It is with this movie, Bob le Flambeur, that one of the most influential French directors Jean-Pierre Melville caught his break. This was noir before we even knew what that was but it also featured a surprisingly cheerful vibe. In the best tradition of French crime movies, it explores the seedy bars, casinos, and characters that frequent them. Rooms filled with cigarette smoke, sweat, tension, and danger are places where they feel most comfortable. They also follow the disappearing unwritten code or a set of rules that anyone who lives on the other side of the law should follow. One of those men is Bob, Bob the Gambler.
With an immersive and authentic atmosphere, you won’t even notice that this is a movie released over half a century ago. The camerawork is simply stellar with beautiful black and white cinematography. As most of the story takes place during the night and early morning it also has this magical vibe. It will remind you of those late nights when you could feel something in the air. The same thing that Bob feels with every roll of the dice. I have to admit that I have some of the same problems that Bob has, only without the crime element. The refusal to conform to the rules of society, to go to sleep on time, and wake up early. The desire to feel something, to feel alive, fighting, doing in this fucked up world we live in.
Welcome to post-WWII Paris! A city where a man can make an honest living but it can also make a fortune venturing on the other side of the law. After he served his sentence for robbing a bank, now gray-haired Bob spends his days’ gambling and drinking. He’s well known by both cops and criminals, following the old code of thieves honor. Because of this, women adore him and young want to be him. However, Bob has run into a streak of bad luck and is almost broke. Through his old friend Roger, he learns that there might be a job he could pull off that would set him for life.
Bob le Flambeur starts rather slowly, reveling in the measured macho and cool style of our protagonist. It develops its characters naturally and more importantly doesn’t complicate things needlessly. We have the young and naive protege, experienced detective, and a veritable femme fatale played by talented Isabelle Corey. She’s simply captivating as Anne, presenting a different style of beauty and seducing over centuries. I know I fell for her.
The plot is simple and yet engaging powered by compelling performances and an immersive atmosphere. However, half-way in, it starts picking up speed as several subplots start unfolding. We go from a crime to a heist movie with mounting suspense. Same as in another great French crime movie Rififi, the dialogue isn’t forced and a lot of communication is done with nods and looks.
It’s influenced by the American crime movies of the forties and fifties, especially John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle. So, if you’re looking for similar movies, that’s a good place to start. Along with other Melville’s movies: Un Flic, Le Cercle Rouge, Le Samouraï, and Le Doulos. And we also should not forget movies like Le Trou, Les Lyonnais, 36 Quai des Orfèvres, Elevator to the Gallows and others.
Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Writer: Jean-Pierre Melville, Auguste Le Breton
Cast: Roger Duchesne, Isabelle Corey, Daniel Cauchy, Guy Decomble, Gérard Buhr, André Garet, Howard Vernon, Simone Paris
Fun Facts: Jean-Pierre Melville auditioned Alain Delon for the character of Paulo. He rejected him for fear he would steal the show.