Bob le flambeur

Reviewed By Mel Valentin
Posted 06/12/05 00:23:27

"A modest effort undeserving of its critical reputation."
3 stars (Just Average)

"Bob le Flambeur" (Bob the Gambler), directed and co-written by French Jean-Pierre Melville (Melville took his stage name from the American author of "Moby Dick"), fails to meet expectations developed from its critical reputation. Hailed as a "masterpiece" of postwar French cinema (or among the best of the genre) and a precursor to the French New Wave, "Bob le Flambeur" suffers from a weakly plotted story, trivial themes, and understated, perfunctory performances. Ultimately, filmmakers and critics have overanalyzed and overpraised "Bob le Flambeur," presumably due to Melville’s stylized approach to the gangster genre or by nostalgia for a different time period and place (Paris in the 1950s, in beautifully stark black-and-white photography).

Bob le Flambeur opens with a panorama of Paris at daybreak, as a portentous voice over narration introduces the setting and the central character, a down-on-his-luck Gallic gambler, Bob Montagné (Roger Duchesne), with a romantic and romanticized code of honor, his milieu, and a casino heist, unfolds at a relaxed pace (the “inciting incident” that sets the main plot in motion, Bob learning about a vulnerable casino and the planning that follows, occurs almost at the mid-point in the film). All the themes of underworld dramas of the period are in evidence, a code of honor, honor among thieves, and professionalism. Unfortunately, Melville’s themes are nothing viewers haven't encountered numerous times in other crime dramas of the period. It might have seemed innovative back in 1955 (unlikely, given the number of crime dramas/film noirs made in the 1940s and 1950s), but now, looking back fifty years, Melville’s themes and the handling of those themes feel clichéd and superficial.

Before the heist plot enters the film, Melville indulges in lengthy scenes of the characters, all part of a well-dressed criminal underworld talking, smoking, gambling, and otherwise looking “cool.” From the first scenes, Melville introduces the “femme fatale,” Anne (Isabelle Corey). Anne, significantly younger than Bob (by at least twenty years), functions not as a love interest for Bob, but to show Bob’s “code of honor” in action, and thus make him a sympathetic character to the audience. Bob helps Anne, not because he expects sexual favors in return, but because his personal code dictates his actions. The character has no significant connection to the main plot line (with one exception, as Bob’s associate Paolo (Daniel Cauchy) becomes enraptured by Anne), and could have easily been jettisoned from the film, with minimal effect (thus shortening the film’s running time twenty to thirty minutes). Anne serves a second purpose, to act as the femme fatale who will draw at least one character to his doom, with disastrous consequences for everyone involved.

The pacing, however, finally picks up when Melville turns his attention to planning the casino heist. Melville undercuts expectations, however, when, instead of showing us the heist and its aftermath, he follows Bob, gambling as cover for the heist, encountering a surprising run of good luck, in essence making the success or failure of the heist superfluous to the resolution of Bob’s dilemma, centered on a lack of money. The heist, both the planning and its execution (with the expected twists and turns typical for the genre) becomes secondary. Melville had a potentially fascinating, engaging premise, but decided to completely frustrate audience expectations. Not surprisingly, viewers will emerge from seeing Bob le Flambeur as cheated as Bob himself (he, however, is cheated by fate or the heavy hand of Melville and his co-screenwriter,
Auguste Le Breton).

Let’s review the performances. The lead, Roger Duchesne, sleepwalks through his performance, rarely raising, or changing the register of his voice. We get it. Bob’s seen, lived through multiple triumphs and defeats, but his world-weariness isn't tempered by cynicism or skepticism, as viewers might expect, because, despite his experiences, he's still attached to that inflexible code of honor. The female lead, Isabelle Corey (Melville famously discovered her walking down a Parisian street), is attractive, but innocuous (and, as mentioned, superfluous). The remainder of the supporting cast is equally forgettable, giving uninspired performances. For Melville and his actors, the emphasis was purely on externals, on how they hold their cigarettes or how much squinting they do between puffs of smoke while delivering their arch dialogue with seeming effortlessness.

Overall, given its decades-long critical reputation as an exemplar of a “Gallic noir” and how highly praised it's been in the past (John Woo and Quentin Tarantino have both called "Bob le Flambeur" and Melville’s oeuvre influences on their work), "Bob le Flambeur" was a major disappointment. If, however, you have an interest on French explorations of the heist sub-genre and a glimpse of fifties Paris, see the far more accomplished "Touchez Pas Au Grisbi" ("Don't Touch the Loot") directed by Jacques Becker and starring Jean Gabin ("Grand Illusion," "Pepe Le Moko"), with a young Jeanne Moreau in a secondary role, or better yet Jules Dassin’s "Rififi," a superior heist yarn made in the same year. Besides "Rififi’s" assured direction and tight packing, Dassin permeated his film with the romantic fatalism typical of the best films of the genre. "Rififi" has been justifiably praised for the planning and execution of the heist at the center of the film, a suspenseful, near wordless 30-minute set piece.

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