BOB LE FLAMBEUR (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1955)

At dawn’s hazy early light, while walking home to sleep after a long night of shooting dice, a man pauses to consider his reflection in a storefront window, suggesting life lived at a remove. “A real hood,” the man says aloud, both mocking and reassuring himself, before correcting his loosened necktie. This is Bob Montagne, a “high roller” who somehow manages to be both dapper and threadbare. Perhaps he is the spirit of the Montmartre district of Paris through which he moves—hence, the film’s phenomenal opening wide-angle panning shot of the sleeping city. But the whole genre of postwar French noir implies something more; Bob is the surviving restive spirit of the French Resistance during the Occupation. We supply this history; in this, we are Bob’s comrade and a co-author of his script. Throughout, we want to hold Bob back from police discovery, from certain betrayal. Is Bob le Flambeur not the spirit of France?
     Why does he become the leader of a gang of eight planning the robbery of a Deauville casino on Grand Prix day after he is warned that such a heist will likely prove his downfall? The money? Rather, he needs to feel he is Bob le Flambeur. Like Tennyson’s Ulysses, he is off on a final quest in pursuit of reconfirmed identity and being; he can be idle no longer. The “newer world” Bob seeks is one of remembered—reconstituted—commitment: “Death closes all; but something ere the end . . .”
     Co-written by the director, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Auguste le Breton, Bob le Flambeur finds Bob, as lookout, “playing” at playing at the casino’s gambling tables—another remove. This exceptionally gray film challenges conventional morality, as had another inspiration for the nouvelle vague, Jean Renoir’s Crime of Monsieur Lange (1935).

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