“Huit cents millions. L’affaire de ma vie.”
Last year, we were fortunate to have Criterion add the French film Rififi to its collection. Now we have another title that evokes many of the same responses through a loving visual caress of Paris in the 1950s, a detailed portrait of part of the French underworld, and a methodical yet mesmerizing build-up of plot and character. The film is Bob Le Flambeur (1956), directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, whose work in this film particularly would influence other filmmakers ranging from those of the 1960s’ Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) to more modern directors like Quentin Tarantino, John Woo, and Paul Thomas Anderson. The title was for many years kept out of circulation by Melville and his heirs, but made its reappearance during the video era and now is finally available on DVD.
Bob Le Flambeur (Bob the gambler) spends his days mainly in the Montmartre district of Paris trying his luck at whatever gambling opportunity presents itself — cards, slot machines, horses, etcetera. Whether on top after a winning streak or down to his last few francs, he maintains the same sunny, positive disposition. Bob’s best days are seemingly behind him, however, and he is recognized as an eminence grise in the neighbourhood. Bob has become a mentor to Paulo, a young gambler who is anxious to learn from and please the veteran player. One day, after attending the racetrack with a close associate and losing almost all his money, Bob learns of the substantial sums of cash that are sometimes kept at the casino in Deauville, a popular French seaside town. The possibility of one last big haul persuades Bob to take a chance on organizing an elaborate heist in which he will play the key role.
Jean-Pierre Melville did not have a really lengthy career, but he did start out going his own way. Bob Le Flambeur and his first feature film Le Silence de la Mer (1948) both reflected that. Ironically, by the time the New Wave directors were actively applying Melville’s stylistic approaches to their work, Melville had gravitated to more commercial filmmaking. He made several key French underworld films that starred some of the top French actors of the 1960s — Jean-Paul Belmondo in Le Doulos (1963) and Alain Delon in Le Samourai (1967). His final film was 1972’s Un Flic.
Virtually any article on the French New Wave will tell you that location shooting, natural light, improvisation, and an emphasis on character actors are all stylistic characteristics of that movement’s films. These are the very same elements that can be found in Bob Le Flambeur, a film that predates the New Wave by some four years. It is for that reason that Jean-Pierre Melville is sometimes referred to as the father (or at least an important ancestor) of that movement.
Melville is perhaps an accidental father more than anything else, however, for much of Bob Le Flambeur‘s look and content was dictated by the meager resources available to Melville rather than by strictly artistic decisions on his part. With money tight, Melville had to shoot only as and when he managed to obtain film stock. He might only have enough film at any one time to shot for a couple of days, then have to wait weeks or months before another opportunity arose. He cast his film accordingly; that is to say, only actors who were willing and able to work under such circumstances were signed up. Naturally, many of the more prominent names of the day were not interested, which resulted in a cast list of actors who were either lower on the star list, character specialists, or complete unknowns. When he was able to shoot, Melville was often at the mercy of the elements, hence the variety of weather conditions apparent in the film. This variety contributes much to the film’s natural look. That combined with Melville’s eye for capturing the flavour of Paris, particularly the Montmartre district with its bistros, bars, raucous music, bright and flashing lights, really conveys the feel of a special place at a unique time. As we are gradually introduced to the story’s characters and how comfortably they seem to move in what for them is a familiar milieu, we soon begin to feel that what is unfolding could happen nowhere else and at no other time.
Adding to the naturalness of all this is the set of characters we meet. Many of them are well-worn faces that soon blend with the surroundings. None of them are familiar to most of us as actors, and probably were not greatly so to audiences of the time either, but they quickly seem like long-time acquaintances. Roger Duchesne is perfect as the aging gambler Bob, so obsessed with gambling that he has his own slot machine in his apartment. He conveys convincingly the air of a man with past success, but now somewhat down on his luck. One gets the sense that Bob’s successes were modest, however, and that there may be a fatal flaw that may prevent his ever hitting it really big. Despite this possibility, it is obvious that whatever successes Bob had were at least sufficient to accord him a favoured position in the community through which he moves. Everyone knows him and nearly all defer to him with affection. Even the veteran police officers hold a degree of respect for Bob and there is a bond of friendship between him and Inspector Ledru particularly because of events in the past.
Guy Decomble portrays Inspector Ledru and he looks like he’s played a police inspector in films more than once. His routine of speaking with a cigarette in his mouth is a performance to behold. Daniel Cauchy plays the young novice Paulo who looks to Bob with virtual hero worship. Cauchy plays Paulo with an open, almost wide-eyed innocence that serves as a perfect counterpoint to Bob. Yet the two characters are alike in a very important and ultimately unfortunate aspect. When they get really involved in what they enjoy (with Bob it’s a winning streak, with Paulo it’s Anne, the young woman that Bob has rescued from the streets), they tend to forget everything else — to their detriment. Anne, by the way, is played by a young acting novice, Isabelle Corey. She’s an extremely attractive young woman who gives Anne a bit of mystery along with her alluring charms. Corey quickly became a movie pin-up girl in France as a result of her work in the film.
Part of the appeal of the characters lies in the dialogue they speak. It will probably be no surprise then for admirers of Rififi to hear that Auguste Le Breton is around in Bob Le Flambeur to provide more of the smart dialogue that was such a key element of the latter film. Unfortunately, Le Breton never seemed to graduate much beyond these two films, his screenwriting career seemingly stuck in a Rififi-like groove with such efforts as Du Rififi Chez Les Femmes (1959) and Du Rififi à Paname (1966).
Criterion’s DVD really shows off Bob Le Flambeur to advantage. The black and white image has been restored, allowing a richly detailed transfer that is clean and clear with excellent shadow detail. This has resulted in the film’s natural grain being somewhat evident in spots, but in a way that just adds to the atmosphere of Paris that is so beautifully conveyed in the film. This is the best the film has looked since its original release — in fact, maybe the best, period.
A French Dolby Digital mono sound track is provided with optional English subtitles. The sound has apparently been cleaned up substantially and given the limited degree of fidelity, does a fine job conveying both the dialogue and the rather hypnotic background music. Age-related hiss and distortion are virtually nonexistent. The English subtitles provided are apparently a new translation, addressing a concern that some people had with the subtitling available on previous video incarnations.
The disc is not one of Criterion’s packed efforts, as far as supplements go. What is included, however, is very interesting and informative. A 22-minute video interview with Daniel Cauchy covers much of the production basics. Aside from what he has to say, it’s also quite interesting to see how Cauchy looks almost 50 years later. A 1961 radio interview with Jean-Pierre Melville gives useful insight into Melville’s film-making philosophy and also provides some context for the making of Bob Le Flambeur. The interview is conducted by Gideon Bachmann, a New York arts critic of the day. The supplements conclude with the film’s theatrical trailer.
Well, Criterion delivers again. Bob Le Flambeur is an influential French film of the mid-1950s that delivers on all counts — style, atmosphere, engaging characters, snappy dialogue — and all filmed against the gloriously unmistakable sights and sounds of Paris. The DVD transfer is first-rate video-wise with a more-than adequate sound track. Recommended.