Bob Le Flambeur (1956): Melville’s Noir Heist

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“Montmartre is both heaven and…hell.” 

While Melville would continue to cultivate his own unique canvass and pulp sensibilities, Bob Le Flambeur, as a slightly earlier work, shows its deep abiding debt to the American noir cycle. Because it was at this juncture in time where analogous crime pictures like Asphalt Jungle, Kansas City Confidential, and The Killing were still being churned out in the States.

Bob The Gambler must fit into this same conversation with how it instantly calls on voiceover and submerges itself in the throes of darkness as its constant palette of choice. Melville’s yet to have a Jean-Paul Belmondo or Alain Delon to hang his hat on, as it were (the latter actor was turned down for an early role). Still, he does have Bob (Roger Duchesne), more than meeting the prerequisites of a noirish hero.

He’s silver-haired with piercing eyes. His dress is nice, impressive, but not altogether flashy. Someone says of him, “Both young and old and already a legend.” Even as the voiceover draws us into the world — and the landscape in itself becomes not only a metaphor but a character — we meet a dame too, all before getting to the focus of our story.

Exteriors at times feel harsh and dilapidated. Trash collects in the gutters of the streets, and no one’s doing the city any favors, dumping their refuse wherever they please. At times, interiors, like a gambling joint or a kitchen, are so spare they play as a unique aesthetic all their own. Bob’s home is full of paintings and paisley wallpaper designs. The eye strays to the tiling, which along with the wallpaper, aid in creating this satisfying geometry of checkerboards, shapes, and patterns filling out the film.

Bob is forever the focal point guiding the movie’s progressions. In one scene he’s ready to shell out money to those in need, but he has his own code — he’s no fan of pimps — and since the cops are looking to run one in, he’ll willingly leave Marc to the police dogs.

For someone with such enterprises and acquaintances, Bob still manages an oddly amicable relationship with the police chief. He’s gone straight for 20 years, after a famed bank job he was forced to pay penance for. He’s done his time and reformed. His noble side has come out on more than one occasion.

But this is Bob The Gambler and so a bit of card play, roulette, and chance should be a part of it. Certainly, Bob more than lives up his name, always winning big on the horses only to lose it the same evening on something else. The capricious nature of it all somehow entices him.

When he hears from a buddy that the local gambling house is full up on cash, he makes a near-instantaneous decision. He’s going to rob it. It seems such a drastic way to end 20 years living under the law, and there’s no real inclination of why he decides this. It’s somewhere in between the lines there, and Melville has left us to figure it out. All we know is he is resolved to do it.

Simultaneously, he moves on with the planning measures. All the paces. The inside man. The financier. Layouts, schematics, gathering the crew together. Each is a single step in this methodical process. Bob proves himself to be no slouch when it comes to the details.  An abandoned junkyard becomes his chessboard to lay out all the pieces in real-time, helping all his crew visualize their parts.

However, despite such intricate planning, it only takes one chink in the armor to ruin it. She’s a young woman — only a girl really — and Bob feels somehow responsible for her. He doesn’t want to see her get harmed and, subsequently, hardened by a life walking the streets.

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He treats her well, gives her money, even lodging in his apartment, and he expects no favors in return. After all, it is his young colleague Paulo who is madly in love with her. It’s this that causes him to run off his mouth. He wants to impress her and keep her for his own. Little does he know there are others. She’s not tied down by any stretch of the imagination, and her feminine wiles find her moving up the totem pole, from cigarette girl to hostess to a floor show main attraction.

Meanwhile, the squirrely croupier who has vowed to be their ticket on the inside has a prying wife who catches wind of the scheme. At first, it appears she might be one of the moralistic types, but it becomes apparent she’s even more of an opportunist than him. She wants more of the cut and so if we can go out on a slight limb, she is our second femme fatale.

The police commissioner receives his tip and readies his men, that is if the information is in fact true. Bob seems all but oblivious to these details. True enough, he learns the girl let the word slip, and he gives her a going over. And yet, according to plan, he gets into his tux and heads to the casino. There are only two options: either it works or it doesn’t.

There’s not a gunshot until well into an hour of the picture. When it comes is not important; simply knowing it does is something. No question there’s a weight to the action because when you’re waiting for a gun to go off, instead of having them blasting every few minutes, the impact is more apparent. It punctuates the action.

Fully cognizant of the tension wrapped up in the heist, Melville cuts between faces waiting in cars or sitting in bedrooms — all a part of this plot in some way, shape, or form — and Bob still keeps on gambling at the roulette wheel.  Gambling becomes not just a distraction for us but for Bob as well. Surely, he cannot have forgotten? Is it possible? I’m not sure. One could hazard a guess; it becomes his undoing, but hardly in the way that you might initially expect.

The tragedy in the final moments of Bob Le Flambeur is a different strain verging on the height of comic irony. It might easily elicit a chuckle from a few for the sheer chance of it all. It’s a textbook example of how a heist can go utterly wrong and somehow come out right in another way. When I say textbook example, it might actually be the only one just like this, and this is the film’s final trick. It’s indelible in its own right.

Melville came into the gangster genre with deep reservoirs of understanding and his own applied sense of understated style. Just as he stole and borrowed from others, he would, in turn, become the influence for the generations to come — not least among them the Godards and Truffauts of the world. For the time being, he lived with minor acclaim, but the film community would learn his name soon enough. Although, even that, he borrowed from another man.

4/5 Stars

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