Bob le Flambeur (1956)

Directed by Jean-Pierre Melville

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Bob le Flambeur feels familiar.  It’s a casino heist movie that surely influenced Ocean’s 11 (1960), complete with the methodically constructed plan and the suave, comforting criminal of a lead character.  Once that plan is put in motion, however, it begins to slowly unravel until you can see the eventual failure from miles away, as in Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956).  This might kill the excitement of a story built on plot, but this film might just be more concerned with the characters behind this plan than the plan itself.  Bob (Roger Duchesne), isn’t just a reformed criminal who returns to crime when his luck runs out.  He’s also something of a mentor to young Paulo and a guardian to young Anne.  Noticing a spark between the two he even sets them up, creating the same dynamic you see in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight (1996).

Those three movies all have very different feelings, and somehow Bob le Flambeur captures all of them.  It is at once sleek, full of dread and a story of generosity.  We see Bob in all these different ways, as someone to be admired, as a self-destructive convict and as something of an angel, because we see him through the eyes of three important characters.

The first two are Paulo, a young man who idolizes Bob’s gambling ways, the second is Anne, a young vagabond who drifts into Paris and is in risk of falling under the spell of a pimp named Marc, and the third is Ledru, the police commissioner and an old friend of Bob’s.

With Bob’s forthcoming return to crime it’s clear that he and Ledru will soon be on a collision course.  They meet early in the film, and Ledru explains to a friend that Bob once saved his life, and ever since then Ledru has had a soft spot for the man.  It doesn’t hurt that Bob has gone straight since his former thieving ways, helping him remain in Ledru’s good graces.

On the surface everything looks good for Bob.  He’s cool, his thick white hair always in place, and he struts around his part of town like he owns the place.  Everyone seems to know him, and Paulo’s adoration for him feels like it must be a common sentiment in the area.  A pimp named Marc comes to Bob one day asking for money, and because he is both able and willing to, Bob prepares to give him more than Marc has any right to receive.  Marc lets spill that he beat up a girl that works for him, and when Bob realizes Marc hasn’t changed his ways, he refuses to pay him at all.  Bob’s subsequent kindness shown to Anne tells us that he’s not just a kind man but a discerning one as well.

So Bob is on top.  He has the resources to take care of people but the good sense not to help all of them.  He’s kind but not blind, generous but not desperate to please.

The heist plot which brings the film home doesn’t begin until around forty minutes in (if I recall).  Bob is reluctant to return to old ways, but he’s a gambler, and he’s recently his a run of poor luck.  To make his money back (and then some), he organizes a plan to rob a casino safe, taking away millions of dollars (or francs).  Many around him express some shock at the plan, wondering why he would bother, but he recruits a team nonetheless.  Paulo is one of the crew, and it’s his boasting later on to Anne that jeopardizes the entire operation.

There is a long stretch of time between the organization of the plan and when it is carried out.  This allows us to know the plan intimately and then to recognize all the ways in which it will fail.  It also lets us see how others react to the plan and establish more about Bob’s character.  One friendly bartender reminds him that he helped her out in hard times, and she asks him not to do anything foolish now.  If he needs money, she can provide it.  Still, Bob wants to proceed.

You get the feeling that, being a gambler, he’s in this for the thrill.  After Paulo brags to Anne, who then tells Marc, the plan begins to fall apart.  Marc tells Ledru, and the walls start closing in.  On the night of the burglary, Bob gets to the casino early, and against his better judgment he resorts to old ways.  Bob sets some money down on a game of roulette, and we watch for quite some time as he wins scores of money.  The plan may be dead, but what’s the difference if the end result is the same?

Bob’s luck has turned, it seems, and he cashes out before 5 AM when the robbery was scheduled to go down.  The reasons it fails are beyond his control, and his string of luck begins even after his carefully organized plan has gone down the drain.  He’s a man whose luck has seemingly run out, but then it inexplicably flips.

In the end Bob runs outside as his gang arrives at the same time as the police.  A shootout follows in which Paulo is killed.  Ledru then arrests Bob, chastising him for being such a fool.  When Ledru sees how much money Bob has won, though, his tone changes, and he talks to Bob like any other old friend.  In the back of a police car they surmise that a good lawyer could get Bob’s probable prison sentence down from 5 years to 3 and a better one could get him off with payment for damages.  Bob smiles, riding this recent wave of good fortune, and film ends.

It’s a strange culmination to the movie.  In that final scene we also learn that Bob’s trademark coin is two-headed.  He flips it earlier in the film in a moment suggesting his strong belief in chance.  This revelation makes it seem as though everything we know about him might’ve been a lie.  He succeeds now because of chance, but he succeeded before because of something else.  The game he played only appeared to be dependent on destiny.  He was in control the entire time.

It’s also a strange ending because he has just watched his protege die in his arms, but somehow the effect of this is lost on him.  He proceeds with a sly smile all because he won.  Did Paulo not really mean anything to him?

Maybe it’s just Bob’s poker face that got him this far, and it might just be that his sly smile in the back of the police cruiser is the first time we’ve seen him with his guard down in the entire film.

So in Bob le Flambeur, Bob is many things.  He’s a gambler, an icon, a criminal, a guardian and a friend.  At the end of the film it seems these might all have been different masks he wore as if different personalities.  They all fall under the same umbrella, and Bob is nothing more than a lucky con man.

Up Next: His Girl Friday (1940), House of Games (1987), Andre the Giant (2018)

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