Bob is an ageing, former gangster turned gambler in Montmartre (Paris), leading a pleasant if unconventional life with his friend Roger, his protégé, Paolo, and a young woman, Anne, who he has picked up on the street and who he helps out. After a spell of bad luck, he’s running out of money and begins to plan one last robbery, that of a casino in Deauville. Things go badly and Bob is arrested, but not before having won a lot of money legally.
Bob le Flambeur holds a curious position within French film history. The first film that Jean-Pierre Melville made in the studio he had built in Rue Jenner in Paris, even before it was entirely finished, and yet significantly shot on location, Bob le Flambeur was lauded for its ‘imperfect aesthetics’, authorial control, cinephilia, and sense of humour. The film endeared Melville to the emerging generation of French New Wave critics (Melville would appear as Parvulesco, the writer, in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless from 1960). But the affinity was short-lived, as Melville would go on to make stylised popular films. By the late 1960s, Melville was criticised for unknowingly making films imbued with the dominant ideology (Vincendeau 2003: 116, 14–16). But Bob remains an intriguing film, suspended between the gangster genre and a more documentary impulse.
Bob le Flambeur is a gangster film, and yet the film uses the formula surprisingly. It came out after the French critics Nino Frank, Raymonde Borde and Etienne Chaumeton had appreciatingly defined film noir, and after a number of successful French gangster films, or films noirs, such as Touchez pas au Grisbi (Jacques Becker, 1954) and Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955) had been made. But Bob had lower production values, no stars and much more location shooting. Its gangster does not rise (and fall), as the US formula would have it, but had risen before the film takes place, before the Second World War. His criminal life is behind him, he even gets lifts from the police. Deeply nostalgic for the time (and the cinema) of the 1930s, the film is about the legend of gangster, rather than a contemporary gangster. ‘A young old man, legend of a recent past’, the voiceover, spoken by Melville himself, announces, before we see Bob through a reflecting window, in low-key lighting and on a black-and-white set. He’s in a trench coat, puts on a hat, stays in the shadows and leaves a group of gamblers in a bar’s backroom without saying anything. ‘A real hood’s face’, Bob finally says as he looks at himself in a mirror. The gangster is established as a code, as style, a sign.
Bob is a survivor from a fantasised pre-War past, when hoodlums (rather than full-blown gangsters) had a moral code, even if that code was different from mainstream society’s. He remembers a time when guns were not loaded, and attempts to instill the same values into the younger generation, represented by Paolo and Anne. Both Paolo and Anne fall for a very different, more malign kind of hoodlum, Marc, whom Bob refuses to help after learning that Marc had hit one of his women. A good gangster like Bob may be surprising to viewers of 1930s Hollywood gangster films, but the type can be found in pre-War French gangster films, such as Pépé le Moko (Julien Duvivier, 1937). Bob le Chapeau, a documentary included in the French DVD edition of the film, recalls how the Second World War changed the milieu: some gangsters joined the Resistance, others the Gestapo. These deep divisions and lack of trust among criminals remained after the war, at least in the films that imagined gangsters’ lives.
Even as Bob le Flambeur recalls a particularly French version of the gangster film, it simultaneously needs to be understood within the context of Americanisation, in which the fascination with Hollywood participates. Generally speaking, after the Second World War France embarked on a rapid wave of modernisation, partially imposed by the United States (Forbes 1993: 47). Kristin Ross has documented the fascination with American cars in French films from the period (Ross 1995). Melville, who was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, but adopted the American writer’s name, was famous for his Stetsen, his Ray-Bans and his American cars. More specifically speaking, Bob was influenced by John Huston’s Asphalt Jungle (1950). Melville said in an interview that he had written a first scenario before seeing Asphalt Jungle, and that after seeing the film, he realised that the preparation of a robbery could no longer be done ‘dramatically or tragically’ so he decided to make a more ‘light-hearted’ film (Nogueira 1971: 53). If Bob is thus a film born in transnational exchange, it is harder to say whether it admires, critiques, or is ambivalent about the United States and its cultural presence in France.
Beyond being a gangster film, Bob le Flambeur is also a city film invested in a ‘poetry of the street’ (Vincendeau 2003: 107). In an interview, Melville argued that with the arrival of the Germans during the Second World War, Paris ‘ceased to be an ageold city of mystery’, fondly recalling the Cité Jeanne d’Arc which he likened to a casbah, where ‘no policeman ever dared set foot and where guys used to hide out when the police were after them’ (Nogueira 1971: 58). Opening in the wee hours of dawn, in the first shot of Bob the camera pans across a dark city from a hill (Montmartre), with the voice-over announcing that the neighbourhood is ‘both heaven and hell’ as a funicular, underscored by music, rapidly descends the hill down to Pigalle, a neighbourhood famous for its transgressive and in this film isolated nightlife. ‘People pass each other, forever strangers’, the voice-over says. Here the gangster (even if he has a car) is also a pedestrian wandering around, much in the style of Baudelaire’s flâneur. Thus, after Bob has left the club, we see him in a high-angle shot, a small person crossing an empty street, as a street-cleaning truck spraying water enters the frame, turning around in the square. Despite the poetry of the images, there is a raw quality about them, accentuated by very noticeable editing as well as by changing music and the occasional voiceover. The film’s ‘quality of imperfection’ may have to do with its small budget, and has occasionally led to accusations of amateurism, but is also a studied refusal of seamlessness, a way of creating its rhythm (Vincendeau 2003: 104).