Paris, as it was–or as we want it to have been.
Directed by John-Pierre Melville
Written by Auguste Le Breton
Starring Roger Duchesne, Isabelle Corey, Daniel Cauchy
Imagine Ocean’s Eleven if the heist to rob the three Las Vegas casinos ended up as an afterthought (and, okay, you’d end up with Ocean’s Twleve–but that’s another story.)
Bob le Flambeur is nominally a heist movie: there are all the requisite scenes of gathering the gang with its mix of specialized skills, the familiarizing with the layout of the target, the practice sequences. But if it is possible for such a film to plan its central crime elliptically, this French noir does just that.
Neither does “Bob the Gambler” register as a character study. The oddly-monickered Bob (Roger Duchesne) is largely a blank, a creation of almost pure style. The tailored suits, the trenchcoat, the immaculate silver hair.
Instead, the film is Jean-Pierre Melville’s fantasy reflection of hard-boiled American films. The iconography of noir–or of the gangster movie–is here in spades, the rain-slicked streets, the neon-lit joints, the hard-charging police inspector, the double-crossing moll.
All are almost reduced to archetypes and what makes the film most notable, in fact, is its sentimentality, especially with regard to the ending. It’s a conclusion no self-respecting American noir could have delivered; it winks at the audience with its unremitting coolness. (Another, younger character in the film traverses the more-traditional noir path and pays the price.)
It’s the obvious affection with which Melville re-creates this idealized world, as well as its central character, Bob, that makes this film so winning. The plot renders Bob a loser, yet Melville paints him as the winner that Bob thinks he is. (“I was born with an ace in my palm,” he says at one point.) Bob’s lucky coin is central to the movie; he can’t lose, no matter what.
(And Isabelle Corey. Hoo boy. Legend had it that Melville cast her in the movie when she was 15–the movie took years to complete because of a lack of funds–so all I’d better say is “hoo-boy” and leave it at that. She’s mesmerizing.)