Jean-Pierre Melville Season – Bob Le Flambeur (1956)
Immaculate is the key concept to unlock Bob Le Flambeur, or at least the elusive search for immaculate, unsurpassed perfection. Although this was jean-Pierre Melville’s fourth film it is widely considered the first navigation of his own unique cinematic universe, the Parisian underworld which seems to operate in the twilight purlieus of mainstream civilisation, sucking both men and women into a cauldron of crime and moral disruption. The men are immaculately groomed with their razor sharp suits, gliding gracefully through a portfolio of smoke choked boudoirs, gambling joints and late-night drinking dens. The trophy women sit perched like aloof avians, strutting in their plumage of plastered make-up and designer garments. The criminal planning is immaculate, with stoic professionals coaxing out all the potential angles and activating and inseminating mitigating assets with the skills of Wehrmacht World War II general marshalling his armoured manifest for a devastating pincher movement. And of course the storytelling is immaculate, Melville’s keen eye providing a macro level dissection of crime as a lifestyle not a social symptom, his characters caught in a web of intrigue and immoral illegitimacy. The titular Bob (Roger Duchense) is a middle-aged ex-con dwelling in the slightly dishevelled district of Montmartre in Paris, a gambler and card-sharp whom is experiencing a run of bad luck that borders on the pit of bankruptcy. Despite his mongrel pedigree he is a gentleman with scruples, well respected in the demi-monde community, a familiar and trusted figure in the underworld where there is usually no honour among thieves. An earlier plan to expand his horizons and rob a bank resulted in his incarceration, so he seeks to ameliorate a simpler plan to extricate himself from his fiscal fracture – the liberation of 800 million francs from a wealthy businessman’s personal safe, a tip provided by the ashen hued Ann (Isabelle Corey) whose novice inexperience in the life and pillow talk indiscretions threaten to bring the whole scheme crashing down…..
Bob Le Flambeur can be viewed as a initial dry-run for the underworld cycle to come, where Melville had access to higher yield fissile material in the form of technicians, techniques, funding and the higher star wattage of the French industry of the period – Belmondo & Delon to name but two. Like the lingering aroma of a pack of gitanes you can sense the inspiration for suave continental gentlemen thieves in the film through Soderbergh’s Oceans Eleven franchise and Neil Jordan’s near remake The Good Thief, as well as the mentoring aspects of P.T. Anderson’s debut Hard Eight while some of the chess board interior design reminded me of Drive, but maybe after my recent BFI activities I’ve still got Refn barking in my bruised brain. Leading man Duchense is a walking embodiment of 20th century French chic, all silver maned certainty and chrome sheened money clips, with a perennial lazy cigarette halo isolating him in the apartment, brassieres and casinos which roulette his life. The dictionary definition of debonair yet secreting a serrated charm, a sense of playful warmth which would evaporate during the 1960’s cycle, where Melville’s word-view became much more jaded and cynical. The later period is five o’clock shadow shaded, exhausted and world weary, where Bob Le Flambeur has a playful intransience of the police and the inferior law enforcement authorities, a resigned jouissance in the art of the con, of the criminal game that everyone is playing.
The film is regarded as a harbinger of many of the things to come, of the Cahiers Du Cinema crowd and their convention contaminating contortions, mostly cited due to one solitary jump-cut which I must admit eluded my defective attention. Overall the plot is rather humdrum but I just love the universe, the unique milieu that we’ve seen time and again in American and Japanese crime cinema, but peppered with a gallic twist of locations and loquation which gives the meal and altogether more continental flavour. There are no women in the picture other than the marginal gangsters moll, and certainly no space for any ethnicities other than the dominant white Caucasian majority, a product of its time perhaps where even in the murky realms of the underworld the privileged presided over the screen space. Over in the US United Artists had just released The Killing which was a calling card for a new North American model of the crime film, even as the moon set on the first phase of film noir, both share an explanatory voiceover which imparts crucial story context but Kubrick’s breakthrough forged a more procedural, methodological dissection of this subterranean eco-system of hustlers and harlots chasing that elusive Midas score. That sense of the immaculate, of the perfectly planned crime never fully surfaces, the narrative aping Bob’s razor sharp wardrobes and world weary wandering, for me a regrettable lapse in weaving form and technique to marry tone and character.
The DVD has a superb introduction from French critic Ginette Vincendeau in which she rolls out the contextual canvass, this was the first film Melville shot in his own purpose built studio, controlling the environment and atmosphere with a rigid grip that would make Stanley or Fincher proud. Fellow contemporary critic Claude Chabrol (and future nouvelle vague luminary) seized upon the film which he championed for its imperfection and patience, a mood of realistic chaos rather than movie-world inscrutability where everything goes to clockwork plan, excepting the minute factor which juices the drama when things go wrong. The heist, when it finally comes feels more of an afterthought rather than the scene which the entire film pivots upon as in something like Riffifi – putting the caper together, assembling the team, funding the enterprise with the nefarious support of some underworld shylock, casing the location, gaining some clandestine information from a seduced lover and finally a meticulous execution of the crime itself. That’s where the director detonates all the ordinance he or she can in order to shock the audience into nerve fried hysteria – the editing of space and the spatial relations between entrance and exits, the slow elapse of crucial, tension ridden time, the harmonics of sound as threat or thriving misdirection, the emotional release of our collaborators capture or success. In Bob Le Flambeur the mood is less tense and the inevitable apprehension occurs with a whimper rather than a bang, as Bob and his crew fall victim to the loose lipped pillow-talk of the fairer sex. If I’m honest I find the film a little too flippant for my taste as I prefer my underworld buddies to be writhing in the wilderness in a mortal struggle with the cohesion of their very souls, but you can’t deny the panache that Melville musters in this instructive initial etching of a criminal civilisation lurking on the periphery of civilisation. As an early jog round the pen it belies better and more belligerent scores to come;