Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Celebrating Bastille Day: French Films All Week
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Anyone looking for the running start of the French New Wave need look no further than Bob Le Flambeur. Yes, I know this famous film is said to have merely inspired the members of the Nouvelle Vague, but honestly, despite its noirish fatalism, this is much more than a transitional piece. Bob Le Flambeur is a location and pop-artily shot, archetypally acted takeoff on an American crime drama with all the cheeky insouciance a New Waver could ever hope to muster.
A shot of Sacre Couer in Paris begins the movie. The camera moves to take in the hazy expanse of the city in a way reminiscent of hilltop shots looking down on the dark cauldron of Los Angeles—yes, an America in Paris. Then we are taken from the sacred heart on the hill below to the profane underbelly of Pigalle, where the very occasional narrator introduces us to the world of gambler Bob “High Roller” Montagné (Roger Duchesne).
Bob stays out all night gambling in his favorite haunts in Pigalle, usually returning home at 6 a.m., sleeping, meeting friends in the afternoon, and then starting all over. The night we meet him, he has won at craps, cashed in, and decided to go home. Instead, he stops by a card game to kibbutz and ends up losing his entire stake. Finally on his way home, he sees a young woman walking lethargically on a very high pair of heels, wearing a see-through raincoat and a silly, little beret over her left ear. Sailors getting their morning coffee ogle her as she stops to buy some pommes frites. A male American voice calls from off-camera, asking if she wants a ride; she climbs on the back of his motorcycle and they speed away. Bob returns home, affixes a note to his kitchen door for his maid, and goes to bed.
During the first half of the film, Melville leisurely bounces us around Pigalle and Montmartre, introducing us to the cast of characters who will all play a part in what Bob has been fated to do: rob the Deauville casino. Inspector Ledru (Guy Decomble), a cop who has befriended Bob after Bob, for reasons unknown, saves his life; Yvonne (Simone Paris), a friend and probably an old flame whom Bob staked so she could buy her own tavern; Marc (Gérard Buhr), a pimp Bob rebuffs in disgust when he comes to Bob for money to blow town after beating one of his whores; Bob’s protégé Paolo (Daniel Cauchy), who has a honey in every bar until he meets Anne (Isabelle Corey), the bored girl in the opening scene whom Bob takes in off the street to forestall her apparently eager sprint toward a career in prostitution. She goes home with Paolo the first night she meets him and strips without prompting, without a word.
Melville rolls the dice to come up snake eyes for this last score of the aged hustler’s career. Marc is arrested for pimping and let go on the promise he’ll deliver a big tip-off to Ledru. Paolo tells Anne he will cover her in gold after he robs the casino. The apathetic Anne goes home with Marc and spills Paolo’s secret. A gratuitous double-cross by the wife of the casino croupier Bob corrupts seals the deal. And we see it coming all along.
An almost Bressonian flatness covers this film, but rather than penetrate to the core of each character, Melville uses it to reduce them to the genre types they are. Every movement bespeaks predestination, individuals who are only going through the motions, crawling in an ant colony in which everyone has his or her assigned role. When Bob forgets himself and sits down at the baccarat table when he is supposed to be readying for the heist, the narrator tells us he is simply being true to his nature. Unfortunately, this determinism saps much of the anxious excitement out of both the meticulous planning of the robbery and the high-stakes betting Bob engages in during a teetering winning streak at the baccarat table.
What the film lacks in human spark, it makes up for in visual and aural appeal. Melville favors the op-art checkerboard in his locations, creating geometric configurations that trap his characters even further. An overhead shot of Bob in his kitchen shows a checkerboard floor in a more-or-less triangular room. A street-washing machine emphasizes the square cobblestones of Montmartre. Shots through windows and behind partitions box the characters in. Melville even dresses a nightclub hostess in a gown with an outlandishly curled neckline that pokes her and inhibits the use of her arms. The electronic, almost subterranean sounds of safecracker Roger (André Garet) practicing with a type of sonar combination detector on a model of the Deauville safe heighten the mechanized feel of this film.
Jazz, locating this film firmly in an Americanized world, shoots through the film like a dizzy shot of freedom. We are struck as well by an expansive horse farm the “Scotsman” and bankroller of the heist McKimmie (Howard Vernon) inhabits to combat the stir-craziness he suffered when imprisoned. And Bob drives a big American car, which perhaps unintentionally contrasts in one scene with a tiny conveyance that appears to be on three wheels. Does America represent freedom in the stifling rigidity of French society? Or is Melville convinced that birth is destiny, no matter how you dress it? In this film, he seems very French indeed.
Paris Movie Walks: Ten Guided Tours through the City of Lights! Camera! Action! by Michael Schürmann is a just-published book that movie lovers can use to view location shots of many of their favorite films. For example, Walk 4: Around Montmartre allows one to take in the opening vista of the city at the beginning of Bob Le Flambeur, and Walk 8: Place de Clichy to the Immigrants’ Montmartre reveals the bar Le Balto and “much of the demi-monde action” seen in the film. The book gives Metro directions, maps of each walk, specific directions on which way to turn, and some interesting information on a wide variety of films, not all of them French, made in Paris. I really appreciated some of the obscure films the book details, particularly those on Walk 10: Belleville to Père Lachaise Cemetery, which I have wandered when visiting my cousin. Unfortunately, on this walk and others, many of the sites have been torn down to make way for new buildings and uses. Nonetheless, there are enough points of interest and an admirable usefulness that make me determined to pack this book on my next trip to this beautifully photogenic city.