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He walks with a cool swagger thatís part habit, part put-on. Maybe he learned it from watching American gangster movies, copying their moves but never able to get it quite right. At night, the swagger is out in full force, trumpeting his arrival to the smoke-filled backrooms where games of dice, cards and other sleights of hand are unfurling into the pre-dawn hours. Standing over these games, he glowers at the exchange of money, the flutter of hands. He never stays long. Before the sun has risen, this mysterious figure has made the rounds of every seedy joint in Parisí Montmartre district, and has gambled away a small fortune in the process. On his way home, he catches his reflection in a store window, and in the most menacing voice he can conjure up, says, "A real hoodís face!"

Bob Montagne, the hero of Jean-Pierre Melvilleís 1956 film Bob Le Flambeur, is not really a hood. In fact, Bob (Roger Duchesne) isnít much of anything. Heís a gambler by night and a lay-about by day. Heís coolness personified, but also vanity and above all failure. Yes, Bob may gamble a lot but he seldom wins. Each night, he rattles off his losses Ė 300 sometimes 400 "clams" Ė with a kind of nonchalance that borders on carelessness. In his apartment, which he never returns to before 6 in the morning, he keeps a solitary slot-machine, his last hope before turning in. When asked if he ever wins, his reply is terse: Never.

Bob Le Flambeur (which is now available on DVD from the Criterion Collection) translates to "Bob the High-Roller." Flambeur comes from the French verb flamber which literally means "to blaze up." The title is ironic: Bob is a has-been, a dying flame no longer able to generate much heat. Sporting a flowing mane of blond (or is it white?) hair which he combs into undulating waves, Monsieur Bob, as heís know around town, seems desperate to conceal his fifty odd years. But his burgeoning girth and puffy cheeks donít lie. They tell a story of years, decades maybe, devoted to nightclubs, fast women, and booze galore. In the words of the filmís narrator, Bob is a vieux jeune homme: an old young man. What he sees in the store window may be the face of a hood after all, a face bearing the ravages of time and hard living, a face that has seen too much but still canít get enough.

But this is all guesswork: in the end, Bob is a mystery. Bereft of back history, save a brief anecdote about the time he abandoned his single mother, Bob lacks everything and anything that might make him remotely human. He doesnít register emotion; he doesnít have any family; and he has no discernible love life. When he picks up a teenage girl (Isabelle Corey) from the street, you might think heís going to bed her; but instead, he puts her up in a hotel, and then later, passes her on to his horny young protege Paulo (Daniel Cauchy). Virile but decidedly asexual, Bob hovers just above human activity, like a minor deity. He is not one of us, yet he is fascinated with our basest impulses, with our need to cheat and screw each other. Every morning, Bob ascends to his hilltop apartment that looks out onto the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart. His apartment is his Olympus, his safe place away from mortals. From his great height, he rests his weary body, but his mind knows no sleep and is already thinking about tomorrow night, and the night after that, and the one after that.

Itís at this point in the movie, just as weíve grown used to the dissonant rhythms of Bobís life, and have come to know the denizens who share it with him (a desperate cop; a sympathetic bartender; a predatory pimp), that the story takes a sudden turn into the highly structured world of the heist. Bob learns through the grapevine that the casino in the coastal town of Deauville has 800 million francs stashed away in its main vault. An old stomping ground, the casino is a temptation Bob cannot resist. It has the allure of impossibility and the potential of restoring the burned-out promise of his pseudonym. Instantly rejuvenated, Bob draws up a plan, recruits a team of assorted ruffians, and courts the favor of a rich old Scotsman who will fund it all. Bob even swears off the nightlife, but itís just a bluff. Heís soon back at his favorite clubs (one of which is appropriately called "Narcisse"), swilling gin and stealing dances with the young Corey, who has transformed herself into a kept lady with a coterie of sugar-daddies.

His initial enthusiasm spent, Bob undergoes a far less accomplished transformation: from has-been to wannabe. Itís the idea of the heist, not the actual doing, that excites him. Melville knows this, but out of duty to plot, he and co-writer Auguste Le Breton throw in a few scenes in which Bob rolls up his sleeves to rehearse some complex safe-cracking maneuvers. Itís all meant to reassure us that despite his alcohol-fueled all-nighters, Bob still has the time and more impressively, the energy, to make it all happen. Itís not terribly convincing Ė and maybe thatís the point Ė but more problematically, these sequences feel perfunctory, as if some brave soul on the set spoke up one day during the umpteenth nightclub scene, asking, "Isnít this supposed to be a heist movie?" Like Bob, Melvilleís heart isnít in it. They may roll their sleeves up but they stop short of dirtying their hands.

If it werenít for Le Bretonís contributions to the screenplay, Bob Le Flambeur might not have any story at all. The unofficial screenwriter laureate of 1950s French noir, Le Breton wrote scripts that pulsated with unglamorous, masculine drudgery. His script for Jules Dassinís Rififi was like a documentary on how to pull off the perfect heist: every movement, every glance was meticulously laid out. Fascinated with detail, but not deaf to atmosphere, he brings a sense of urgency to the second half of Bob. Itís a welcome change of pace, like an injection of adrenaline, but because it doesnít last very long, it feels almost pointless. Melvilleís languor eventually reclaims the movie, and itís like the hedonist finally vanquishing the disciplinarian. Indeed, the movieís climactic scene reinforces this notion. Bob, on the night of the heist, gives in to the temptations of the Russian roulette table where he finds that, for the first time in his life, he canít stop winning. One hour turns into two, and then three, and then four. Consumed by his sudden good fortune, Bob ends up abandoning his faithful associates for a one night stand with Lady Luck.

Exactly how much of this ironic twist of fate was scripted by Le Breton weíll never know. Both he and Melville were obsessed with fate, by its uncanny ability to wait patiently for years before springing its trap. Bob acknowledges this on a subconscious level: as he departs his apartment for what may be the last time, he casually flips a coin, and shrugs at the result. "Fate will have its way," the narrator matter-of-factly intones, as if to acquit himself, and us, of Bobís eventual doom. These frank admissions of inevitability seem uncommonly bold for a movie made in 1956. They draw attention to the artifice of the story, distancing the characters from the main action. And they signal quite plainly that this is no ordinary heist movie but a movie about a heist movie Ė a droll little exercise in genre introspection.

Was Le Breton in on Melvilleís game? Again, weíll probably never know. Whatís clear is that Melville felt uneasy about collaborating with the venerated noir master. In a radio interview conducted in 1961, and that is included on the Criterion Collection's DVD, Melville explains that he hired LeBreton as a way of raising money (Le Breton being the only big name he could get to sign on to the project), and he conspicuously downplays Le Bretonís contribution to the final screenplay. Bob Le Flambeur took two years to complete, filming on and off for a few days at a time whenever there was enough money to buy film. The protracted production must have given Melville time to think and rethink his original concept. The hardboiled world of suave-meisters and petty crooks becomes a meta-world in which everything is placed in quotation marks and italics. Unwittingly or not, Le Breton supplies the raw materials for Melvilleís irreverence, and in so doing, helped to create a template for the French New Wave.

The position Bob Le Flambeur has come to occupy in the continuum of cinematic imitation is therefore a complicated one. Inspired by both American and French noir, it has, over the years, inspired several generations of both French and Hollywood filmmakers. In a recent video interview included on the DVD, actor Daniel Cauchy (Paulo) marvels at the enthusiasm that contemporary directors such as Steven Spielberg and John Woo show for the movie. Cauchyís surprise has more to do with his own less-than-glowing opinion of Bob: itís slow, he says, and the dialogue is a little corny. But, he admits, its sense of style Ė its atmosphere and panache Ė seems to know no generational boundary, whether French or American. Writing on the occasion of the Bob Le Flambeurís 2001 re-release by Rialto Pictures, film critic Stephen Hunter puts it best: "itís a French imitation of an American picture that is described by a term created by the French to describe other American pictures that were influenced by the French." We can add yet another twist to this daisy chain: Neil Jordan has completed his own remake of the movie which he filmed in France but with a mostly American cast, thereby muddying the Franco-American waters even more. An American cinephile to the end, Melville would undoubtedly have found this twist to be trŤs cool.

 


Bob le Flambeur is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new digital transfer. The disc includes a video interview with Daniel Cauchy ("Paulo"); a radio interview with Jean-Pierre Melville; a stills gallery; and a trailer. Suggested retail price : $29.95. For more information, check out The Criterion Collection Web site.

Bob le Flambeur is also available (without any of the extras) on VHS from Home Vision Entertainment. Suggested retail price on VHS: $29.95. For more information, check out Home Vision Web site.