Tuesday, October 7, 2008
Bob Le Flambeur
B&W, 102 minutes, 1956
Who is Robert (Bob) Montagné, the high-roller or gambler (a few of the possible translations of flambeur) of Jean-Pierre Melville’s film Bob Le Flambeur? What does he do for a living? How old is he? What is his status in society, both his own circle and in the greater France or Paris in which he travels?
The great film critic, Roger Ebert, provides a translation of flambeur as a man who gambles with another person’s money. This translation is fair and illuminates Melville’s film as good criticism is supposed to do. My interpretation of the title involves less of a translation as it does an association of two Parisian types.
Charles Baudelaire, the 19th century French poet, essayist, and critic, wrote about a new modern type of man as a city-dweller and cosmopolitan he called the flaneur. The flaneur is, as explained on the wikilpedia.com website (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flaneur), “a person who walks the city in order to experience it…” and “as a "gentleman stroller of city streets", he saw the flâneur as having a key role in understanding, participating in and portraying the city. A flâneur thus played a double role in city life and in theory, that is, while remaining a detached observer. This stance, simultaneously part of and apart from, combines sociological, anthropological, literary and historical notions of the relationship between the individual and the greater populace…”
Bob’s history in the film indicates he comes from a Paris of 1911-12 where the Bonnot Gang, a group of criminal-anarchists with a murderous bent who were among the first to use modern technology, such as cars, to commit their crimes. But the whole of Melville’s characterization of Bob is of a non-violent, gentlemanly, respected gambler whose only criminal activity may be gambling after hours. Which version of Bob is Melville’s film revealing?
The plot of the film is fairly simple: Bob comes up with a plan to rob a casino in Deauville after he loses all of his money there.
Melville provides Bob with a cast of characters who are thoroughly more of our own time rather than that of a gentleman-gambler or robber, or of the Bonnot Gang’s violence. Bob tries to help an under-aged young woman who shows no remorse or doubt about her pursuit of a life in Paris’ underworld, including prostitution. Bob’s protégé falls in love with the young woman—again, an action more typical of Bob than the woman’s contemporaries. An abusive pimp, whom Bob refuses to help because of his code of conduct that doesn’t approve of abuse of women, sets in motion the cataclysmic ending of the film by informing on Bob and his rag-tag gang.
The film’s second half is filled with comical moments of Bob trying to run-through the robbery plan. The ending of the film is tragic because of the unnecessary death of Bob’s protégé; it is comical because of the gang’s incompetence to follow Bob’s plan; and ironic as Bob’s natural luck enables him to win all of the money he planned to steal with an epic winning streak at the casino.
The many atmospheres I’ve described make Melville’s film somewhat disjointed to me. The one clear thread throughout Bob Le Flambeur is the character (and the characteristics) of Bob Montagné. He is the film noir version of Baudelaire’s Symbolist flaneur. Melville’s contrasts between the old literary and artistic characters with the French New Wave modernist characters is the most fulfilling aspect of Bob Le Flambeur.
** images available from Wikipedia.com