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Savant Review:

Bob le flambeur

Bob le flambeur
Criterion 150
1955 / B&W / 1:37 / 102 min.
Starring Isabelle Corey, Daniel Cauchy, Roger Duchesne, Guy Decomble, André Garet, Gérard Buhr, Claude Cerval, Colette Fleury, René Havard, Simone Paris, Howard Vernon
Cinematography Henri Decae
Production Designer Claude Bouxin
Film Editor Monique Bonnot
Original Music Eddie Barclay
Writing credits Auguste Le Breton and Jean-Pierre Melville
Produced by
Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

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
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Video interview with actor Daniel Cauchy, radio interview with Jean-Pierre Melville, trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: April 12, 2002

Like caper films?
Savant's got 'em all. Read the Savant reviews on:

Ocean's Eleven (1960)     Rififi     Ocean's Eleven (2001)    Topkapi

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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