BOB LE FLAMBEUR opens with a wonderful shot of Paris' Montmartre district. Softened by the early dawn, the view is reminiscent of an old, grainy photograph. But as the camera descends into the Place Pigalle and the back room of a seedy nightclub where Bob Montagne (Roger Duchesne) is losing miserably at craps, the atmosphere changes to one which is highly stylized and starkly black-and-white. The beauty of this film is the way in which it blends those two textures, morally as well as visually, into a witty and seamless union of French style and American film noir.
Bob le Flambeur seems wonderfully ancient because it is. The film was made back in 1955, which means Lindbergh, Le Car and Yoplait had an easier time getting across the Atlantic. The director and co-screenwriter Jean-Pierre Melville (who died in 1973) was born Grumbach, but his passion for America led him to change his name in honor of the great American author.
This fixation for all things American shows in almost every frame of the film. When a character asks emphatically, "Wasn't Bob the first to use American methods?" it becomes clear that the comment contains a sly self-reference to Melville himself; it was Melville's use of "American methods" that influenced the later French filmmakers of the New Wave.
Bob Montagne, a semi-retired hood known as "Le Flambeur" (the gambler), is a peculiar blend of American and French character. He speeds around the narrow streets of Montmartre in that most American symbol, the Cadillac convertible, and his outfit suggests the classic American gangster get-up: rumpled raincoat, dark suit, and perpetually tilted hat. And there is that peculiarly American sense of optimism and near-innocence that he earnestly exudes as he flips the ever-present coin in his pocket and wryly comments." I feel my luck coming back."
But Bob's Montmartre is not the South Side of Chicago. There is an aura of mellow stability which hangs over the neighborhood a sense of slow, peaceful decay that contrasts sharply with the frenetic growth and change in even the seediest sectors of American life. The Montmartre underworld is an established sector of society much like any other, a moral order governs almost everyone, and violence and change are rare.
'Bob embodies this order, and thus serves as the figurehead of the underworld community. His unmistakable style is as much a function of his well-groomed physical authority and grace, reflecting a rigid moral code. Bob serves as an example to all around him, including his protege Polo (Daniel Cauchy), who strains to emulate him at every turn. Next to some of the violent, cynical figures that populate the American underworld film landscape. Bob almost appears as a typical French bourgeois moyen in his well-being and self-righteousness.
Bob is essentially interested in maintaining the status quo. He likes to make sure his comrades don't get into trouble and helps those that do get out of their scrapes. But in Bob's world, the under-world coexists peacefully, if somewhat guardedly, with the police. One of Bob's best friends is the clever, wily Commissioner Ledru (Guy Decomble).
There are two things that endanger the balance of Bob's world: women and gambling. The film's underworld is essentially a male universe. Women are by nature not to be trusted, and the two principal ones in the film act as the main catalysts of trouble. Anne (Isabelle Corey), an aimless young woman who, as the narrator wryly comments, is "very advanced for her age," is an example of the threat. To protect her from pimps, Bob takes her in, but she is dangerously at odds with Bob's world. She is voluptuous, innocent and lacks an established moral order--essentially undefined in a world where order seems to make all the difference.
COMPULSIVE GAMBLING is Bob's other chief bane, which similarly threatens to send him reeling unpredictably. He has a slot machine stashed in his closet. Behind his eyes always lurks the image of a gamble, regardless of whether it is a sure thing or a long shot. His firm sense of style and order gives him mastery and status, but it's the danger of the game--the inherent risk in even the smallest throw of the dice--that actually keeps him alive. Watching a horse race, or hunched over a craps table. Bob's eyes narrow in intense concentration and his stolid middle-aged body coils up youthfully like a spring. The ostensible plot of the film, the heist of the Deauville Casino, that Bob undertakes with his friend Roger (Andre Garet), is at once Bob's ironic revenge on Lady Luck--and a gamble itself, as the delightful denouement reveals.
The wonderful cinematography serves as a visual stylization of Bob's world, containing as it does echoes of film noir as well as its own peculiar vision of Paris in the '50s. One of the most memorable shots is of the contrast in the still landscape of Montmartre at night. In the pitch black lower part of the frame only the sharply etched neon nightclub sign. "Pigalle," stands out, while above the dome of the Sacre Coeur cathedral is silhouetted against the mist. The music reinforces the fundamental contrast inherent in the film. It is magically distant and redolent of both jazz and the French music hall. The only part of the film that unfortunately remains on the other side of the Atlantic is the salty Parisian dialogue, which the subtitles can only approximate.
This does not detract from Bob le Flambeur--one director's delightful tribute to a city, a way of life, and the grand tradition of American movies.