Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Bob le Flambeur (Melville. 1956)

"Gamble, Bob, gamble, in it is the source of salvation..."

What does it take to make a crime film so great that it forces Stanley Kubrick out of the genre? Bob the Gambler is a movie that perfectly mixes a classic black and white coloring style with sophisticated camera work and characters with which an audience can be immediately familiar. The story is not complex, trite or obscure in telling, but rather so simple that it makes the experience of watching un-exhausting.

From the start, we have our main character, Bob Montagné. He is a reformed criminal who seems to have gained the respect of everyone in the Montmartre district of Paris, even some of the cops. Though his public appearance remains flamboyant, it becomes known that Bob has lost most of his riches due to a steep gambling debt. After hearing that the Deauville casino holds a fortune on certain nights, Bob arranges one final heist to regain his prominent social stature.

As a character, Bob Montagné is almost a cliche. He wears finely pressed suits and drives a convertible coupe. His apartment is decorated with the finest things and his general demeanor will not break for a weak moment. Morals and masculine values play a major role in his ability to make decisions, and he is shown to have a somewhat greater knowledge in the art of feminine persuasion. His only moments of weakness stem from an uncontrollable addiction to gambling. And poor Bob is on a losing streak.

In the background we are introduced to Bob's arrogant and unlikable young protegee, Paolo. He is an eager, overzealous and untimely overly-horny poor-to-do kid who only recently started wearing his big boy pants. He falls in love with an amazingly beautiful French blonde named Anne and everything goes downhill from that point.

Honestly, I am not sure if Anne is supposed to be a prostitute or not. It is hinted every now and then in the film that she SHOULD be working on the street, and her reactions to these statements seem a tad subdued. Maybe she is, maybe she isn't. Either way, Anne (Isabelle Corey) is a bombshell. Her eyes and lips are enough to drive almost any man wild. She knows this much about herself and uses it to take advantage of Paolo - who ultimately spoils the heist by spilling the plans to Anne after a round of sex.

There are a few more interesting sub-plots in Bob the Gambler, but I do not want to spoil all of the action. I will say that the final scene is a tragic warning against breaking the law. Jean-Pierre Melville does not give the audience all of the information that is needed because he wanted to create a sense of urgency in the climax. Watching Bob the Gambler is not like having a story read to you; it is a voyeuristic experience where you are allowed to witness the deterioration of a man's proud life. Some of the pieces will have to be put together by the audience.

Roger Duchesne is a proper fit to play Montagné. He has a sense of experience and stonewall emotion that cannot be shaken. His desperation seeps through the meticulously constricted lines on his face. In the film's final moments, as Montagné kneels in tragedy, he seems to be under-emotional. Bob cannot be weak. It is not an option.

Most crime films have similar endings, and Bob the Gambler is not an exception to this rule. But the movie does not seem to be about the ending. It is not a heart-pounding display of intense action or suspense. Melville's vision uses more of a charter-driven mythos. With a beautifully done black and white backdrop (especially in the Criterion release) and hard-boiled acting from the entire cast, Bob the Gambler has been cited as a major influence on everything from French New Wave to Martin Scorsese. For me, it is not fantastic, but it is better than almost any crime-driven cinematic alternative.

Bob the Gambler: B

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