The film was made during the vogue for French caper films, notably Jules Dassin's Rififi (1955), with Jean Servais, and Jacques Becker's Touchez pas au grisbi (1954), starring Jean Gabin. Like those and others of this sub-genre of crime films, Bob le flambeur ("Bob the Gambler") revolves around an aging career criminal. In Melville's film that role is played by Roger Duchesne, a comparatively minor actor because that's all Melville could afford. The actor's natural dark hair is dyed blonde, almost white, and coupled with the style of his performance, Melville seems to be patterning him after Gabin, though Duchesne isn't as craggy-faced, but rather closer in resemblance to American character actor Bob Gunton (the warden in The Shawshank Redemption; he also resembles Robert Shaw's Red Grant in From Russia with Love). However, the Blu-ray's accompanying documentary makes many fascinating observations about Duchesne, how and why he was such an interesting and ironic casting choice.
Criterion released Bob le flambeur to DVD back in 2002. They must have lost the rights as this new release arrives courtesy Kino, via its bountiful license, including many classics of French cinema, from Canal-Plus, here utilizing a 4K restoration.
Gentlemanly Bob Montagne (Duchesne) is a professional gambler who gave up a more sinister life of crime 20 years before. In the Montmartre district of Paris, he is a minor celebrity, liked and respected for his low-key generosity. In an early scene he rescues underage Anne (Isabelle Corey, only 15 at the time and discovered by Melville himself) from a courting pimp, Marc (Gérard Buhr), Bob allowing her to crash at his spacious apartment. Soon after Marc is arrested for beating up his wife, but police Inspector Ledru (Guy Decomble, the spitting image of Scottish actor David Hayman), a longtime friend of Bob's, releases Marc on the condition that he report back to him as an informant.
Bob makes a decent living as a gambler, but he's also an addict, even keeping a slot machine in his closet. He has a long stretch of bad luck and, nearly broke, develops a scheme to rob the safe of a casino in Deauville that, during the early morning hours of the high season, contains as much as 800 million francs. With protégé Paulo (Daniel Cauchy), who falls in love with Anne, safecracker Roger (André Garet), and financing from wealthy McKimmie (Howard Vernon), Bob plots the daring robbery.
Nevertheless, Bob le flambeur isn't so much a caper film as a character study, oozing with authentic, if Hollywood-influenced, atmosphere. Melville reportedly admired John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and in that film the undoing of one of the criminals occurs because he's distracted by his own unsavory compulsions. Melville greatly expands upon this idea for Bob le flambeur's climax, which I won't reveal here, except to note that it's a marvelously conceived sequence.
Duchesne, incredibly billed third after Isabelle Corey and Daniel Cauchy, has none of the gruff charm of Jean Gabin even though he superficially resembles him, yet Duchesne has a steely determination, a capacity for violence that rings true, and while gambling, the air of someone in such a state of intense concentration (even while appearing casual) that it's as if he's completely shut out the world around him. When surrounded by fellow gamblers and swarms of admirers while playing baccarat, it's as if he's the only one in the room.
Duchesne, the disc's featurette reveals, was a heavy gambler himself, possibly an addict as well. His gambling debts caught the attentions of the Nazis during the Occupation, and Duchesne became a collaborator, actively participating in the torture of at least one member of the French Résistance. Though he'd worked steadily as a film actor, in minor roles in major films and major roles in minor ones, from the mid-1930s through 1943, Bob le flambeur was his first movie since the war, and he appeared in just one after, 1957's Marchands de filles, directed by Maurice Cloche. That Melville, a Jew and former Résistance fighter, would hire Duchesne is ironic, to put it mildly.
Made on a budget of just 17.5 million francs (about $50,000), Melville was limited to just two studio sets, presumably Bob's apartment and the nightclub where he hangs out for much of the story. Other locations consisted of real interiors and, more significantly, exteriors of early postwar Montmartre and Deauville. As with the recently reviewed Kino disc of The Outsider, a mid-‘80s Jean-Paul Belmondo thriller, Melville shows his audience a decidedly non-touristy side of Paris, its streets littered with garbage, alleyways choking with gambling joints and whorehouses, American sailors on leave looking for "dates," etc. It's all authentic, and Duchesne's Bob, with his five o'clock shadow and rumpled trench coat, looks more like Lt. Columbo than the immaculately tailored Alain Delon of later Melville films.
Video & Audio
? Presented in its original black-and-white and 1.37:1 standard aspect ratio from a 4K remastering, Bob le flambeur looks great: those who'd previously purchased Criterion's excellent DVD won't be disappointed. The transfer is basically perfect, the few minor flaws inherent in the original camera work, editing, sound mixing, etc. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono, in French only with optional English subtitles, is likewise very good. Region "A" encoded.
Supplements include the Canal-Plus documentary "Diary of a Villain," running 25 minutes and which focuses on Melville's early career in its first-half, on Duchesne's surprising life and career in its second-half. There's a trailer and also a thorough audio commentary by Nick Pinkerton.
An influential landmark work of French cinema that looks great on Blu-ray, Bob le flambeur is a DVD Talk Collectors Series title.