Reviews and notes
1981 New York
2008 Mar del Plata, Torino
Bob le Flambeur
is Melville’s love poem to Paris’s Pigalle and its lowlife denizens. It’s a gangster film that is turned by Melville’s taste for the absurd into what he calls “a comedy of manners,” albeit cast in the shades of the pure policier
. An aging safecracker and compulsive gambler, Bob (Roger Duchesne) lives by night and sleeps by day, and thrives on his nostalgia for the prewar gangster milieu, before the infiltration of the Gestapo upset the delicate balance between cop and criminal. He cruises Paris streets in a big American car dogged by a daring camera, a swinging jazz track, and a cool obsession. Bob’s going for the big stakes now: the casino vault in Deauville. ‘I like futility of effort,’ Melville said. ‘The uphill road to failure is a very human thing... Even so, Bob
is still a light-hearted film, [one that] ends on a pirouette.’
- Judy Bloch, Pacific Film Archive.
He is silver-haired and there is a certain heaviness in his stride; too many neon midnights, too many gray-lit dawns. But if he is weary, he is not yet cynical; if his luck is currently as battered as his trench coat, his streetwise honor has been burnished instead of tarnished by hard use. He is Bob the Gambler, out to rob the casino at Deauville, and he is the only certifiable grownup now appearing as a hero on any American screen outside of the revival houses or the late shows.
Makes sense. Bob, who is played (by Roger Duchesne) and written without a wasted word or gesture, is the product of another time and place: Paris, 1955. It was a period when French cinéastes
noted that two things they admired, American genre movies and existential philosophy, had one thing in, common: an admiration for the heroic figure who defined himself and his code of personal honor by plain action rather than fancy words. Writer-Director Melville (who was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, borrowed his nom de screen from his favorite American novelist, and died in 1973) was then very much a cantankerous outsider in the world of official French cinema. To scrape up the financing for Bob
, Melville had to be a kind of existential hero himself. It says something about the lack of heroism among U.S. distributors that this gloriously wry and romantic film has taken 27 years to arrive here, especially since Melville did finally achieve international repute as the "father" of the new wave (Godard, Truffaut, et al.
Bob has paternal responsibilities too. The son of a colleague in his former life as a bank robber is now his protege, and there is a pretty girl he has rescued from streetwalking; both must be shown how to live honorably. His aging self and reputation must also be refurbished; both are under assault from his losing streak and from an enemy who hates sharing the world with a man of Bob's quality. And out there, glimmering, is the casino, with its huge nightly take stashed in a crackable safe. It offers him a victimless crime and a chance to tie up all his life's loose ends. The plot comes to a conclusion that is astonishing because it is unexpected and because it satisfies the law and our moral sense.
But story is the least of Bob le Flambeur
's pleasures. This film is "about" a casino heist the way the other Melville's great novel is "about" a big bad whale. The film's true subject is how a man of a certain integrity (however sleazy his profession) lives in a world that does not set much store by that quality. It is about how such a man orders a meal, talks to a policeman or enters his apartment alone, with no one to impress except his own sense of himself. Constructed out of a thousand persuasive details, Bob is the rarest kind of fantasy figure: the kind you would like to be, of course, but also the kind you think, for just a moment, you could be. If only in the way you light your cigarette.
- Richard Schkkel, TIME, 16 August 1982.
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