Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The legendary Jean-Pierre Melville didn't make very many movies, but his reputation and influence
are well documented. As explained in the added features of this Criterion DVD,
Bob le flambeur was made independently and piecemeal, as Melville was able to get production
funding. Commercially a followup to
Rififi, using the same writer to
insure a release, the picture was not a big success but was forever cited as a core inspiration to
the New Wave critics-turned-directors of a few years later. This tough underworld thriller is
a bit more romantic than Rififi, with a hero who's a silver-haired gentleman instead of a
desperate burnout case. But the locale, ambience and character nuances are French all the way.
Paris. Bob Montagné (Roger Duchesne) is a professional gambler who's managed to
stay clear of
criminal activity for 20 years, after serving time for a bank job in the 30s. He plays paternalistic
mentor for Paolo (Daniel Cauchy) and looks after young Anne (Isabelle Corey), a promiscuous young
thing who the unscrupulous Marc (Gérard Buhr) wants to put out on the streets. Even though he's a
good friend of inspector Ledru (Guy Decomble), bad gambling luck tempts him to put together
a caper with the aim of knocking off a large casino in Deauville. It's a gamble few have won,
and Bob seems to be doing it for almost existential reasons.
Even though its modest budget shows every so often, Bob le flambeur is an engrossing crime tale set
amid the French equivalent of the lowlifes who animated John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle. Ever
the gentlemen, Bob is liked by the denizens of Montmartre, and the cops as well. He takes care of his
own, having set up Yvonne in her bar, sheperding young Paulo away from Marc's bad ideas, and taking
in sexpot Anne. He keeps a slot machine in a closet and openly admits his addiction to gambling. When
we first see him, he seems to be doing well enough, but a few horseraces and baccarat tables later,
he's broke and ready to break all of his own rules.
Bob le flambeur is a great show for characters and atmosphere. The setting is 100% real, a
collection of nightclubs and bars where a colorful bunch of criminals plot their next moves. As
Bob Montagné, Roger Duchesne's looks hide his essential toughness of spirit - when he first
glances into a dirty mirror and says, "The face of a hood", he doesn't have the sickly noir face
we expect. In fact, if he smiled, we'd probably be reminded more of Jacques Tati than Humphrey
Bogart. But Bob doesn't smile very much as he tools through the Paris streets in his Studebaker, putting
together his 800 million franc heist. Officially, this is a caper film, but it's relatively
unconcerned with the details. Bob has to deal with nonprofessionals who haven't his experience in
crime both before and during the war - punks who talk too much and cause too much trouble. His protegé
Paulo, who looks as if he could be Sean Penn's unattractive father, is as nice as a young hood could
be, but because of his big mouth, twice as dangerous.
Viewers looking for gallic spice will be well rewarded by Bob le flambeur, which is graced
with the very commercial charms of Isabelle Corey, an underage non-actress who either does a
good job of looking vacantly sensual, or is in reality not too bright. She has sex appeal though, and
her brief nude bits are very attractively done. Gentleman crook Bob personally never takes advantage
of her, as he's too old and too jaded to be attracted by sex. If there's a game to be
played somewhere, nothing can distract him. This, and his general attitude of philosophical detachment, keeps our interest
high. His observations of those around him are choice, and worthy of American hardboiled writers.
They'd make good words of wisdom for filler in a Reader's Digest designed for crooks.
Savant won't get into the clever windup except to say that Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round
no longer seems quite as original as it once did. Bob le flambeur's great ending is more
than just a twist, it's as complete a statement about this gambler hero as can be made. We seem to
experience a bit of Bob's own existential detachment as we watch his dreams come true in a
phenomenal winning streak. It's more than irony, it's great writing.
Criterion's DVD of Bob le flambeur looks stunning, as if we were seeing a 1955 answer print
in Paris. A few cuts rock at the splice point, and that is literally it. The soundtrack is also
very clean for an independent film, suggesting that the dialogue was post recorded; what little music
there is sounds good as well. The film has lots of odd cues that don't add up to much and haven't
dated well, along with some clunky optical transitions. They're details that add to the curio interest,
such as the director billing himself as simply, 'Melville'.
The two extras start with a great interview with actor Daniel Cauchy, now an elderly producer. He very
quickly gives us a good idea of the unusual way Bob le flambeur was filmed - two years of
work whenever Melville could round up more production cash. According to Cauchy, Melville was
a USA-phile and a slight misogynist but basically a guy totally absorbed by cinema. Isabelle
Corey was only 15 when Melville literally picked her up on the street to be in the film, which
explains a lot. Mr. Cauchy talks about his death scene as if nobody in a movie had ever recoiled
from a bullet hit before - I guess he
never saw Shane. The radio interview with Melville is from 1960 and spends a lot of time
comparing his work to the New Wave directors who were then the rage. Melville wasn't all that prolific
and certainly not as celebrated as Godard, Truffaut, and the rest. The trendy handheld work and
liberated cinema of the Nouvelle crowd is fine, but Savant wishes that less showy talent like
Melville and expecially Georges Franju had gotten the same attention.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Bob le flambeur rates:
Movie: Very good
Supplements: Video interview with actor Daniel Cauchy, radio interview with Jean-Pierre Melville, trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: April 12, 2002
Like caper films?
Ocean's Eleven (1960)
Ocean's Eleven (2001)
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson