Films in Focus
By Ed Garea
Bob le Flambeur (Mondial, 1956) – Director: Jean-Pierre Melville. Writers: Auguste Le Breton & Jean-Pierre Melville. Cast: Roger Duchesne, Isabelle Corey, Daniel Cauchy, Simone Paris, Andre Garet, Gerard Buhr, Guy Decomble, Claude Cerval, Howard Vernon, & Colette Fleury. B&W, 98 minutes.
“As told in Montmartre, here is the curious tale of Bob the Gambler.”
When we think back on influential crime capers of the ‘50s, the films that usually come to mind are John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, Jules Dassin’s Rififi, Jacques Becker’s Touches pas au grisbi, and even Charles Crichton’s The Lavender Hill Mob. This neat little heist film by Melville doesn’t come readily to mind. But its influence is substantial: Neil Jordan’s The Good Thief, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight, and both versions of Ocean’s 11 are essentially remakes of it (in fact, the movie is referenced in the original Ocean’s 11). Godard’s Breathless not only mentions the character of Bob Montagne, but also features the director, Melville, playing a famous author.
And, as is also usual with regard to European films, the look of the film does not betray its poverty row financing. In fact, it’s something of a minor miracle that Bob the Gambler was filmed at all. Melville shot the film on a veritable shoestring, frequently telling his actors that there was no money to pay them now, but if they were patient, some would arrive in the coming days. Daniel Cauchy, who played the pivotal role of Bob’s young disciple, Paolo, said in interviews that Melville was always promising to pay them, but they had to be ready to shoot as soon as the funding arrived, which was often on a moment’s notice. It wasn’t only the lack of funding hampering the project, but also the fact that Melville didn’t have the money to secure a permit for filming, so they filmed without it, frequently having to disperse when the police were spotted.
One of the initial things to grab the first-time viewer is the gritty black and white camerawork. The immediacy is wholly due to the lack of financing. Cauchy remembers Melville’s cameraman, Henri Decae, shooting with a handheld camera while riding a delivery bike. Combined with the use of natural lighting, the result is that the film is more fluid, more like a page from real life rather than the usual studio product. Shot on location in the Montmartre Place Pigalle district of Paris, Melville captures not just the physical location, but rather the essence – the mood – of Pigalle, famous for decades as being the red-light district of Paris. American soldiers during World War II nicknamed it “Pig’s Alley,” and flocked there to enjoy the erotic pleasures offered in dozens of shops, cheap hotels, and alleyways. Melville does more than just showing us Pigalle. Shooting at night, he makes us feel Pigalle. We are not just looking in; no, we are there along with the other denizens, walking the street, hanging in the various cafes, and lurking in the shadows. This is the ultimate genius of Melville; without this invitation, we are but mere spectators at a film that demands not just our presence, but our involvement. It should be noted that the reason why Melville can do this is due to Decae and his artistry with a hand-held camera.
The film opens in Montmartre at dawn. Melville is our narrator:
“The story begins just between night and day, at the break of dawn.”
Day is breaking at The Basilica of the Sacred Heart. We follow the tram down the steep hill.
“Montmartre is both heaven . . .
It ends at Pigalle.
“. . . and hell. The signs are about to go out. People pass each other, forever strangers. People on their way to work, like this charwoman, who’s very late, and wanderers, like this young girl, who is very ‘advanced’ for her age.”
Here we first see Anne (Corey) as she makes her way to a snack stand where she buys an order of fries. But we’ll meet her later. Melville continues:
“But let’s get to Bob, Bob the Gambler. An old young man who was already a legend of the recent past.”
Cut to the back room of a seedy nightclub. A game of craps is in progress. A white-haired man has just made his last throw of the dice, a “seven.” He prepares to leave. “Going to the Carpeaux?” someone asks. The man simply places his hands next to his face as if going to sleep. He leaves.
This is Bob Montagne (Duchesne). Bob the Gambler. As he leaves, a taxi driver asks “Taxi, sir?” He then looks closer. ”Sorry, Mr. Bob. I didn’t recognize you.” Bob walks down the street, stopping to notice himself in a store window. “A real thug’s face,” he says to himself. As he walks, a water truck passes spraying the gutters. He sees Anne, a hooker, walking and eating fries. She is hailed by an American sailor on a motorcycle, who says, “C'mon, come on baby. Un promenade sur ma moto?” in his fractured French. She accepts and they drive off. Bob stops at a newsstand, buys a paper and tips the owner generously. “Thank you, Mr. Bob.” He’s offered a ride by someone he knows well. It’s Commissaire Ledru (Decomble). Ledru asks, “Where to?” Bob jokes about being seen with the police. Ledru asks about the Carpeaux and Bob agrees, but tells him to let him out a block before. Once there he gets into a card game, and as we learn later, loses 200,000 francs.
As the car pulls away, the driver turns to Ledru and asks if Bob is one of his informers. “If he heard you say that…” answers Ledru. Ledru then goes on to tell how Bob saved his life when he pushed the gunman’s arm away just as he was going to shoot; from that day on they’ve been close friends.
We now cut to a small bar where we see a young man playing dice with an older man. The older man refers to the younger man as “Bob.” When the young man asks why he’s called “Bob,” the young man’s date says it because he tries too hard to be Bob. The barmaid agrees. She is Yvonne (Paris), the owner of the bar. She bought the establishment, we learn later, with a loan from Bob. The young man is Paolo (Cauchy), the son of one of Bob’s partners in crime and now his protégé. Bob himself enters – the bar will be a centerpiece around which the film’s character revolve – and while talking about his tough losing day, he begins tossing dice with Roger (Garet) while asking Yvonne for a drink. The dice have reinvigorated him, telling us that his gambling is a compulsion he cannot – and does not want to – quit. Paulo accompanies Bob home while Bob tells him all about the card game. As they part at Bob’s door, Paulo tells Bob he’ll see him that night.
Melville has just given us, in these short opening sequences, a portrait not only of the neighborhood, but also of Bob himself. He has become as much a part of Montmartre as the basilica. One thing we know right off about Bob is that he is cool. With his white hair slicked back, dressed in a gray suit and tie, topped off with a trench coat and fedora, his fully loaded Plymouth Belvidere convertible, and his penthouse studio apartment with a slot machine in the closet overlooking the Pigalle district, he is not just cool - he is the epitome of cool. In fact, he is so cool that his hair matches his trenchcoat, as both are the same shade of white.
However, for Bob, gambling is more than a compulsion; it is the essence of his being; to give up gambling is to give up living. This is what Melville is trying to convey to us in these opening scenes. To understand this is to understand Bob and what makes him tick.
Cool, though, is not just in the looks, but also woven through his behavior. When Anne shows up in the bar, he asks her what she’s doing on the streets of Montmartre so late at night, warning her that “sidewalk Romeos,” as he calls them, are dangerous. He criticizes her for plying her trade on the streets, becoming a “pavement princess.” But before he leaves, he pays Anne’s bar bill and gives her enough money to get a hotel room.
The next morning Bob is woken from his slumber by a knock at the door. It’s Marc (Buhr), who “needs some dough to hide out.” Bob only asks “How much?” “About 100,000,” Marc replies. “I beat up on Lydia a little too hard.” Bob tells Marc that he thought Marc had give up pimping. But, as it’s obviously not the case, Bob withdraws his offer of help and throws Marc out for the code of honor, to which he strictly adheres, refuses to let him associate with pimps.
Later that day, he picks up his car and is cruising the streets when he spots Anne toting a suitcase. He pulls over and asks her about her situation. She replies that it’s hard to stay when one doesn’t have the rent. His reply to that is to offer her the option of staying with him until things get better. She readily accepts, thinking she’ll be sleeping with Bob. But that just wouldn’t be cool. Instead, we find that she is really a favor for Paolo, who, Bob noticed, was completely taken with her at the bar. Later, he will get her a job as a cigarette girl at a nightclub, from which she is quickly promoted to hostess. This brings her into contact with Marc, which will have repercussions later on Bob himself.
Melville keeps Bob in a cloak of ambiguity. Most of what we think about Bob is inspired by what people say about him and how they treat him, and what little we know of him is that before the war, his involvement in a failed bank job led to his imprisonment. For the last 20 years, he’s been as straight as an arrow, at least as far as the police are concerned. Though Bob was a gangster in prewar Paris, he wants no part of the current scene; "it's not the same anymore," he observes. Instead, he makes his living as a gambler, hence his name “Bob the Gambler.” In fact, no one in the film uses his last name when referring to him. It’s always something along the lines of “Bob? Oh, you mean Bob the Gambler.” Actually, the English rendering of the title Bob le Flambeur as “Bob the Gambler” dilutes the sense of the word “flambeur,” which better translates as “high roller,” or “big shot.” It comes from the verb “flamber,” which means to wager not only the money you have, but also the money you don’t have.
Bob is no mere gambler; on the first day in the movie he wins big at the racetrack, then loses it all that night playing roulette. Gambling is not just a hobby, something to do for diversion, nor is it his job; it is his lifestyle.
His relationship with Paolo is almost one of father and son. Bob’s code of honor makes him responsible for the young man, as his father was killed, we presume, in the bank heist. Bob tries to steer young Paolo clear of the influences of the street that could land him in jail. Thus, when he noticed that Paolo was taken with Anne, he made her available to him. Bob is also warning Paolo not to get involved in a scheme with Marc, telling the young man that Marc is a lowlife who will only bring misery.
Because Melville weaves such a tight story, we must keep close attention to developments. And one of those developments is the arrest of Marc by Inspector Ledru, who has caught wind of Marc’s beating of Lydia. Marc pleads his case, promising that he’ll bring Ledru a much bigger fish. Ledru lets him go on the assumption that he’ll be holding Marc to that promise; if enough time elapses and there is no tip, Ledru will have Marc thrown into the slammer.
Meanwhile, we begin to notice that Bob is on a massive losing streak. He loses at cards, at the races, even with the small slot machine he keeps in his closet. After losing heavy at the track, he and Roger head to the casino at Deauville, where Bob loses again at baccarat. While waiting for Bob, Roger runs into their old friend from days past, Jean (Cerval). He, too, has gone straight and now works as a croupier at the casino. During their small talk, Roger learns two things: Jean’s wife Suzanne (Fluery) is something of a shrew, and the casino’s safe holds as much as 800 million francs at a time, especially during the Grand Prix, which is coming up soon. These two nuggets of information will figure heavily in the days to come.
As Bob returns to the car, he tells Roger that he lost heavily at the casino and is down to his last 200,000 francs. They ponder the situation back at the bar. Roger tells Bob about his meeting Jean and what Jean said about the safe holding that much cash. Bob begins to think; he can’t get the money out of his mind. He knows he’s in a funk. Suddenly he comes round to the idea of robbing the safe. Roger isn’t so sure, but Bob has it figured out. He can round up a gang and they can get the plans to the casino from Jean.
First things first, they’ll case the casino and contact Jean as to the plans. Bob, Roger and Paolo drive to the casino and walk around, studying the layout. They meet up with Jean at a nearby café and blackmail him into giving them the casino’s plans by threatening to tell the casino’s manager about Jean’s convict past, which he neglected to tell his current employer.
Bob recruits former comrade-in-crime McKimmie (Vernon) and uses his spread to plan the robbery. In addition to having a plan drawn on a board, Bob draws a layout of the casino in chalk on the ground outside and drills everyone in his movements during the heist. This man takes no chances.
But it’s the things one can’t control that can lead to one’s downfall. Bob didn’t count on Paolo’s total infatuation with Anne. One night, in bed, Paolo spills the plan to Anne. All well and good, except for a few nights later when Anne is with Marc. He’s trying to get her to be one of his whores. She demurs, telling him about Paolo and his desire to “cover me in gold.” When Marc asks her exactly how Paolo would accomplish this, she inadvertently spills the plan to him and unknowingly giving Marc the bargaining chip he needs with Ledru.
Meanwhile, Yvonne, at the Heads or Tails bar, finds out about Bob’s scheme and tries to talk him out of it, telling him that if he needs help, then come to her. She reminds him of his generosity in lending her the starter money for the bar. Anne, who tells Bob she must speak with him, joins them, informing Bob that she accidentally spilled the beans to Marc about the plan. In a move completely out of character, Bob slaps her hard across hard across the face and asks her how long ago she left Marc’s place. “Five minutes ago,” she answers, further telling him that Marc was going to the police. Bob knows he has to stop the pimp, but before leaving, asks Yvonne to give the keys to his place to Anne.
Bob scolds Paolo for telling Anne about the plan. Paolo goes out looking for Marc and catches him in a bar making a phone call, presumably to Ledru, who earlier had asked Marc for more information. Paolo shoots Marc to death before he can complete the call.
In another development, Suzanne (Paris), the wife of croupier Jean, pressures him to ask for a bigger cut. He promises to take her to Paris for a meeting with Bob and Roger, but when they get there, they find they have missed the duo by only a few minutes.
Bob, for his part, is having dinner with Ledru, who tells Bob about certain rumors he’s been hearing about Bob being “back in the saddle.” While Bob is noncommittal, Ledru warns him about keeping to the straight and narrow.
When Ledru returns to the station he gets a phone call from Suzanne informing him of Bob’s plan. After hanging up he calls for three cars and extra men to go to Deauville. He goes to Montmartre, both to Bob’s apartment and to the Heads or Tails seeking to talk Bob out of his plan, but Bob is nowhere to be found. He then calls the casino manager, who confirms the information about the amount held in the safe.
Bob goes to the casino to connect with Jean, but Jean is nowhere to be found. Alone, and with time on his hands, Bob begins to gamble, starting with roulette, where he wins 80,000 francs. Collecting his winnings, his next stop is a private room where he plays baccarat. He goes on a fantastic hours-long winning streak, the biggest in his life, and loses all track of time. Looking at his watch, he realizes the appointed time has come, hurriedly cashes out with a fortune in winnings, and exits the casino floor. Just as his gang arrives, so do the police, and the two groups end up in a shootout. The gang is no match for the police, who are armed with submachine guns. The robbery is foiled and Paolo is killed in the shootout. Bob exits the casino in time to have Paolo die in his arms.
While Bob is cuffed, the staff brings out his winnings and places them in the trunk of Ledru’s car, as Bob tells the Inspector, “No sticky-fingered cops.” Ledru tells him that with a good lawyer, his charge of criminal intent could be reduced to three years. Another detective pipes up and tells Bob that with a better lawyer he could get off scot-free. As Ledru agrees and laughs, Bob opines that he could even sue for damages.
Bob le Flambeur is a caper movie in which the caper is treated almost as an afterthought. It’s really a romantic comedy of sorts – a love letter to a Paris that no longer exists. The film has a beautiful twilight feel about it, taking place at night and the crack of dawn mostly in Montmartre and Pigalle. Montmartre is the old bohemian district, the home to many a famous artist and writer, that we glimpse at the beginning as the tram slowly wends its way down to Pigalle, which is a hub of striptease joints, brothels, and dive bars, with the accompanying back rooms and alleys. We get some picturesque views of Montmartre from Bob’s apartment window and see Pigalle through Melville’s lens as a gallant sea of swashbucklers, as perhaps it may have been at one time. As mentioned earlier, Pigalle was a favorite haunt of American soldiers in World War Two as one of the best places to visit in order to let off some steam.
Bob is a relic of a bygone era in which the criminal was very much the swashbuckler; an independent entity with as integrity all its own, which came to an end with the German occupation. A true survivor, he now lives to be admired, or more to the point, to be venerated. He often checks himself out in the mirror or storefront window to make sure it‘s as it should be. As mentioned before, he’s the epitome of cool; even his car, a two-toned Plymouth Belvidere, sets him apart from criminals driving mere Citroens or Renaults. His word is his bond, his trust is never betrayed, and he is loyal and generous almost to a fault. The only criminals beneath contempt for him are pimps, who live off women and violate every element of gallantry, hence his attitude towards Marc.
He makes his living now as a gambler, haunting late night card or dice games most every night, winning and losing, but taking home more than he came with to the game.
But lately things have not been going so well for Bob. He’s losing more than he’s winning. Even when he wins, like at the track, he loses his bankroll quickly at the baccarat tables. In the words of Austin Powers, Bob has lost his “mojo,” his elan, the thing that keeps him going and which separates him from the rest. He realizes he’s dying inside, which is why he jumps when Roger mentions his conversation with Jean the croupier and the contents on the casino’s safe; it’s his chance for redemption, to become meaningful again.
We see the change in Bob almost instantly. He’s become much more forceful than previously. Note his reaction when Anne tells him she accidentally told Marc about the plan. He slaps her, an act the old Bob never would have committed, but then the old Bob was sleepwalking. Melville as much as says so in his prologue when he calls Bob, “an old young man who was already a legend of the recent past.” In giving up his criminal past, Bob has cut himself off from his life source and has grown old and soft as a result, not unlike some who retire and find themselves at large with nothing to do.
When he’s meticulously planning the casino heist we can feel the life returning to his veins. He’s getting his mojo back, though it’s not without its peril. (The source of most of the trouble in his world is women, as witness Anne and Suzanne – even their names are somewhat similar.)
When the appointed day comes, Bob arrives at the casino well ahead of the others, looking to make his contact with Jean the croupier. But Jean is nowhere to be found, which Bob doesn’t realize at the time is a stroke of good luck. For had Jean showed to work things out with Bob, the chances were good that Bob wouldn’t be returning to his old haunts, which is why I think he told Yvonne to give his apartment keys to Anne. He wasn’t expecting to ever be returning. But he’s gotten his mojo back, hence the streak where he wins more than ever before. And a final irony, the loyalty he displayed to others comes back to benefit him with Leduc’s kid-glove treatment. It’s all part of his mojo.
Jean-Pierre Melville himself was a product of Bob’s bygone era. He was an admitted lover of America who changed his last name from Grunberg to Melville, went endlessly to American movies, and even shot a film in New York, Two Men in Manhattan, a crime thriller (naturally) which he wrote, directed, and even co-starred. According to Daniel Clauchy, Melville drove an American car, wore an American hat and Ray-Bans, and always had the Armed Forces Network on his car radio. Though Melville practically lived American crime movies, when it came to making his own, they were not mere copies, but rather infused with a sense of irony, cool, in which his characters said few words because so much went on without saying. They were also permeated by a sense of fate in the characters knowing not only what must be done, but also how it must be done and why it must be done that way, no matter the consequences.
Melville had a difficult time casting the movie. It was not easy for him to find established actors who would agree to work for practically nothing and drop everything to return when he raised more money. Other producers considered Roger Duchesne, who played Bob, a huge risk because of his alcoholism. For Duchesne, a career supporting actor, it was his first lead role. Melville discovered Isabel Corey, a revelation who almost steals the movie as Anne, in the same way as Bob meets her in the movie. Melville picked her up off the street in his American car and later discovered she was almost 16. Rene Salque, who played the safecracker in Bob’s gang, was a safecracker in real life. And Howard Vernon, who played McKimmie, was between assignments.
Simone Paris (Yvonne) and Andre Garet (Roger) provide solid support. They played what I like to call “the quiet roles,” the characters that seem as if they’re part of the background, but without whom the movie noticeably loses traction. Clauchy is excellent as Bob’s protégé, worshipping his idol without being too obvious in his adoration. Alain Delon had wanted to play Paolo, but Melville turned him down, correctly fearing that he would dominate the film. In fact, a part of Melville’s overall genius in the film lies in his casting, as each actor seems perfect for his or her role, almost as if they were real denizens of the area.
Auguste le Breton, who also wrote the breathtaking Rififi, penned the screenplay. The film’s subtitles fail to catch most of the crackling (and untranslatable) slang dialogue, but still retain the sense of rhythm, which keeps us in the mix. The sublime photography was by Maurice Blettery and acclaimed cinematographer Henri Decae, whose genius for night composition is on full display.
But it’s Melville who takes all these disparate parts and makes them into a heady brew that sends up the ordinary conventions of the crime thriller, making it instead into a comedy of manners. Film critic Brian L. Frye notes that Melville bridges Renoir’s cynical humanism and the equally cynical existentialism of the New Wave: “His crooks and fences live in a fantasy world of their own making, a world they take care not to examine too closely, lest it dissolve. And yet, this illusion provides them the meaning and purpose for which the cynics despair.”
Finally, I can offer no better observation that that provided by New York Times critic Vincent Canby in his review of the film:
Bob le Flambeur is a very funny, jaunty movie, and one can understand why Jean-Luc Godard, who was to make Breathless just three years later, admired it so much. Its realism is not the reality of life, but of the kind of movies that give shape to the disordered lives of the people who watch movies. Miss Corey is charming and Mr. Duchesne is nearly perfect, moving through his underworld with the sort of tacky elan that defines his morality.
Bob: "I was born with an ace in my palm."