Monday, 16 November 2015

Bob the Gambler (Bob le Flambeur) (1955)

Bob le flambeur
With ”Bob le flambeur” we are in France again, this time in the company of director Jean-Pierre Melville. He was apparently a hot shot in his time, but as the ignorant I am I have never heard of him before. I have a feeling that is going to change over the next few years.

We are also going to Paris as this city features quite prominently in the movie and I think it is quite fitting after this weekend’s horrible events there. As much as this is a movie about crooks and criminal it is also a love song to Paris.

The eponymous Bob (Roger Duchesne) is a high rolling gambler who is much respected in the underworld of Pigalle, Montmartre. He is treated as nobility and carry himself like a father figure taking care of people all the while he is busy making or throwing away his fortune in gambling. There is a lot to be said about his demeanor, always well dressed and with immaculate white hair as he go through town in his trench coat and soft hat or drive around in his monster of an American open car. Bob is a gentleman criminal who is even on good footing with the police inspector.

“Bob le flambeur” spends the first forty-five minutes or so showing us Bob going around to different venues and meeting a number of people. Not much is really happening, but we meet the principal cast and we get established just how respected Bob is. There is Polo (Daniel Cauchy) who treat Bob as a father, Anne (Isabelle Corey) who is a random girl Bob decides to take under his wing. Marc (Gérard Buhr) is a pimp and Bob does not like pimps and Ledru (Guy Decomble) is the police inspector who has befriended Bob.

Of all these people Anne is probably the most interesting because of the sheer sexuality emanating from her. You know instantly when you see her that this is not an American movie and that she should play a pivotal role in this movie. As it happens she does not. She is just shopping around and is actually quite unimportant, both for the story and to the people around her. The sole exception is Polo who adores her, but it is also him who pay the price for her shallowness.

The story only really starts when Bob loses his fortune at a casino and decides to rob it.

In order to do this he puts together a team of experts and plan everything in detail. Totally “Oceans Eleven”. They seem to have it under control and the movie picks up momentum and becomes quite interesting. Then two things happen:

1)      Through Anne and Polo’s stupidity and the greed of the information source (or rather his wife’s) the police learns of the heist about the take place and,

2)      Bob, when he enters the casino again, is so overcome with his ludomania that he entirely forgets why he is there.

How that plays out you really have to see yourself.

There are things I like about the movie, things I do not like and things that confuses me. Readers of this blog should not be surprised, I get confused rather easily.

There is a modern feel to the movie even though it is driving hard at the American gangster noir of the forties. Somewhere between the music, the cutting technique and the daring elements (mostly Anne) this is a movie that points forward rather than backward. When the story finally takes shape it also becomes engaging and interesting and what I liked the most was the resolution, which is downright original. I did not see that coming and that is happening with longer and longer intervals for me.

On the negative side I find it hard to connect the harsh reality of the location shots and real life situations depicted with the cartoon characters in them. Everybody in this movie is a caricature of a particular type and entirely one-dimensional. Sometimes this is ridiculously clear as with Bob, the American gentleman gangster in his trench coat (is he trying to be Bogie or Mitchum?) or the cliché police inspector. Others only reveal their cliché after a while like the filial betrayer Polo or the bimbo Anne. This may all be intentional, but it was all too thick for me.

Finally I have some trouble seeing where this movie is going. Structure wise the first half is a portrait of the Montmartre underworld through the eyes of Bob and the second half is a heist movie. The heist is not even an issue during the first half. Then I wonder what the movie is trying to tell us. At the surface this all looks very random to the extent that I wonder if there is a point. On the other hand there is a clear intent with the roles the characters take that makes me mistrust the randomness theory.  

“Bob le flambeur” should be seen as a French celebration of the gangster noir, as a celebration of Paris and for the glimpses of anarchistic modernity it displays. But it should also be accessed with plenty of patience and a willingness to watch a different movie from what you expected.


  1. I liked this one, but then I tend to like heist movies. Melville will indeed show up more times on the list. I've also seen several more from doing the TSPDT list and after a while I found that Melville tended to use the same basic plot in many of his movies (criminal sparring with police). I'm glad I saw this and Le Samourai early on otherwise I might not have appreciated them as much.

    1. There is a certain charm to heist movies and this one has some nice twists. I am just not completely sold by the meandering style and the characters in it.

  2. I rather liked this one. I thought it was charming.

    1. It is and it is not a bad movie. There were just a few things jarring me.

  3. I have seen this but hardly remembered the plot until I read your review. I remember liking it but not exactly why I did. That must mean it didn't exactly wow me and that it is time for a rewatch.

    1. There are good things to get from the movie so make sure it is on your list.