. yet, when we first see Bob, he is in a setting of extreme artifice, with symbolic chess walls (a recurring pattern) and pictures of, rather than actual, locations. He puts on his trenchcoat and fedora, his signs of movie criminality; whereas Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart's characters WERE gangsters by their deeds, Bob plays the role of a gangster just as Ledru plays the role of a cop, and Anne plays the role of vamp or femme fatale - they are recognisably human behind their 'types', but, in this world made of movies, they cannot do the sensible, plausible thing, but are locked into their roles, despite Ledru's humanistic insistence otherwise. Sense would tell Bob to give up the heist; his pre-ordained role means that he cannot.
As he walks in the early dawn at the beginning, he looks into a tarnished mirror, a further visualisation of the difference between one's self and one's role, identity etc. In an extraordinary long shot, the road-sprayer that circles Bob is echoed in the circular shapes of a nearby park, echoing the circles of the film, the vicious circle Bob gets trapped in, the circles of the casino, the cycles of life. He watches as Anne is picked up by an American motorcyclist - Bob as helpless observer; the movie will dramatise the various ill-fated ways in which he will try to move from passive to active, to stop being a pawn of fate; the frequent, unmotivated-angle shots undermine this. Like all Melville's films, this is not the story of a gangster, but a dismantling of all the concealed codes, ideologies, assumptions, of the gangster, of masculinity, of Hollywood cinema.
One of the ways 'Bob' breaks with traditional cinema is in its anti-Oedipal bias. ; A conventional film often uses an Oedipal trajectory, usually showing an immature hero's moral progress, often defeating an older figure, taking his place and power, and winning the girl. This is a necessary process of continuity for the social order. And this seems to be fulfilled here, as Paolo, who hero-worships Bob, obeying him like a father, takes his place, takes his girl, takes his apartment to have the sex Bob can't have anymore, even using Bob's gestures. Bob is a shadow of himself, de trop in his own home. As it should be. The subsequent narrative could be seen as an attempt of Bob's to regain his identity and power, and to emasculate Paolo.
This sublime film is full of little twists of the norm like this. Isabelle Corey is unprecedented among all film heroines, her amoral, seemingly indifferent sexuality far more suggestive and powerful than her contemporary, Bardot's - her fulfilling her femme fatale role does not result in tragedy any more than Bob's fulfilling his gangster role does.
The use of the narrator is interesting too; voiced by Melville, creator of the film, he is also a kind of God-creator, talking about heaven and hell, taking us on a journey from one to the other; talking from the darkness, about how lives cross, but destinies don't meet, than creating a work where crossed destinies are crucial; intruding at bizarre moments, with prior knowledge of the characters' fates before the action has actually determined them. This, of course, dissipates tension, as does the clownish music, mocking and undermining as much as it propels the action, and the characters' theatricality, their awareness of their roles (eg the rehearsals for the heist like a play).
The filming of this goes way beyond Melville's heist models, 'The Asphalt Jungle' (his favourite movie) and 'Rififi' - after all the plot elements have been put in place - the plan, the preparations, the tip-off, the suspense - Melville moves to a completely different register, and what had been a crime film involving many interested parties becomes a solitary, private rite, Bob's gambling in the casino is a heightened, hallucinatory dream, not quite a rite of death, but a rite of middle-age, of letting go the trappings of youth, also paving the way for the great climax of 'The Good, The Bad and The Ugly': the shoot-out is pure, beautiful, dream abstraction.
For many, great cinema is defined in rarefied terms of high art, snobbily above the detritus of popular culture. For some of us, though, great cinema means a transformative enriching and expanding of popular genres, a cinema that can speak to everybody, not above them, but making the familiar strange. Keaton. Hitchcock. Hawks. Whale. Ophuls. Sirk. Leone. Melville.
Yesterday I have watched Jean-Pierre Melville's BOB LE FLAMBEUR (1955)
for the first time, by way of Criterion's exemplary DVD edition. The
film is a typical 50s French noir in its presentation of divided
loyalties among a gang of crooks, women causing trouble, an elaborate
heist-gone-wrong, police interrogation, etc. With this, Melville's
first outing in a genre he later made his own, the director shows he is
already at one with the milieu, capturing its every nuance and
mannerism with almost effortless ease.
The cast is relatively low-key but all the main roles are admirably filled. Unfortunately, none went on to do much else of importance (apart from Howard Vernon) - and it was, in fact, lead actor Roger Duchesne's penultimate film. Looking a bit like Rudolf Klein-Rogge (who as Dr. Mabuse also played a gambling crime lord), he exudes a smooth charisma and is quite arresting in his playing. Isabel Corey, still a teenager but looking incredibly sexy and mature, was literally hand-picked by Melville himself for the role of Anne, the lovely waif whom Bob takes under his wing but whose inexperience eventually leads, in part, to his downfall. The film also makes brief yet subtle use of nudity which, at that time, was not something one would hope to find in American movies! Daniel Cauchy as Paulo, Bob's right-hand man who also falls for Corey, acquits himself well too here and, on the DVD, delivers an intelligent and delightful 20-minute interview which gives some insight into Melville's working methods, the film's pain-staking shooting schedule (it took some two years to complete during which time Cauchy found time to appear in another four movies!) and also the director's insistence in portraying the 'correct' way of dying on screen. Howard Vernon has a brief but pivotal role as the shady Scotsman who offers to finance Bob's 'scheme'.
Apart from the usual conventions of typical French crime dramas, BOB LE FLAMBEUR introduces some new forms of technique which anticipated the off-the-cuff style of the Nouvelle Vague by some years: the editing has a strange, almost disjointed rhythm to it which is particularly felt near the end during the long gambling sequence at the casino; the hand-held camera-work lends it a slightly amateurish look which suits the mood perfectly; a vaguely avant-gardist touch is also evident in the set design, as in the domino-styled walls of the gambling-dens Bob frequents and the closet in his apartment that is fitted with a privately-owned slot machine! Another interesting aspect (derived perhaps from Julien Duvivier's PEPE' LE MOKO ) is the mutual admiration that is present between Bob and the Police Inspector played by Guy Decomble.
Unlike most of Melville's other work, and particularly his film noirs, the gloomy 'atmosphere' is here counter-pointed by a deft playful mood that makes the film extremely enjoyable despite its fairly slow pace. The film's conclusion then, improbable as it may seem, provides a perfect and deliciously ironic twist - complete with a wonderful closing line.
Criterion's DVD also includes a rather vague radio interview, conducted in English in 1961, with Jean-Pierre Melville who is made distinctly uneasy by interviewer Gideon Bachmann's frustratingly opaque questions. We learn, however, of Melville's great love of American cinema as well as his own work's belated but well-deserved international recognition. I have now watched 8 of Melville's films - LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES (1950); BOB LE FLAMBEUR; LEON MORIN, PRETRE (1961 - possibly forthcoming on DVD from Criterion); LE DOULOS (1962 - possibly forthcoming on DVD from Criterion); L' AINE' DES FERCHEAUX (1963); LE SAMOURAI (1967); L' ARMEE' DES OMBRES (1969 - possibly forthcoming on DVD from Criterion); and UN FLIC (1972 - I still haven't gotten round to purchasing the Anchor Bay R1 DVD). I haven't yet watched LE CERCLE ROUGE (1970 - possibly forthcoming on DVD from Criterion) which I own on VHS, but I may just check it out now that I'm in the mood for more Melville movies!
Imagine a movie in which a gambler finds out about a huge payday at a
casino and decides to pull off a major heist. He and a couple of
friends find a rich backer to put up the money necessary to pull such a
large heist and then Bob (the gambler) decides to enlist some others to
help out. In the end, he has involved not 9, not 10, but 11 people in
the heist. Sound familiar. This hugely influential film by Jean-Pierre
Melville has spawned both versions of Ocean's 11 and is also often
credited as the grandfather of the Nouvelle Vague movement.
This movie is French, so unlike the American versions of Ocean's Eleven, there is no singing, no laughing, no hi-fiving, just straight-faced gambling, plotting and even the loving is grim and made without a smile. The characters are memorable, especially Bob and Anne as they go through life expecting no happiness. Bob never goes to bed before 6am, as he spends his nights, every night, gambling at different locations. This addiction is part of who he is and plays a key role in the twist at the end.
This movie is like a good strong Camembert. As with many French movies, definitely an acquired taste, but once one learns to appreciate the sharpness, one realizes that there is nothing comparable. Camembert, unlike bacon, is not the food of joy. But it is good, flavorful, and powerful in making one want to partake again and again. Until you feel the tanginess in your mouth, there is no describing the taste or effect, but it is definitely worth the effort to build an appreciation for it. 8/10
Cult director Jean-Pierre Melville was originally involved with French art legend Jean Cocteau, but really found his niche making hard boiled crime movies. 'Bob le flambeur' was the first major work by him, and he kept making movies up until the early 1970s with 'Dirty Money'. His work had a huge influence on the French New Wave led Godard and Truffaut (who cast him in a supporting role in 'Breathless' as an acknowledgment), and has proved to be a major inspiration for American film makers like Scorsese, Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson whose debut 'Hard Eight' owes 'Bob le flambeur' quite a debt. 'Bob..' really knocked me out, and along with the equally brilliant 'Rififi' directed by Jules Dassin and released the same year, it's one of THE great crime movies of the 1950s, and should be mentioned in the same breath as Huston's 'The Asphalt Jungle' and Kubrick's 'The Killing'. All four films have had an enormous influence on most subsequent movies in the heist genre. 'Bob's plot is quite simple but the story itself isn't the half of it. What Melville DOESN'T say is just as important as what he does, and the viewer has to piece a lot of it together for himself. Roger Duchesne is super cool as Bob, the ageing gambler on a perpetual bad streak, Daniel Cauchy is excellent as his cocky young protege Paolo, and Isabelle Corey is sexy and intriguing as Anne, the jailbait who gets involved with them both. Personally I prefer this movie and 'Rififi' to 'Breathless' and any French New Wave I've seen to date, but that says as much about my taste as much as the movies themselves. Even so I highly recommend 'Bob le flambeur' to anybody who involves crime movies. It's a classic of the genre, and still fantastically entertaining.
Jean-Pierre Melville's "Bob le Flambeur" (1955) has been often called the first film of the French New Wave. First or not, French New Wave or not, "Bob le Flambeur" is one of the coolest and memorable films I've seen. The most fascinating element of this exquisite crime/dram/noir film is its title character, Bob Montagne- Bob the Gambler (Roger Duchesne). All women wanted to be with him and all young men wanted to be him. He was the man well respected and liked by the cops, the criminals, and the gamblers alike - the king of cool, the elegant loser with his own respectable code of honor. He drove an American car and wore an American hat but he belonged to the streets of Montmartre, Paris, where he was born just as the film itself that could've been only made by a French director who admired American films and had created a perfect blend of American gangster film and French sophisticated comedy of manners. Made back in 1955, the movie is fresh, crisp, sensual, modern and simply delightful. Having watched already all "Ocean's" movies, including Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack's classic, I see where the inspiration for them came from. "Bob Le Falmbeur" was released in the USA in 1982, nine years after Melville's death and became an instant cult hit. Often, cult movies are not the best made but it is not true in the case of "Bob le Flambeur". Its direction is perfect: seemingly simple and truly elegant, its cinematography is beautiful, its music score is amazing and its characters are not the caricatures - they are the real human beings of flesh and blood and they have something (or a lot) to lose. Acting is great by everyone with Roger Duchesne unforgettable and Isabelle Corey as a young streetwalker Anne whom Bob took under his wing, absolutely marvelous in her first role - child-like innocent yet already perfectly aware of her powers over the men, by the words of Bob's friend, "she will go far -she knows what she wants but does not show it".
Bob Le Flambeur opens with a glimmering shot of early morning Paris,
where we find the rugged, nonchalant hood Bob Montagne, sauntering
through the neon lit streets, looking every bit the icon of cinema that
he is. To Bob, everything in life is a gamble, an uncertainty, a
ten-to-one shot. He inhabits a world of games and chances... as the
gravel voice narration points out, "the city can be both heaven and
hell, as long as you know how to play it". He is, as the title
suggests, a man who lives and loves gambling. A one-time crook now
taking it easy, we find him huddled in a smoky apartment - the walls
painted black and white like a chessboard - hard at work towards yet
another pay off. When he isn't 'working', Bob lives the simple life,
hanging out in bars with old pals or relaxing in his penthouse
apartment. His only real companion is Paolo, a young tearaway who
idolises and emulates Bob's look and lifestyle. The child of a former
friend, Bob becomes the surrogate father figure to Paolo, looking out
for him and making sure he isn't consumed by the lure of the mean
Bob le Flambeur was one of Melville's earliest entries into the gangster cycle that would later give birth to his better-known film, Le Samourai. Like that film, Flambeur is a technically assured and understated journey into the underworld, employing a raw cinematic intensity, knowing irony and loose plot, which can probably be seen as an influence on contemporary filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Ringo Lam, Paul Thomas Anderson, John Woo, Quentin Tarantino, David Mamet and Wong Kar-Wai. It can also be seen as something of a revolutionary work, with Melville's bold use of real locations, available light and hand-held cameras offering an obvious precursor to the style of the later nouvelle vague, and, to great filmmakers like Godard, Chabrol and Truffaut. Like those directors, Melville has a strong understanding of genre conventions and the post-war Gangster ethos, and thus, crafts a film that is both European in style and sensibility, but at the same time, nods to the classic gangster movies of 30's and 40's Hollywood... giving us a cool and slick film, that still has enough edge and grit to make the characters seem like real people.
The plot unfolds at a natural pace, slowly at first, but gradually building momentum once all the major players have been introduced, with Melville creating something of a confrontational three-way struggle between Bob, Paolo and Isabelle Corey's deceptive femme-fatal. As the film progresses, we delve deeper into both the plot and the back story, finding Bob seriously out of pocket after a spot of bad luck at the casino... and, with only one way to go to get the cash back, he decides to pull off the ultimate gamble... by which, allow himself to be pulled back down into the criminal underworld that he'd almost escaped. From this point on the film becomes concerned with the intricacies of crime, the impact of friendship and the fixation and fundamental need to succeed, or else, forfeit the next ten to twenty years of your life... and for the aging Bob, this is not an option. At this point, loyalties are tested and precision film-making is pushed to the limits as the plot continues headlong towards its climax. The story takes all manner of twists and turns along the way, with Melville keeping the story rooted in the details of his characters and the intricacy of the crime it's self, so that by the end the film the whole thing has seemingly worked towards chance and blind luck... proving to some extent Melville's grand metaphor that life is the ultimate gamble.
Melville's film is one of the classic post-war noir films, if not one of the most important French films ever made... an evocative depiction of glistening black and white France, replete with shady gangsters, crooked cops, gambling dens, back street cafés and the ultimate heist, made all the more potent by the astounding performance of Roger Duchesne as the laconic and iconic Bob, and with great support from Daniel Cauchy as Paulo, Isabelle Corey as the wide-eyed Anne and Guy Decomble as Inspector Ledru.
"Bob the high-roller," as he was called in the translation I watched;
loves gambling. He's also a thief. Everyone thinks he's retired,
including the police sergeant he keeps in touch with. But he suddenly
gets a taste for it again, and decides to put a group together and rob
a casino. Remade un-memorably with Nick Nolte as The Good Thief, this
black and white French original created the clichés that made the whole
world sing, from Ocean's Eleven (1960), Reservoir Dogs (1991), Casino
(1994) and every other breezy heist movie ever made. Stanley Kubrick
said he stopped making crime movies because Melville made the perfect
Great characters, a memorable score with jazzy sections, great performances, and probably the best pacing and story of any heist/noir/crime movie from the 30's, 40's or 50's. This is just guaranteed compulsively good entertainment, and as a first experience from Jean-Pierre Melville, instantly encourages me to see everything else he did. My next steps will by Le Cercle Rouge, Army in the Shadows and Le Samourai.
I just watched Bob le flambeur for a class on the French New Wave. The film
is brilliant. The title character is a complicated former gangster who has
mellowed out since spending time in prison. He reminds me a great deal of
Burt Lancaster's character in Atlantic City. He is an old-timer in a world
that has moved on.
Bob is a gambler (hence the title of the film) that never wins. He has a relatively big win at the races but then blows it all in a casino. He seems destined to be a loser. The fact that he always loses may have some bearing on why he refuses the sexual advances of the young and beautiful Ana. Instead of bringing her into his web of misfortune, he "gives" her to his Polo (the son-figure). Nevertheless, the relationship between Bob and Ana is frought with sexual tension.
Half way through the film, Bob loses all of his money and decides to put a crew together to rob the casino of 800 million francs (this reminded my a lot of Kubrick's The Killing). What follows is Bob's retreat into his original gangster form. At one point, he slaps Ana across the face - something that he (at the beginning of the film) would not have ever done. In addition the second half of the film is filled with sequences of the gang "training" to rob the place. Some of these are extremely hypnotic such as the lock-picker opening a copy of the casino's safe.
This is such a great movie, that does about everything right. It's an
early French crime caper movie, that obviously helped to set the
standards for later movies.
It's not like there weren't any movies like this prior to this movie but this is one that has all of the modern genre element type of ingredients in it, that we can still see back in todays movies. It perhaps makes this movie seem as a bit of a formulaic and generic one by todays standards but in the light of when this movie got made, it surely is a greatly original one. And it still really is one that is among the best, regardless of the fact that you probably have seen all of the elements in this movie being handled in later ones and better known ones as well.
It has a great story with some equally great characters in it. It's a very rich movie that also manages to capture the right tone, thanks to some fine directing. It has lots of typical crime elements in it, such as an heist, likable 'bad guys' and the cat and mouse game between them and the police.
It really is a fine made movie, that got directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. The movie has a good look over it, as well as a nice steady pace. The scene's are being build up great and the entire story gets told effectively. It's a great 'how-to' on directing and storytelling. It feels really like a Hollywoodized version of a French movie but in this case that's a good thing. It's also why this also helped to influence movies from Hollywood as well.
No reason why to not like this movie.
It just doesn't get much better than this. Visually, this is one of the
most stunning and sumptuous feasts your eyes will ever experience. From
the early-morning streets of Paris to apartments, nightclubs and bars,
Melville captures a moment for all eternity. It doesn't hurt either
that the acting is great and the leading lady is beautiful. Simply
stated, this is one of the most enjoyable movie experiences one can
If I wanted to get all analytical, I might write about the way Melville has taken the conventions of the American gangster movie and humanized them by populating his movie with sympathetic, emotionally-rich characters. But what really matters, in the end, is that this movie is enormously fun and should not be missed.
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