Ex-con Bob Montagné (Roger Duchesne) used to be a bank robber, but he gave all that up twenty years ago to follow the strait and narrow path. Well, perhaps not everyone’s idea of strait (or straight): Bob is a gambler by trade and spends his time around gamblers, prostitutes, and other members of the demi-monde of Montmartre. On the other hand, he’s known around town as a straight-up guy who follows his own honor code. Bob is the perfect Jean-Pierre Melville hero, in other words, and Bob le flambeur (Bob the gambler) is about as characteristic a Melville movie as you’ll ever see.
Bob may be an honorable man, but he doesn’t always have the best judgment, which has led to him being flat out of cash. This unfortunate turn of events motivates Bob and his safecracker pal Roger (André Garet) to hatch a plan to rob a casino in the seaside resort of Deauville—and since it’s the height of the season, they expect to take in a nice haul. Thus commences one of the classic “putting together the team” sequences—Bob and Roger find a financial backer, obtain floor plans of the casino and specifications of the safe through a friend who works as a croupier there, and hire the necessary experts to pull off the heist.
Unfortunately, the more people that know about something, the more likely that it will be leaked. Also unfortunately, having moral standards when you live among people who don’t can prove hazardous to your well-being. Bob is an old-fashioned guy with an innate sense of chivalry, which brings him into conflict with one of the key professions in his world—that of pimping. He refuses to help a man who beats up one of his “girls,” then tries to save a young innocent (Anne, played by Isabelle Corey) from getting mixed up with men in that profession, introducing her instead to his young protégé Paolo (Daniel Cauchy).
Of course, no good deed can go unpunished, and you know how things usually work out when someone wants to pull off one more job before getting out of the business. However, Melville has one last trick up his sleeve, and the ending of Bob le flambeur is ambiguous enough that you can believe what you want to believe, about Bob’s fate and more generally about the value of human decency in an imperfect world.
Bob le flambeur was shot on location in Paris and Deauville, and thus acts as a nice little time capsule of France in the late 1950s. An opening sequence featuring voiceover narration by Melville, which recurs at key points throughout the film, celebrates the neighborhood of Montmartre, which the same respect usually granted more familiar touristic sites like the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. It’s a classy opening to a classy film, and Bob le flambeur is above all a masterpiece of style, a quality created not only by the actors, but also through Henri Decaë’s masterful cinematography which is matched by costume design by Ted Lapidus and production design by Claude Bouxin. Melville loved creating fables, and Bob le flambeur has that tendency in spades—it’s not a recreation of real life so much as a distillation of certain aspects of it, with everything more perfect than it ever could be in reality, packaged with enough distancing cues that you’ll never mistake it for a naturalistic film. | Sarah Boslaugh
Bob le flambeur is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include a commentary track by film critic Nick Pinkerton, the documentary “Diary of a Villain” about the making of the film (26 min), and the trailers for 5 films.