Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob Le Flambeur (1955) displays the kind of sleek, minimal plotting and character development that many of the film noir-inflected French films of its era strived for. Melville builds his story (which he co-wrote with Auguste Le Breton) on some basic human relationships: crook-cop, teacher-student, older gentleman-young woman. The former in each of these relationships is the Bob of the title, a dapper, white haired ex-con played with considerable subtlety and wit by Roger Duchesne. Bob floats through the late night / early morning world of Parisian gamblers, getting a lift from one backroom game to another from a cop who feels an affinity for the old fella. Bob has an air about him that immediately lets people know that he's been there and done that. His age and experiences have left him slightly rumpled, but still able to project that old charm. Most times he looks slick with his hats and suits, but when he looks at himself in a dirty mirror and comments on his mug, the angle used is an unflattering one and makes him look older that more decrepit.
Bob feels out of his game, lacking the inspiration of his youth, when he was bold enough to attempt a bank robbery. That failed attempt landed him in jail for a while and started him on his downward slide. Through the course of the film Bob spends time with the younger cohorts Paolo (Daniel Cauchy), a gambler who looks up to the veteran and Anne (Isabelle Corey), a girl with no grounding who floats from one guy to the next. Bob invests emotion in each of these friends and doesn't always find himself rewarded.
Growing more desperate, Bob assembles the old gang and plans a big casino heist. What happens is perhaps inevitable, but it gives Bob a chance to revisit the inspiration of the past and regain his dapper composure. Even though things don't ultimately go his way, the film ends with a sense that Bob has found his old self again.
Bob Le Flambeur was apparently lost for years until a print was found hidden away. It's a good thing that it was found. Even though it is similar to other films of its time, Bob Le Flambeur is a wonderful film and adds an interesting, sympathetic character to a story that's been told many times before. Duchesne plays Bob as a very likeable guy, even as he remains slightly removed much of the time. Like in gambling, the key to his dealings is to not give away too much. Duchesne strikes the perfect balance by keeping his cool but letting some of the need in his eyes bleed through. It's a masterfully quiet performance.
The craft in the rest of the film is equally high. The other actors are all fine, the black and white cinematography is beautiful (and beautifully restored here) and the score and audio mix are the best of that beefy classic mono sound. Melville didn't make too many films (just over a dozen) and Bob Le Flambeur was only his third, but in it he showed a strength for character, atmosphere, pacing, and real human behavior.
The full frame video looks wonderful. Little specks appear here and there but the overall look is clean, clear and luminous. This is beautiful cinematography and it is rendered excellently here.
English subtitles are available.
The French Dolby Digital mono track is similarly excellent. The production is perfect, the voices are clear, and it really reminds the viewer why some audiophiles still treasure mono over multi-channel mixes. That unified sound source can be very effective.
The list of extras is short, but good. An audio interview with the director proves him to have been a vibrant, opinionated man. It's a great supplement, as is a recent video interview with supporting actor Daniel Cauchy. The only other extra is a trailer, but the booklet also includes a wonderful interview with the director that further illuminates his career and methods.
An almost forgotten film, Bob Le Flambeur represents a genre and a time period when French artists took American ideas and melded them with their own inimitable atmosphere. This exchange of ideas pushed some filmmakers to new heights and even a film as deceptively simple as Bob Le Flambeur can leave a lasting impression.