I've never really understood the allure of gambling. Even though I can easily name a number of relatives and friends I've had over the years who enjoy it as a pastime, I don't think I was or ever will be susceptible to that particular vice. Give me an all-expense paid vacation to a famous gambling hot spot, I'm still not too likely to spend much time in the casino. Maybe some early in life exposure, on family trips through Nevada when I was a kid, to forlorn shells of humanity idling away their hours plugging quarters into slot machines scarred me for life. Or maybe it's just some part of my psyche where reason prevails, where I've made the simple calculation that I have better things to do with the money that I'd inevitably lose via wager, that shields me from ever indulging in the practice. Whatever the explanation, even though I like games, when it comes to gambling with real live cash, I stand on the outside looking in. But I do know a few things about addiction, from both personal and professional experience, and that knowledge, plus an appreciation for the pervasive charm and artistry of its production, serves as my ticket into the nocturnal, crime-tinged world of Bob le flambeur. Rarely has a desperate powerless addiction looked so cool...
Though the title is usually translated as Bob the Gambler, a more faithful interpretation would be Bob the High Roller. When they call him a mere "gambler" in the film, they use a different word. "Flambeur" is a term reserved for those occasions when Bob's extravagance at the table is given special emphasis, waging everything he's got and then some on a gasp-inducing long shot. For all his suave style and debonair flourishes as he makes his rounds, Bob is quite thoroughly and helplessly consumed by his particular addiction - if there's a little action to be found, he knows where to find it, and he doesn't seem ready to quit until either he's flat broke or he's broken the bank himself. At least that's how he operates during this brief episode of his life that we're privileged to see on screen in this 1956 precursor to the French New Wave, courtesy of Jean-Pierre Melville.
We first meet Bob in his native habitat, a smoky back room in some two-bit dive in the Pigalle district of Paris, the lowlife enclave directly adjacent to the heights of the prestigious Montmartre. He doesn't say anything, just shakes his dice, craps out and silently makes his way home at dawn's early light for a bit of shut-eye before the sun rises and gets in his way. Bob's a creature of the night, and prefers to limit his interactions as much as possible with fellow inhabitants of that rarefied environment. But before he can find his way back to his bed, he has a few chance encounters that introduce us to the main characters who will help determine his fate: Paolo, a young protege Bob's taken under his wing, who happens to be the son of an accomplice of Bob's in a failed bank robbery some twenty years previous; Anne, a teenage streetwalker Bob happens to spot hitching a wee-hours motorbike ride with an American sailor; and Inspector Ledru, who's assigned to keep a close eye on the shady characters of Pigalle just to make sure that the day-to-day criminality remains on the petty and manageable side of the ledger.
Add one more significant character to the mix, Marc, a pimp who's been dragged into Ledru's office on suspicion of assaulting one of his whores who's wound up in the hospital and now has to turn stoolie to avoid the harsh raps thrown down on repeat offenders, and you have all the ingredients to set up Bob le flambeur's driving conflict. Anne's arrival into Montmarte has stirred up strong and incompatible emotions in Bob. On the one hand, he finds her highly attractive - and why not? she's a sly and willing cutie who seems to like Bob's sophistication and trappings of wealth - but he also recognizes that this district will swiftly eat her up and turn her into a casualty, regardless of her haughty confidence, which brings out his paternalistic instincts as he recognizes that, despite the obvious opportunity, he is simply too old for her - a crushing realization that eventually must settle in on all of us who live to a certain age.
On the other hand, Paolo suffers from no such scruples. He's young, horny and all too ready to take advantage of what Anne is offering. Eventually Bob sets them up to enjoy the privacy of his own apartment, as much an act of masochistic self-flagellation as it is a generous favor to the eager young couple. If everything were to stop there, the drama might focus simply on how things go between the dumb, impulsive Paolo and the ambitious, conniving Anne, with genial but conflicted Bob peering in from time to time. But that's just an introductory stage of the overall narrative, the tempo and atmosphere of which you can get a sample here:
Complicating things to the breaking point is a scheme Bob hatches to pull off the heist of a lifetime, a break-in to the safe of the Deauville Casino at the height of the Grand Prix, an occasion where 800 million francs will be nestled in the vault. Skip the lottery! With enough coordinated planning and a crew of henchmen equally reliable and desperate for their own big score, it's doable job. The problem, as it always seems to develop in these scenarios, arises when one of the conspirators speaks a bit too freely in an effort to impress someone not involved in the scheme - setting up the tip-off that puts the whole enterprise in jeopardy.
Anyone expecting a cunningly plotted and executed heist along the lines of Rififi and any number of the many imitators that followed in Bob le flambeur's footsteps over the decades may feel a bit deflated when the big hold-up fails to materialize. But when it gets down to it, the mechanics of robbery were never a big part of Melville's intentions to begin with. He does offer at least an enactment of how the stunt was supposed to go, but the plans break down badly in real time, largely because Bob's addiction rears up and controls him at the most crucial moment. And also because someone squealed. Which turns out to be OK after all. If Bob le flambeur were to result in some fantasy of the "perfect crime," it would be an entirely different movie, one more easily dismissed as out-and-out escapism.
As it stands, Bob le flambeur retains enough familiar hints of brokenness, corruption and the unattainability of the "quick fix" to remain highly engaging and relevant even to those of us who've never positioned ourselves squarely on the opposite side of the law or in pursuit of easy money illicitly obtained. Like a tantalizing pitch to lay our money down, Bob le flambeur succeeds in persuading us to jump in for the ride, making the game fun enough to play even if it doesn't result in the big payoff we might dream about. (Although I will say, I really enjoyed the ending - a great twist that I won't spoil here though I'm willing to talk about it more freely in the comments section.)
Melville really established himself with this film, and the behind-the-scenes story of its making adds immensely to the charm of Bob le flambeur. Determined to make his movies his way, outside the controls of the studio system, Melville lived the same kind of high-wire act he captures in his characters, scrounging up money wherever he could, enough to pay for a few days of filming, then rounding up his actors and crew again to advance the project just a bit further. The film was some three years in the making as a result, though fortunately it doesn't feel like there's much aging or discontinuity going on. Still, I admire Melville's scrappiness and the resourcefulness he brought to casting the film. It's populated by actors who carry their own shady pasts and dubious antics into each scene, including his impeccably stylish and charismatically stone-faced leading man Roger Duchesne, who plays Bob. Melville had to personally apply to the French mob to get their permission to let Duchesne, a former star who'd lapsed into alcoholism, back into the movie biz after they'd basically expelled him for past indiscretions.
Above all else though, Bob le flambeur strikes me as a glorious example of the allure cast by romantic Gallic fatalism, a thread that runs back through the history of French cinema in tragedies classiques like La Bete Humaine, Port of Shadows and Pepe le Moko, just a few of its Criterion predecessors that quickly come to my mind. Of course, the more obvious and frequent references/comparisons are made to Bob's 1950s parallel projects, the already-mentioned Rififi and Touchez pas au grisbi. Here are my award winners of those three films, placed in direct competition with each other:
Best Male Lead: Jean Gabin in Grisbi, his world-weariness and elegance are palpable!
Best Female Role: Isabel Corey in Bob, probably based on the freshest impression, but I admit I'm smitten with her smirky expressions, insouciant demeanor and precocious beauty
Best Heist Scene: Rififi, still mesmerizing after I've seen it half a dozen times
Best Career Launcher: Grisbi (Jeanne Moreau, Lino Ventura, Daniel Cauchy - who also appeared in Bob le flambeur - and the late career revival of Jean Gabin)
Grittiest Cinematic Naturalism: Bob le flambeur
Best Song: Rififi, that tune has burned a notch in my brain, I can instantly recall it on demand even though I don't understand a word of it
Best Hair: Bob le flambeur, no contest!
Most Inspiring Director: Tough call, since I admire Becker and Melville too, but I gotta go with my fellow American Jules Dassin (Rififi) after all the crap he went through as a result of the McCarthyist blacklist
Overall Best Film: Abstain! I'm glad I don't have to pick, I have all three to enjoy whenever I need a fix of French postwar gangster noir despair to brighten up my day... :o)
Next: Elena and Her Men