Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur, released in 1956, wasn’t just a major influence on the French New Wave film-makers. In many ways it is a fully fledged New Wave film.
The title character, Bob the Gambler, is an ultra-cool gangster, gambler and tough guy in 1950 Paris. Or at least he used to be. He still has the pose, and the flash American car, and the clothes, but really he’s just a rather ridiculous old man living on past glories. His last big job was the Rimbaud bank robbery, and that was 20 years earlier. And it was a failure anyway. All he has left is his image, and to maintain that he has to keep gambling. And he’s losing. Losing continuously, and losing big time.
In fact he’s so broke he decides on one last spectacular heist, a last desperate throw of the dice to avoid admitting that he’s over the hill and in serious anger of becoming merely pathetic.
While Bob le flambeur is heavily influenced by American film noir, and shows the depth of Melville’s admiration for American popular culture and for Hollywood movies, there’s nothing even remotely American about the film. This movie is about as French as a movie could possibly be.
While it’s in some respects more morally ambiguous and more cynical than the American crime films of the 40s and early 50s, it’s also a lot more romantic, and even whimsical. The whole exercise is done with tongue planted firmly in cheek, and is absolutely dripping with irony. It’s that blend of romanticism and irony that makes it, for me at least, so overwhelmingly French. It has the fatalism of classic film noir, but with a strongly absurdist edge to it.
Bob likes to imagine that he has assembled an elite team of crooks for the heist of the century, and has drilled them so that they function like a well-oiled precision machine, but they’re like actors who think they’re the heroes of a classic heist movie when in reality they’re merely players in a farce. This is a film noir story, but told as black comedy.
It’s a movie in which atmosphere and tone are infinitely more important than plot. Melville draws us into this seedy world of phoney glamour and cut-rate wannabe big shots, with some glorious location filming. The camerawork as well as the style anticipate the New Wave.
It’s a terrific looking movie, and the Region 2 DVD from Optimum Home Entertainment boasts a superb transfer (and is less than half the price of the Criterion DVD). The movie looks like it was filmed yesterday rather than half a century ago. Highly recommended.