A Criterion Collection release of a 1955 Jean-Pierre Melville movie, this one I rented on the strength of Touchez Pas au Grisbi some time ago [Netflix page] (and the magic of the Netflix suggestion engine)
The plot to the Bob Le Flambeur1 could be explained in ten lines2, but that isn’t really the point of the film. Ambiance is. The ambiance of French cafés and nightclubs, jazz, neon signs, glistening streets, characters who go to sleep at 6 AM, and arise by noon, casual sex, gambling, and gamblers, and male friendship. You get the idea. Certainly worth looking for if you haven’t seen it before, and worth a re-watch if you have.
Roger Ebert reviewed Bob le Flambeur as part of his “Great Movies” series:
Before the New Wave, before Godard and Truffaut and Chabrol, before Belmondo flicked the cigarette into his mouth in one smooth motion and walked the streets of Paris like a Hollywood gangster, there was Bob. “Bob le Flambeur,” Bob the high-roller, Bob the Montmartre legend whose style was so cool, whose honor was so strong, whose gambling was so hopeless, that even the cops liked him. Bob with his white hair slicked back, with his black suit and tie, his trenchcoat and his Packard convertible and his penthouse apartment with the slot machine in the closet. Bob, who on the first day of this movie wins big at the races and then loses it all at roulette, and is cleaned out. Broke again.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Bob le Flambeur” (1955) has a good claim to be the first film of the French New Wave. Daniel Cauchy, who stars in it as Paolo, Bob’s callow young friend, remembered that Melville would shoot scenes on location using a handheld camera on a delivery bike, “which Godard did in ‘Breathless,’ but this was years before Godard.” Melville worked on poverty row, and told his actors there was no money to pay them, but that they would have to stand by to shoot on a moment’s notice. “Right now I have money for three or four days,” he told Cauchy, “and after that we’ll shoot when we can.”
This film was legendary but unseen for years, and Melville’s career is only now coming into focus. He shot gangster movies, he worked in genres, but he had such a precise, elegant simplicity of style that his films play like the chamber music of crime. He was cool in the 1950s sense of that word. His characters in “Bob” glide through gambling dens and nightclubs “in those moments,” Melville tells us in the narration, “between night and day … between heaven and hell.”
and offers this brief bio of the director:
Melville (1917-1973) was born Grumberg. He changed his name in admiration for the author of Moby Dick. He was a lover of all things American. He went endlessly to American movies, he visited America, he shot a film in New York (“Two Men in Manhattan”), and Cauchy remembers, “He drove an American car and wore an American hat and Ray-Bans, and he always had the Armed Forces Network on his car radio, listening to Glenn Miller.” He inhaled American gangster films, but when he made his own, they were not copies of Hollywood but were infused by understatement, a sense of cool; his characters need few words because so much goes without saying, especially when it comes to what must be done, and how it must be done, and why it must be done that way.
One unrelated note, I wish Netflix compiled a list of all the Criterion Collection films they offer. I did suggest it to a Netflix staffer years ago, but they haven’t gotten around to doing it yet. There are user-generated versions, but these are decidedly less useful.Footnotes: