Father Noir

Here's an opportunity to check out the French film that spawned the famous genre

Some movies you see because you want to. Others you see because you have to. For anyone who is interested in film noir, Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob le Flambeur(1955) is one of the latter. Just as John Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941) is credited with starting the genre in the United States, Melville (along with another great stylist, Robert Bresson) is generally known as the father of French film noir. Most of his fourteen features center on the criminal demimonde, where loner outsiders struggle to maintain their own personal codes of honor despite the pressures of corruption and violence all around them.

Okay, this sounds pretty routine nowadays, since many films follow this well-worn path. But back in the Fifties and Sixties, Melville's visually stylish, quick-paced gangster films made moviegoers gasp and inspired generations of filmmakers. Bob, which seems patterned in part after Huston's 1951 urban crimer The Asphalt Jungle, seems itself to be the model for Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, which came out the year after Bob. Melville's influence is obvious in Truffaut and Godard as well as in Scorsese and Tarantino. Many of these filmmakers don't even bother to disguise their enthusiasm; they just replicate Melville's startling innovations. Remember the 360-degree shot from Reservoir Dogs? Stolen from Godard's Breathless, which stole it from Melville. Actually Breathless couldn't have happened without Melville -- the characters, the situation, the soundtrack, the mood are all Melville. He even turns up in a cameo.

Bob le Flambeur is early Melville, a precursor to his later successes, Le Samouraí and Le Doulos. All involve bad guys with good hearts, friend/enemy relationships with their police nemeses, and stories that center on collaborationists and turncoats. The emphasis on the ambiguity of relationships and the ever-present potential for betrayal is Melville's chief thematic contribution to noir and a very French concern. The American noir tended to focus on corruption and the male prerogatives. The French were still coming to terms with their experiences in World War II: surrender to and resistance against Nazi occupation and the troubling ambiguities of French collaboration with the occupiers.

The story centers around Bob Montagné, an aging former bank robber and ex-con who makes a precarious living as a gambler. (Bob le Flambeur can be translated as "Bob the Gambler" but more precisely as "Bob the Gambler Who Goes Down in Flames.") Bob is a white-haired tough guy with a penchant for Cadillac convertibles and a free-spending nightlife. He's the friend of police inspector Ledru, whose life he saved from another tough guy's bullets. Ledru keeps an eye on Bob to keep him on the straight and narrow. And Bob keeps just on the right side of the law but still prefers to hang out with his shady pals.

He catches the eye of a young trollop, Anne (the voluptuous Isabelle Corey), who's out of cash and looking for fun. Bob lets her stay in his swank apartment overlooking the Montmartre demimonde, but she's surprised when he doesn't make a move on her. Bob's naive protégé, Paolo, goes gaga over Anne, prompting Bob to suggest that Paolo squire her around town while Bob tends to his nightly business -- gambling. But his luck has run out, and he's broke. A safecracking buddy suggests they team up for one last job: rob the Deauville casino's safe of 800 million francs while the nearby French Grand Prix is under way. Bob can't resist the chance and, twenty years after his retirement, decides to return to crime, rounding up a team of accomplices. But Paolo, who has joined Bob's gang, is sleeping with Anne and blabs about the plan, endangering everyone when he tells a pimp, who is a secret police informer.

Melville's story takes its own sweet time getting going, preferring to follow Bob around on his nocturnal gambling rounds. The slow start works, though, as that character and his complex relationships are well established and the Parisian street scene is given a vivid portrait, helped with a sensual jazz score. Cinematographer Henri Decae creates a seductive environment of shadows and light, and there's a terrific design scheme filled with geometric shapes. Bob's world seems hemmed in by hard-edged rectangles, squares, and diamonds, and with horizontal and vertical bars that suggest prisons and stripes. But he's ever after romantic circles and curves -- the promise of poker chips and the whirl of the roulette wheel. And Lady Luck is his leading lady, right down to the final showdown.

Melville himself was a romantic, wildly so. Born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, he changed his name to Melville because he liked the American author Herman Melville. He fought in the French Resistance and then entered the movie biz, determined to follow his love of all things American with a film career. When unionists barred him from the industry, he created his own low-rent studio and pulled his financing together himself. Melville loved big American cars, trenchcoats, and sunglasses, just as Bob does in the film. In fact the Caddy convertible Bob drives was Melville's car. But the director's stylish heroes Roger Duchesne (here as Bob), Alain Delon, and Jean-Paul Belmondo were his alter egos in spirit, not in form. He himself was balding, chubby, and thoroughly uninspiring to the eye.

The bulky, careworn Duchesne delivers an entirely believable performance as the world-weary Bob. His boxy, middle-age frame and his purposeful, rolling gait suggest a man who is in no hurry to rush through life. Guy Decomble as Bob's friend/opponent, inspector Ledru; Isabelle Corey as Anne; and Daniel Cauchy as Bob's protégé Paolo are all solid, grounded portraits. Melville was no sentimentalist, but he took care to give credibility and dimension to even his smallest roles. For example, the story turns at one point on the relationship between one of the gang members and his ambitious, unhappy wife (well played by Claude Cerval and Colette Fleury, respectively). Their few scenes together are given as much attention as those of the main characters, adding another layer of meaning and texture to an already rich narrative.

Bob le Flambeur is almost a half-century old, but it holds up nicely. And the chance to see it on the big screen doesn't come around often. It's a chance you might like to take.

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