This opening urban scene, with small figures set against the large cityscape also helps establish loneliness and isolation as a theme. Loneliness was part of Melville’s star persona, though the leap from there to his lonely characters may be a bit too tempting (Vincendeau 2003: 19). Such loneliness is deeply gendered, as Melville is known for making films about solitary, melancholy, vulnerable men (Vincendeau 2003: 21). Indeed, Bob is betrayed by two women in the film, Anne, more naïve than she knows, and Suzanne, the croupier’s none too pleasant wife. And yet, the film’s misogyny is complicated by Yvonne, the barmaid who offers Bob money in hopes of keeping him from robbing the casino, by Paolo who naively gives out secret information, and by Bob himself, whose code may be masculinist, but who will not tolerate violence against women and who has a complicated relationship with Anne even as he ‘saves’ her from the street.1 The dominance of the film’s gendered loneliness makes it a near-existential gangster film.
The chance encounters of the opening scene in the city establish chance itself as another main theme of the film. Chance, to the extent that is linked to the ‘arbitrariness of existence and the futility of human endeavor’, harkens back to the film’s existentialism (Vincendeau 2003: 115). But it also takes on a much larger role, penetrating multiple levels of the film. Writing about gambling, Thomas Kavanagh has opposed gambling and chance to narrative logic (Kavanagh 1993: 142). Even the opening scene functions according to this logic: ‘But let’s come back to Bob’, the narrator says, as if he had gotten distracted by the city scene. Chance unravels narrative intent, Kavanagh argues, steering a story in another direction. Bob accidentally sees Anne who will change his story. He goes to the Restaurant Le Carpeaux, even though he said he would go home. Bob accidentally wins money at the horse track, though he knows nothing about the horse he bets on. There are chance encounters and chance comes and goes. Roger accidentally hears that there are 800 million in the casino’s safe. The entire second half of the film represents Bob’s attempt to escape chance and gambling, and to instead impose causal logic and narrative order to insure the success of the heist. Roger ‘practices’ opening the safe. But in the end, chance wins: Bob forgets time and accidentally wins a lot of money. Chance and accidents can thus be good. The theme of chance also makes Bob very different from classical Hollywood characters who tend to drive the plot. Very often, Bob often does not plot, he plays, and his favourite bar is called ‘Pile ou Face’ (head or tails), even though we learn at the end that Bob’s own coin has been doctored to avoid chance. As one critic put it, Bob le Flambeur follows a ‘dramaturgy of distraction’ (Bantcheva 2007: 115).
Chance, which is both a theme and a narrative aesthetic, can also be found in the film’s music. Its use of jazz, in particular, which celebrates improvisation and the individual’s assertion within the group seems well suited to the film (Schulman 2004). At the same time, a consideration of the film’s music would also have to think about its mix of styles.
While Bob le Flambeur may have appeared at a particular historical moment, harkening back to the 1930s, anticipating both the French New Wave and Melville’s own polished gangster films from later, it has also had a deep influence on more contemporary filmmakers. True, Melville’s more stylised later films had more influence on the cool noir of Quentin Tarantino and John Woo, but Bob’s irony can also be found in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. And in 2002 Neil Jordan adapted Bob le Flambeur into The Good Thief, with Nick Nolte as a modern-day incarnation of Bob.
1. Vincendeau argues persuasively that Anne does not even manage to be a femme fatale, so that female characters remain marginalised indeed. Instead, Roger who plans everything, is Bob’s partner (Vincendeau 2003: 113–14).
Cast and Crew:
[Country: France. Production Company: Organisation Générale Cinématografique, Productions Cyme, Play Art. Director: Jean-Pierre Melville. Producers: Serge Silberman, Jean-Pierre Melville. Screenwriters: Auguste Le Breton, Jean-Pierre Melville. Cinematographers: Henri Decaë, Maurice Blettery. Editor: Monique Bonnot. Music: Eddie Barclay, Jo Boyer. Cast: Roger Duchesne (Roger ‘Bob’ Montagné), Isabel Corey (Anne), André Garet (Roger), Daniel Cauchy (Paolo), Guy Decomble (Comissaire Ledru), Gérard Buhr (Marc), Colette Fleury (Suzanne), Simone Paris (Yvonne).]
Denitza Bantcheva, Jean-Pierre Melville, de l’œuvre à l’homme, Paris, Editions du Revif, 2007.
Jill Forbes, The Cinema in France: After the New Wave, Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press, 1993.
Thomas M. Kavanagh, ‘The Narrative of Chance in Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur’, Michigan Romance Studies, Vol. 13, 1993, pp. 139–58.
Rui Nogueira (ed.), Melville on Melville, New York, The Viking Press, 1971.
Kristin Ross, Fast Cars, Clean Bodies: Decolonization and the Reordering of French Culture, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1995.
Peter Schulman, ‘No Room for Squares: JeanPierre Melville, Jazz, and the French Bachelor’, Nottingham French Studies, Vol. 43, No. 1, Spring 2004, pp. 139–48.
Ginette Vincendeau, Jean-Pierre Melville: ‘An American in Paris’, London, British Film Institute, 2003.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.