Before Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960), there was Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob the Gambler (1956). Melville, by his own admission, based its story on John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950). Indeed, the film’s noirish influences and variations on the classic American genre film format are evident right from the start. Yet, there are many other elements that make Bob the Gambler a unique vision, ahead of its time and, in particular, a precursor of that exciting time in cinema known as the French New Wave.
The story is quite traditional: Bob (Roger Duchesne) is an old gangster and gambler who has done some hard time. Almost broke, he decides to rob a gambling joint despite warnings from a high official from the police.
Though the film makes use of stylized violence, it does not rely on any of the action sequences that audiences of the time had come to expect from similar policiers or gangster movies. In fact, the sparing editing often leads to crucial action moments, such as shoot-outs, happening off-screen while other moments and particulars, otherwise ignored, are given unusual attention.
Bob the Gambler also strikes for its docufiction feel. It was shot in the small studio of Jenner Productions, Melville’s own firm, and right on the streets of Paris. Cinematographer Henri Dacae often resorted to shooting in the early hours of the morning, when the streets were deserted. These shots lend a type of poetic realism and capture the beatnik essence of the French capital of the 1950’s. Of course, the setting lends more than an atmosphere to Bob the Gambler: it is a character of the movie outright. It is even introduced by a narrator at the beginning, who describes the neighbourhoods of Pigalle and Montmartre in the early morning, in the style of an American B-movie of the time – which is another excellent example of the blending of classic and new, American and European, that occurs in Melville’s work. The use of this type of narration is only one of the ways in which Melville experiments with the possibilities of creative audio editing. The driving jazz score, for instance, is memorably suggestive.
Given Melville’s influences, the characters at first seem to have been lifted out of a standard American film noir, transplanted on French turf. Duchesne feels like your typical Bogart-type straight faced straight man but significantly looks like an older Charlie Chaplin. On the other hand, Anne (Isabelle Corey) is far more complex. A young and beautiful streetwalker, she is taken under Bob’s protective wing, and he becomes her mentor. She is Bob’s disruption, a presence that makes him dangerously vulnerable. On the other hand, she may at any given moment appear to us as anything from lover to surrogate daughter, from a sex object and femme fatale to an innocent soul, and so on, with intriguing versatility. The lengthy dialogue scenes between Bob and Anne allow for a greater depth of psychology that, for instance, would have been unthinkable of the very same American films Melville was largely inspired by.
Finally, Bob the Flambeur is also driven by a sense of irony. Melville shows that he is aware of his own excesses, and is unafraid to openly make fun of them through a sardonic sense of humour and self-reflexive stylization. The culmination of this approach is to be found throughout the entire narrative, notably in its ending. But it is also present in more subtle ways. As Paolo (Daniel Cauchy), Bob’s younger friend, is chased near the end of the film, the camera cuts to different shots, each one underlined by different types of music, evoking different moods, sometimes contrasting the conventional atmosphere of such a tense sequence and situation. Such playfulness, somewhat absurd, would be widely used in the French New Wave ten years later.
Famously, Melville was cast as Parvulesco, a world-renowned novelist interviewed by Patricia Franchini (Jean Seberg) in Godard’s Breathless. Godard’s loving tribute was quite appropriate as, somewhat unexpectedly, Melville became the uncle of the French New Wave. His influence would extend to other territories besides France; filmmakers from Quentin Tarantino to Paul Thomas Anderson have paid homage to him both in their films and on interviews. Regardless, Bob the Gambler still does not feel like it has quite been celebrated as much as it deserves. As Steven Jay Schneider said, before it, “there was European cinema and American cinema. There was classic cinema and modern cinema. There were gangster films and comedies and daily chronicles.” Bob the Gambler did not change that; however, it not only served as a meeting ground for all these cinema cultures and somehow managed to capture the moment as a phenomenological encounter in a fast and furious way. – ★★★★★
BOB LE FLAMBEUR | 1956, France | Thriller | Directed by – Jean-Pierre Melville / Produced by – Jean-Pierre Melville, Serge Silberman / Written by – Jean-Pierre Melville / Music by – Eddie Barclay, Jo Boyer / Cinematography – Henri Dacae / Edited by – Monique Bonnot / Starring – Roger Duchesne, Isabelle Corey, Guy Decomble | Running time: 102 mins