If you’ve seen Frank Oz’s garbled heist movie The Score, starring Robert De Niro, Marlon Brando and Edward Norton, you might have asked how come three acting legends were inveigled into appearing in something so average. The answer is Bob Le Flambeur, the “one last heist” film they obviously thought they were channelling. Reeking of the late 40s but made in the 50s just as France was about to embark on the New Wave, it is the last word in Parisian chic, a mix of Gallic savoir faire, American hats and cars, dialogue drawled out the side of the mouth and jazz pouring out of radios, bars and nightclubs. Roger Duchesne plays white-haired Bob the Gambler, a retired crook with a one-armed bandit in his room, a bad debt on the roulette tables and a “one last job” idea up his sleeve. What’s different about Bob, as opposed to almost every cinematic heist merchant since, is that he’s patently a loser – not a guy who has had a bit of bad luck, like George Clooney in Ocean’s 11, but someone who wins big, then loses big, then does the whole thing again. He’s in the grip of the gambling process, believes in lady luck and all that stuff. What will be familiar will be the dry run for the heist itself, a familiar trope even in 1956, though Melville puts a new spin on it, one I won’t ruin by explaining.
Some claim Bob Le Flambeur is the first film of the French New Wave – Melville shot much of it on a handheld camera attached to a bicycle. But whereas Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol and the New Wavers shot handheld for artistic reasons, Melville was doing it because he was broke, and he took pains to hide the paucity of his technical means and made his film look as slick as he could.
A lover of film noir and Americana in general, Melville had changed his name from Grumberg to honour the author of Moby Dick. His characters, Duchesne in particular, are working the same turf, collars flicked up, eyes narrowed, they’re paying homage to characters played by Humphrey Bogart, George Raft and James Cagney – bad guys, sure, but bad guys with a code of honour. Perhaps, from some angles, they were actually the good guys. Which is where we are with Bob, respected by the cops, admired by his contemporaries, regarded with awe by younger guys, who are perhaps surprised he’s even still alive. Neil Jordan took the bones of Bob Le Flambeur and remade it as The Good Thief in 2002. But even with Nick Nolte in the lead as the fascinating deadbeat it simply doesn’t get close.
© Steve Morrissey 2013