Bob le Flambeur: The Criterion Collection
There's a peculiarly circular method to film influence, with young American directors borrowing liberally from the toolboxes of European and Asian directors, who themselves modeled their styles on earlier American films. Such is the case with director Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973). Hailed as the "father of the French gangster film," Melville had a profound influence on the French New Wave directors who followed him most notably Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard and, later, on filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and John Woo. But Melville himself had learned his craft from watching American and Japanese films of the '30s and '40s his most famous film, Le Samourai (1967), was an homage to both the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa and the Alan Ladd potboiler This Gun for Hire. In fact, Melville loved 1930s crime movies so much that he plotted an elaborate film about crooks robbing the casino at Deauville on the eve of the Grand Prix, when the safe would be bulging with millions of francs. Unfortunately, as he was writing it in mid-1950, John Huston's Asphalt Jungle hit theaters with a strikingly similar plot. "After I had seen Huston's masterpiece," Melville told writer Rui Nogueira in 1971, "I could no longer deal, either dramatically or tragically, with the preparation and execution of a robbery. So I decided to reshape my scenario completely and turn it into a light-hearted film. Bob le Flambeur is not a pure policier, but a comedy of manners." The film would go on to become not only a major influence on the noir stylings of the New Wave directors, but inspired the entire "aged gangster gets pulled back for one last job" oeuvre. Suave, silver-haired and impeccably dressed, Bob Montagne (Roger Duchesne), known as "Bob le Flambeur" which translates roughly as "Bob the high roller" travels through Montmarte in the wee hours, shooting craps, playing poker, dropping a few francs at an off-track betting parlor, and finally collapsing at dawn on the bed in his swank bachelor pad. The dapper ex-bank robber is addicted to gambling in fact, he seems to spend his every waking moment dabbling in some game of chance, whether it's baccarat, horse-racing, or just rolling dice for drinks at one of the many bars he frequents. Bob gets rides around town from his best friend, police inspector Ledru (Guy Decomble, also memorable as the schoolteacher in Truffaut's 400 Blows) and has a neophyte sidekick, Paolo (Daniel Cauchy) a sort of Donald O'Connor-meets-Bobby Darin type who tags along learning the ropes. The morning after a typical all-night gambling jaunt, Bob's awakened by a petty criminal named Marc (Gerard Buhr) who begs Bob for money to get out of town; Marc's been running prostitutes and has beaten one of them so badly she's ended up in the hospital. Disgusted by Marc's behavior, Bob refuses to help him Marc is arrested by Ledru and agrees to become a police informant. When Bob later see Marc at a bar with a beautiful 16-year-old girl named Anne (Isabelle Corey), Bob comes to her aid and introduces her to Paolo, who falls madly in love with her. Bob's comfortable lifestyle is about to go up in flames, however one evening he loses just about everything he has in a poker game. That's when he hears about the safe at the casino at Deauville; the night before the Grand Prix, he's told, it will hold roughly 800 million francs. So Bob decides to put together a plan, make one last, desperate roll of the dice, and rob the safe at Deauville. Unfortunately, there are a few wild cards that he hasn't considered most specifically Paolo, so in love with Anne that he's forgotten one of Bob's most important lessons: "Never spill to a dame."
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Though it's often referred to as a "caper" film, the planning and execution of the robbery don't come into play until quite late in the story. Bob le Flambeur is really a love letter to the art of filmmaking. The noir-ish, nocturnal cinematography by Henri Decae creates an atmosphere of innocent decadence, indulging Melville's infatuation with shadow, smoke, neon and nightlife. The tone of the film is light, even as it touches on deeper issues of loyalty and betrayal there's a mythic quality to Bob, an aging knight who lives by a code of honor that seems foreign to everyone around him. Melville's creative use of the camera to invoke mood overhead shots of Bob in his kitchen or a street-sweeper circling and re-wetting the same block and his minimal, high-contrast style both honor American film noir and presage the coming New Wave. The resulting film is an engrossing bridge between the two styles of filmmaking, and a wholly original movie about friendship, chance, and the inherent weakness of human nature.
Criterion, as usual, has gone the extra mile to bring Bob le Flambeur to DVD. Presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1, the high-definition digital transfer was created from a 35mm composite, fine-grain master print. The result is beautiful to look at, doing justice to Decae's gorgeous cinematography: rich grays, ebony blacks, and almost no remaining scratches or dust. The monaural soundtrack was remastered and restored the new 24-bit mono soundtrack is clean as a whistle, with no pops, hisses or crackles. A new-and-improved English subtitle translation is on board, as well as a 1961 radio interview with Melville conducted by Gideon Bachmann for his New York radio show, "Film Art," and a January 2002 interview with Daniel Cauchy, plus the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.