Remember the Montmartre of ‘Amelie’, that kooky, romantic, sepia-tinged cinematic environ where something gorgeous and offbeat and beautifully framed waits in splendour around every corner? Well, stub your cigarette out on it, tear it up like the worthless betting slip that won you nothing, crumple it into a ball and sling it balefully into the gutter as the truck comes growling up behind you, spraying the 6am streets with water, washing away the high hopes and forlorn failures of the still-ebbing night before.
Welcome, mes amis to the Montmartre of ‘Bob le Flambeur’, where the char lady hurries to work past the aloof young woman, sashaying her way in search of a sugar daddy. Where sailors and street urchins eye each other warily. Where neon flickers out as the first feeble intimation of daylight bleeds in. Where Bob (Roger Duchesne), in trenchcoat and hat, rolls his last dice of the night … or his first of the new day.
Bob the gambler. Who walks, collar turned up against the past, the present and the cold, through streets shadowed in melancholy. A man who’s done time; a man of rumpled principles; a man to whom jazz-club cool and existential loneliness cling like the odour of a grimly smoked gitane. A man with a haunted look and an ironic attitude. The kind of man whose hand delves inside his trenchcoat and it’s evens on whether he pulls out a gun or a volume of poetry. Or more likely a deck of cards.
Bob: a recent legend of Montmartre, as the opening voiceover informs us. Montmartre, the voiceover continues, is both heaven and hell. A funicular rail car makes an apposite descent from godliness to the fleshpots.
Jean-Pierre Melville incorporates plenty of similar imagery into the film: the steps up to Bob’s studio apartment, or down to the seedy nightclub where the enigmatic but promiscuous Anne (Isabelle Corey) works. The ornate staircase of the Deauville casino, scene of the celebrated final act, which Bob ascends to his finest hour on the gaming tables, and descends to face the inevitable.
But there is another strand of imagery, sometimes obvious …
… and sometimes hinted at in the framing or the predominance of rectangles in the set design:
It’s the imagery of chequer boards. Of the tight, small, neatly delineated squares on which fate moves us like chess pieces. Not that Bob or his partners in crime Roger (André Garet) and Polo (Daniel Cauchy) would ever invest the time and strategy called for by chess; not when there are dice to be rolled, cards to be turned and pretty girls to turn one’s head. But the shadow of the chequer board haunts the film nonetheless, a higher power – or maybe a random and spitefully playful sprite – pushing Bob and Roger and Polo, not to mention their nemeses Marc (Gérard Buhr) and Ledru (Guy Decomble), from here to there, from a winning hand to a losing streak, from a lucky break to an unfortunate coincidence.
Marc is a pimp who tries to borrow money from Bob to go on the run when Ledru – a world-weary but tenacious police inspector – puts the squeeze on him. Bob’s code of honour doesn’t allow him any sympathy with pimps and he throws Marc out on his ear. Ledru, as friendly with Bob as his profession allows on account of the latter saving his life way back when, demands of Marc a good tip off in return for expunging his record.
Wary of returning to the serious criminal endeavours that got him jailed decades ago, Bob is nonetheless tempted when Roger gets the inside word on the contents of the Deauville’s safe. With the cards not favouring him and his funds almost depleted, Bob puts together a team and begins planning the heist. In the meantime, the almost perfunctory rivalry between Bob and Polo over Anne is resolved via her one night stand with Marc and Polo’s loose-lipped bragging results in an equally costly slip of the tongue on Anne’s part.
‘Bob le Flambeur’, the first of a run of bona fide masterpieces by Melville, points towards the fatalism of ‘Le Cercle Rouge’, the cop/crook friendship dynamic of ‘Un Flic’ and the icy cool career criminal icon later personified by Alain Delon in ‘Le Samourai’. The extended, wordless set-pieces aren't quite in place yet, but the absolute love of American genre cinema leaps off the screen. ‘Bob le Flambeur’ is both a black valentine to Montmartre and a smashmouth love-letter to film noir USA, all flash cars, bad dudes and sultry dames.
It’s a throwback to the mid-40s and a precursor to la Nouvelle Vague of the late-50s, and achieves its own synthesis. Put simply: it’s heaven for movie lovers and some kind of subtitled wonderful.