I wrote the following review of Jean-Pierre Melville’s
Bob le Flambeur for Cinefile Chicago. It screens twice in the next week at the Siskel Center in 35mm.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s BOB LE FLAMBEUR (French Revival)
Gene Siskel Film Center – Saturday, 3pm and Tuesday, 6pm
BOB LE FLAMBEUR is one of the most important films ever made – although it’s probably also a case of a classic movie that’s been more influential than actually seen. The way writer/director Jean-Pierre Melville expressed a punch-drunk love for American genre fare, refracting crime/noir conventions through his unique Gallic sensibility to create something refreshingly new, would exert a massive influence on the directors of the nouvelle vague in just a few years time; in BREATHLESS, which features an extended cameo by Melville, Jean-Luc Godard cheekily implies that it was Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Michel who “ratted on (his) friend” Bob Montagne. Made at a time when most commercial French films were still shot on studio-constructed sets, Melville’s mid-‘50s depiction of the Montmartre demimonde is so pungent you can smell it, but his stylish mise-en-scene – with its chiaroscuro lighting and emphasis on black-and-white checkerboard patterns – set a whole new standard for cinematic cool. BOB LE FLAMBEUR would go on to be remade both officially (as Neil Jordan’s THE GOOD THIEF) and unofficially (by Paul Thomas Anderson as HARD EIGHT) though neither Nick Nolte nor Philip Baker Hall can quite match the combination of world-weary poignancy and super-coolness in their portraits of aging masculinity that Roger Duchesne offers here. Even though it was his fourth feature, and his previous work formidable, BOB LE FLAMBEUR is also, crucially, the movie where “Melville becomes Melville.” With a tip of his Stetson to John Huston’s THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, the brilliant French filmmaker crafted an irresistible shaggy-dog heist story about the titular character, a middle-aged gangster/gambler who dutifully maintains an impeccable sense of personal style even when on a losing streak – making him a forerunner of the stoic badasses essayed by Alain Delon, Lino Ventura and Gian Maria Volontè in Melville’s mature masterpieces of the 1960s and early 1970s. Bob’s bad luck eventually causes him to hatch a scheme to rob the casino in Deauville, a journey to the end of night that leads to one of the wittiest punch lines in cinema. (1956, 98 min, 35mm) MGS