Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Bob le flambeur - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Classic Melville Heist Picture at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox in summer 2017 series "Army of Shadows: The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville" and via the O.O.P. Criterion Collection DVD.

Aging high-roller takes the biggest gamble of them all.

Bob le flambeur (1956)
Dir. Jean-Pierre Melville
Scr. Melville & Auguste Le Breton
Starring: Roger Duchesne, Daniel Cauchy, Isabelle Corey, Guy Decomble, Gérard Buhr

Review By Greg Klymkiw

"I was 14 when I left my mother... I returned 10 years later, early one morning. I saw an old woman on her knees, scrubbing away, as she always had. That's how I recognised her. I left without a word. Then I sent her a postal order each month. One month it was sent back. She had stopped scrubbing." - Bob Montagné in Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le flambeur

In the moments between night and day, by the dawn's early light, in Montmartre, that hallowed, hilly zone of solemnity and sleaze in Paris, resting somewhere between the Heaven of the Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur at its highest point and below it, the Hell of nightclubs, cheap hotels, cafes, whorehouses and gambling dens, the distinguished trench-coat-adorned silver-haired old fox Bob Montagné (Roger Duchesne) takes one last roll of the dice.


It's been a long night and Bob's wiped out. He steps out onto the lonely morning streets, looks into a storefront reflection, straightens his tie and, taking in his weary visage, remarks aloud: "A real hood's face."

And so it is, but he's definitely not your run-of-the-mill garden variety miscreant. Bob Montagné is a class act. He's practically royalty, at least by the standards of magical Montmartre. Sure, he's been in an out of stir for most of his life, but amongst the post-war criminal class of France, he's pulled off some of the most daring heists, and as such, commands respect from thugs and cops alike.

He's a high-roller, you see, and everyone loves Bob: he's worshipped by the sweet young criminal Paulo (Daniel Cauchy), whilst the grizzled police lieutenant Ledru (Guy Decomble) considers him his best friend (and indeed owes his life to him) and, of course, there's a woman - the beautiful young Annie (Isabelle Corey), who adores him for his fatherly influence and generosity. Yes, everyone loves Bob, except for the foul pimp and stool pigeon Marc (Gérard Buhr). Bob has even less use for Marc, a piece of excrement on two legs who beats his women, sells anyone out for the right price and even tries to lure Annie into his stable.

Right from the opening frames of Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le flambeur we know we're about to enter the world of the criminal class, but for the most part, "class" is the order of the day for men like our title character. Bob's also down for the count, but he's not there for long. He springs up with one last plan to restore himself. As an inveterate gambler, he knows all too well how much dough collects in a casino after a long night and he decides to put together a crack team to pull a heist on the mighty Deauville gaming emporium.

The magical world of Montmartre:
Wet streets, nightclubs, cigarettes and dice.

Best laid plans, however, can go awry, but the manner in which Melville explores this is one of the reasons why Bob le flambeur is a masterpiece. Let's put aside the fact that the picture's sense of atmosphere is so thick you can cut it with a knife, that its touches of Neo-realism make us feel like we're living, breathing and even smelling a world most of us will never know, that its eventual and shocking bursts of violence knock us on our butts and indeed influenced every crime picture that followed in its wake.

Let's put all that aside for a moment. Let's marvel at the sheer, brilliant simplicity of one key stroke of narrative genius:

Bob le flambeur is a heist film in which part of the caper itself involves its mastermind playing the tables of the casino he's going to rob and just as he's about to risk committing a crime that might land him in the hoosegow for a very long time, his rolls of the dice start to yield him a fortune that he's never seen in his life - a fortune that might indeed exceed that of what he could ever hope to rob from the joint.

Damn, this is genius.


Bob le flambeur screens at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox in the summer 2017 series "Army of Shadows: The Films of Jean-Pierre Melville" and, via the O.O.P. Criterion Collection DVD which includes an interview with Daniel Cauchy and an archival Gideon Bachman radio interview with Jean-Pierre Melville.