This was one of the films that every so often reminds me that I’m having a different sort of film education than is typical. Roommate Russ studied film in college, and spoke after we watched about the different ways in which this film presaged the French New Wave movement – later filmmakers apparently all but copied some of Bob le Flambeur’s techniques, style, look, camera angles, and the like. However, I knew none of this at the time, so that all was going straight over my head.
Bob le Flambeur is a French gangster film – only without gangsters as such. Bob Montagne (Roger Duchesne) did have some wilder days, but after a stint in jail for bank robbery, he confines himself to gambling, living on whatever modest proceeds he can keep from his winnings (he has a bad habit of winning great sums in one place, but then moving on to another game and losing much of what he’d won). Occasionally he’ll loan money to friends or invest in local businesses, like when his friend Yvonne wanted to start a restaurant. He’s on friendly terms with the local police inspector (Guy Decomble), whose life Bob saved some years back. He’s showing the ropes to a younger gambler, Paolo (Daniel Cauchy), trying to keep him from getting lured into seedier jobs. He’s morally opposed to the local pimp Marc (Gerard Buhr), to the point that when he sees Marc waiting to make his move on a young woman, Bob sweeps in and gets her a different job at a local bar. Marc vows to get back at Bob somehow.
Still, Bob is largely doing okay – going through a bit of a thin streak gamblingwise, but otherwise okay. But then Bob’s friend Roger (André Garet), a safecracker, learns a tasty bit of gossip. Apparently, the main casino at the resort town of Deuville regularly has about 800 million in cash in its safe, and the security isn’t all that tight. It’s enough to tempt Bob into carrying out one last heist, and he assembles a team for the job, concocting a foolproof plan and putting the team through several ad-hoc rehearsals. But then Paolo, who’s started dating Anne, boasts about the plan to impress her one night; and when Anne later goes on her own date with Marc, she gossips about the plan to him – leading Marc to hatch a plan of his own.
….So in other words, this is straight-up film noir gangster stuff. Except in French. Although the police seem much friendlier to Bob than in other film noirs – the Inspector isn’t too fussed by Bob’s habits (gambling is technically illegal, but the Inspector looks the other way), and Bob isn’t upset when the Inspector pays a visit to check on various neighborhood crimes. Bob also seems to have a weird sort of morality and fussiness; he’s got a regular cleaning lady, he’s got a strong moral objection to pimps, but he recognizes the streetwalkers as disadvantaged women and tries to help them. Without playing any funny business – when he offers Anne a place to crash for a night she seems all too willing to treat it like a hookup, leading Bob to politely – but firmly – tell her that no, she’ll take the bedroom, but he will sleep on the couch.
Bob’s such a good guy, in fact, that I’m wondering if it hasn’t backfired on the film. Both Roommate Russ and I agreed that the film seemed to pick up quite a bit once the casino plot was introduced, and beforehand it felt like a whole lot of set-up emphasizing that Bob was a Big Tough Gangster With A Heart Of Gold. People talked to Bob about various loans he’d made them, they talked about Bob and the cool stuff he’d done for them, and when Marc spoke against Bob he got into trouble about it. I found myself getting a little antsy waiting to see Bob do something.
I have a feeling that when we start getting into the French New Wave stuff, I’ll think back to this and say “oh, I get it now.” But for now it’s just a simple heist film, one that just happens to have a lot of beauty shots of Montmarte.