Bob le flambeur (1956)

“Locks are like pretty ladies. You need to practise to know them.”

‘Bob le flambeur’, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville in 1956, is a French crime drama starring Roger Duchesne as Bob, an aging ex-con and professional gambler, down on his luck, who plans one final heist. Bob lives in Montmartre and spends his nights attending seedy games run by the Paris underworld. His friends and acquaintances range from a young prostitute who has attached herself to him to a policeman whose life he saved. Bob is an honourable man but desperate. When he finds out about vulnerabilities of a casino in the coastal town of Deauville, he decides to recruit a gang of safecrackers and heavies to help him rob it, but the prostitute and an ironically mistimed lucky streak during final heist puts his plans into jeopardy. As with Melville’s later movie ‘Le Samouraï’ from 1967, ‘Bob le flambeur’ is an enjoyable and tense thriller, the precursor to ‘Ocean’s 11’ but without the self-indulgence of the Hollywood cast or the humour. ‘Bob le flambeur’ is a cool, sparse and kinetic movie. Melville pre-empts the French New Wave directors with his use of handheld cameras that rove around the action, the naturalistic and laconic performances and the snappy editing. The only distracting aspect of the film for me was the fetishized focus on Anne, the prostitute, played by Isabelle Corey, previously seen in Roger Vadim’s highly sexualised ‘And God Created Woman’. The camera lingers on her, ranges over her body, and the background music emphasises her entrances in the scene with a louche drawl. Aside from this, it’s a tight, condensed and engaging film with a surprising climax.This film also feeds my current obsession with the idea of Paris as being a cinematic, mythic playground: Melville’s depiction of Montmatre is of a grim, down-at-heel slum by day and a neon, sparkling paradise of money and freedom by night. Compare this with the same location in ‘Midnight in Paris’ or ‘Celine and Julie Go Boating‘ in which the romance of the district is unquestioned and laden with the glamour of the past.

Would I recommend it? Yes – the early elements of the New Wave and the Hollywood connections (particularly with ‘Ocean’s Eight’ on its way) make this an important movie to see. A good, if obvious, double bill would be with Melville’s similarly styled crime thriller ‘Le Samouraï’.

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