Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Dir. by Jean Pierre Melville

Before the nouvelle vague, there was Jean Pierre Melville. Heck, that was before Tarantino! Melville didn’t set out to be a guerilla filmmaker, he just wanted to make movies, but he had to build his own studio first. The result is perhaps slow and old fashioned to our eyes, but it laid the groundwork for what was to come in gangster films.

Bob (Roger Duchesne) is a hood, but not a nasty one. He did time for a bank robbery, but he also saved a cop’s life (and saved himself a date with Mme. Guillotine). Bob is also a gambling addict (flambeur is French for “high roller”) who loses a lot more than he wins. Bob also has a protégé, Paulo (Daniel Cauchy), an eerie mini-Bob, who mimics the older man’s mannerisms. While Bob likes him some games ‘o chance, he purely hates a pimp. When he sees scumbag mack Marc (Gerard Buhr) chatting up the ingenue/sex kitten Anne (Isabel Corey, who really was 15 at the time, so look out pervs!), Bob does himself… that is Anne a favor and takes her in.

Of course picking up a gorgeous young girl doesn’t usually solve a man’s money problems (unless he really is a pimp). When Bob drops a bundle at the Deauville casino, he picks up a hot tip on how many millions of francs are in the safe (yes, a million francs was a lot of money, albeit oddly colored). The best cure for a gambling problem is more money, so Bob and his crew swing into action as they plan to clean out the house for a change.

Naturally it doesn’t go all that well. Dames and heists don’t mix (not in Melville’s world, though Bonnie Parker might disagree). And that whole gambling addiction thing turns out to be a bigger stumbling block than one might expect.

Melville did create a minor masterpiece in Bob le Flambeur. It is neither a bloody shoot-‘em-up like The Asphalt Jungle nor an overly sophisticated comedy like Ocean’s Eleven, though the former certainly influenced Melville as surely as Bob influenced the latter. There is a gritty feel to the milieu that Bob inhabits, underage prostitutes and greasy pimps rub shoulders with violent hoods. But Melville also infuses his world with a suave urbanity, beginning with Roger Duchesne’s silver-haired good looks (Duchesne had been a movie star in the ‘30s, but had fallen in with real gangsters later). Bob is Melville’s conception of the old French Underworld, where there was honor among thieves, before WWII turned gangland into a murderous extension of the brutality and betrayal of the straight world. In the background of Bob are the streets of Montmartre, nightclubs sit beside cathedrals, under the glitzy lights hookers ply their trade and grim little tenements aren’t that far from posh pieds a terre. Bob is in its own way what Melville called it, a comedy of manners, a love letter to Montmarte and a nostalgic elegy for lost honor.

-Dave Hardy


Charles Gramlich said...

Man, is it just that you know a lot of obscure stuff, or am I really that out of touch?

Dave Hardy said...

No it is obscure.

I'm just a Melville fan now. Bob was re-made as Ocean's Eleven. Today's pick was slated to be re-made by John Woo, I think Quentin Tarantino was the producer. Melville is one of those filmmakers that other filmmakers like. I think he deserves to be better known.