Jean-Pierre Melville Deconstructs and Paves the way for Future Cinema Gamblers with Melancholy Crime Classic.
DIRECTED BY JEAN-PIERRE MELVILLE/FRENCH/1956
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JULY 2, 2019/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
Kubrick. Truffaut. Godard. Tarantino. Jarmusch. Chabrol. Paul Thomas Anderson. John Woo. Mike Hodges. Those are just a few of the directors who have named Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1956 crime classic Bob le Flambeur as highly influential, a favorite, or both. If filmmaker testimony is enough to venerate a single movie, this one’s got it in spades. Spades, clubs, diamonds and hearts, that is. Broken hearts, at that.
Being that Bob le Flambeur tends to be noted for its melancholy vibe amid its centralized criminal element, one may or may not be surprised to find that matters if the heart play into this esteemed “proto nouvelle vague”. The French New Wave was only a few years away, wherein many a dejected young male protagonist would casually refer to time spent with prostitutes. Here, a young trusted member of the title character’s robbery crew (the tenderhearted Paulo, played by the very recently departed Daniel Cauchy) falls hard for a beautiful girl of the night, Anne (played by the debuting Isabel Corey, only sixteen years old at the time). Based on Paulo’s experiences, several specific relationship guidelines can be deduced. Consequently, here are the rules for falling in love with a prostitute when you’re a career criminal in mid-1950s Montmartre:
- Don’t fall in love with a prostitute, no matter how young and pretty she may be.
- Don’t spell out all the sensitive details of your Next Big Heist to her, no matter how interested she seems.
- Don’t be surprised when she blabs all said details to another john.
- When you go and plug the other john in a fit of jealousy, don’t be surprised when she still doesn’t return to you.
- DON’T FALL IN LOVE WITH A PROSTITUTE.
Those entries may or may not be considered spoilers in an otherwise spoiler-proof caper film. Because, another non-spoiler: being a caper film is pretty far down Bob le Flambeur’s list of priorities. Though that isn’t to say that the film is without its standard-issue heist movie tropes: “the crew assembly ballet”, jumping through the right hoops for important schematics, rehearing the big robbery within a makeshift scale-floorplan (in this case, rendered in an outdoor field; one of the film’s few daylight scenes), and of course an uber-impenetrable safe, this one replete with multiple independent locks (“Locks are like pretty ladies. You need to practice to know them.”) with the whole thing encased in concrete on a hydraulic lift.
Except, don’t set your watch based on their plan. We have to take their word for it about that safe. Bob himself is an aging thief and gambling mainstay in the Parisian high stakes card playing and casino circuit. (The title of the film roughly translates to “Bob the gambler”). When presented with the chance for one last heist- one big enough to get his full attention- Bob finds the opportunity irresistible and the challenge of it intoxicating.
The character of Bob is unlike most lead characters in all of movies. Were Bob le Flambeur a conventional film with the same characters, the youthful Paulo would probably be made to carry the film. (Although Bob le Flambeur is certainly not alone as far as the aging criminal angle in French cinema of the time). Instead, we get the long-in-the-tooth reticent Bob Montagné, a non-responsive crank who finds himself in a mentor role when he’d rather be fading away. Where most gang bosses would yell and throw fits, Bob tends to simply turn and leave the room. The character is perfectly played by Roger Duchesne, who’d racked up no shortage of his own illicit notoriety. Whatever degree of truth that there is to Duchesne’s various rap sheets that are discussed in the Blu-ray’s bonus features, the power of his presence is undeniable.
Director Jean-Pierre Melville (Leon Morin, Priest; Le Samurai; Army of Shadows; Un Flic), though steeped in cinema of all sorts, can’t be bothered to conventionally play the game of filmmaking. A deeply committed cinephile in his own right (is he the first truly reflexive cinephile director?), Melville nonchalantly subverted expectations of what a film like this one would be while breaking ground in terms of location shooting, particularly with his grey lonely Montmartre street scenes.
American Film Noir, as the younger French film obsessives would soon be branding it, was the style that Melville was keen to cop. Crucially, before Leone, Scorsese or Tarantino would radically reinterpret their respective pre-existing film forms, Melville would pave the way, paying homage via radical, audience-challenging and genre restructuring. Though somber, it is alive. Though Bob le Flambeur was Melville’s fourth feature, it was the one that laid the foundation for his reputation as the French Master of Crime. Strangely enough, major aspects of the crime film form get turned lopsided or are conspicuously underplayed here.
Though Criterion Collection fans may still be sour about the company’s unfortunate loss of the rights to several of its long-ago-released Studio Canal titles-this being one of them- it’s great to see said titles finally turning up on Blu-ray, even via another label. Kino Lorber Studio Classics has a pretty well-established track record in regard to care for their product, particularly more noteworthy titles such as this one. This release of Bob le Flambeur is no exception. While not Criterion, the careful, beautiful cinematography by Henri Decay impressively stands out on this high definition transfer of a new 4K restoration.
Prominent Film Critic Nick Pinkerton turns up with a full-length audio commentary track. Clearly Mr. Pinkerton has done his homework, not just on the myriad of facts and tidbits he shares about the film and its cast and crew, but also in certain regard to his French pronunciations. He really makes it sound so easy… Anyhow, it’s a fine track, one that those studying Bob le Flambeur will be grateful for. Pinkerton is citing sources and quoting previous reviewers throughout, providing a sort of “all in one place” package for anyone who might be doing a term paper on the film or Melville.
Also included is a 2017 documentary that runs about a half hour entitled Diary of a Villain. As informative as this is, it does fall into long, long stretches of “talking head” interviews sans b-roll. When it does utilize b-roll, however, that b-roll is gold- such as a segment uncovered in an old French document that all but implicates lead actor Duchesne for several crimes, including homicide. Finally, the film’s trailer and a few others are included.
Bob le Flambeur proves to be a beguiling experience. At this point self-identifying on screen with just his last name (“un film de Melville”), his outward confidence is nevertheless tremendously earned. Though Melville may appear to be granting center stage to the decadent neon nightlife of Montmartre and Isabel Corey’s revealing dresses and her frequency in slipping out of them, there’s no question that Duchesne’s Bob is the mossy anchor of this thing. Though the film itself was a big gamble for the independent Melville, owning a copy of this winning disc most assuredly is not. As humble as it plays, Bob le Flambeur finds its way under one’s skin, earning its veneration among filmmakers, film lovers and lowlifes alike.