The Illegal Life in Bob Le Flambeur by Guy Savage
“I was born with an ace in my palm.”
Bob Le Flambeur (aka Bob the Gambler, Fever Heat) is a film made early in the career of French director Jean-Pierre Melville. While it was not a hit when it was released, the film gained a following among filmmakers for its world-weary portrayal of life, its street scenes, and also for its unforgettable protagonist, Bob--played with low-key elegance by Roger Duchesne. Made over a two-year period, Melville pieced together the film when he had enough money to cover the expenses generated by a few days of filmmaking. Today, Bob Le Flambeur (loosely translated to Bob the High-Roller) remains one of the memorable French noir films from the classic period. Like Max, the protagonist in Touchez Pas au Grisbi, Bob is essentially a loner surrounded with a loyal coterie, but whereas Max is invulnerable, Bob has a fatal flaw. And as the title suggests--Bob’s Achilles’ heel is his gambling addiction. From cards and dice to harness racing, if he can bet or play the odds, he does.
The film begins with street life as dawn arrives in the notorious red-light district of Pigalle in Paris. Famous for its nightlife, it’s the refuge of pimps, prostitutes, criminals, and those who live on the margins of society. A cleaner walks by on her way to work, street sweepers wash the streets, and a young girl appears, sauntering by men who ogle and stare. According to the voice-over narration, this young girl has “bloomed early for her age,” and although built like Venus, the girl, named Anne (Isabelle Corey was 16 when filming began) still has the dewy face of a teenager. While Anne strolls aimlessly through the streets, an American sailor lures her onto the back of his motorcycle and rides off with his new prize. This casual, easy pick-up is observed by Bob as he leaves an all-night dice game.
While Bob is supposedly on the way back to his apartment to sleep, he detours to hit a poker game. A police car stops to give Bob a ride. At this point, it’s clear that everyone in Pigalle--the club hostesses, the club owners and even the cops know and respect Bob. In fact, from bar owner Yvonne (Simone Paris) to police Inspector Ledru (Guy Decomble), everyone seems to owe Bob a favor. Ledru tells the tale of how Bob once saved his life, but even now, years later, Ledru isn’t sure of Bob’s motives when he intervened against an armed attacker. It’s clear that Ledru has mulled over the murkiness of Bob’s motives, and he insists that Bob has ‘learnt his lesson’ and that “age has wised him up” after serving prison time for a bank job twenty years before.
While almost everyone in Bob’s circle admires and respects him, he makes a fatal enemy early on in the film when he refuses to lend money to a brutal pimp named Marc (Gerard Buhr). After beating his woman so badly that she ends up in hospital, Marc hits Bob for a loan, but when Bob learns the reason Marc has to leave town, he refuses to hand over cash stating “I like to help guys in trouble but not your kind.”
As it happens, Marc doesn’t leave Pigalle, and Bob sees him the very next evening sniffing around Anne in a nightclub. Bob has already seen a sailor pick up Anne, so he knows she is a prostitute, and when she enters the club with the predatory Marc, he realizes that the pimp is looking to replace his hospitalized hooker. Taking Anne under his wing, he fends off Marc, feeds Anne and gives her money warning her “don’t you know sidewalk Romeos are dangerous?” Used to male attention, Anne thinks Bob is interested in her, but that notion is soon dismissed. Meanwhile Bob’s young accomplice Paulo (Daniel Cauchy), who juggles several women at once, thinks Anne is the woman of his dreams and begins an aggressive flirtation. Blatantly staring at her chest he remarks, “I thought dolls stacked like you all had sugar daddies.”
Throughout the course of Bob’s life, he’s had good luck and bad luck. At one point, his luck has been good enough put up the cash for Yvonne’s bar, but as the film develops, Bob is on a losing streak. After a day spent gambling at the harness-racing track, Bob and his pal, Roger (Andre Garet) end up at a swanky casino in the resort town of Deauville. When Bob’s luck runs out, and he’s down to his last few francs, he learns that the casino recently had a cool 800 million francs in the safe, so Bob decides to formulate plans for a robbery. To him the heist represents not just a score--but also a high stakes gamble, which will pay lucratively if he can pull off all the details.
Bob’s world is generally male dominated, and he seems unfazed by female perfection. Suave enough to appear to be a ladies’ man, his obsession and his sole desire is Lady Luck, so much so that he keeps a slot machine in his closet to satiate sudden urges and impulses. With the film’s emphasis on the friendships between males, it makes perfect sense that the female roles in the film remain peripheral. At the same time, however, two women play crucial roles in the events that unfold. Anne assumes the role of a femme fatale of sorts in the indiscreet moments that take place between her sheets. Ambitious and amoral, she both receives and gives information, acting as a conduit through her sexual liaisons.
Suzanne (Colette Fleury) the nagging, grasping wife of croupier, Jean, proves--once again--that age-old noir wisdom of never confiding in a dame. The unusual element in Bob Le Flambeur, however, is that two women know about the casino heist and neither of them can keep their mouths shut.
While Bob Le Flambeur is generally cited as a homage to American gangsterism, some critics slam the film as a pale imitation of American heist films. And while a surface examination of Bob Le Flambeur might lead to the conclusion that the film is Melville’s attempt to capture the style of American noir, this analysis is shallow and unjustified. It’s true that Melville, whose real name was Jean-Pierre Grumbach admired American culture--the name Melville, for instance was a nom de guerre used by young Grumbach when he was a resistance fighter during WWII. Since Bob drives a Cadillac convertible, there’s certainly every reason to agree with the notion that Bob Le Flambeur is Melville’s tribute to American gangsterism. But before critics write off Bob le Flambeur as either a tribute or an imitation of American cinema, attention should be paid to a crucial and yet subtle scene that appears relatively early in the film.
In this important scene, Paolo is with Roger and referring to Bob’s criminal career, he asks: “Was he really the first to copy American hoods?” Roger replies, “Actually it was the Yanks who copied the Bonnot Gang.” And he explains that Bob “was the first to use front wheel drive.” This slight, subtle reference to the early 20th century gang of French bank robbers is significant. Members of the so-called Bonnot Gang--also known as the “auto bandits”--were the first to use a get-away car in order to expedite a crime, and they also were the first to commit armed robbery with repeating rifles. Jules Bonnot, also known as Jules le Bourgeois, was the best-known member of the gang, and before he drove the getaway car for bank robberies, he was reportedly employed by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as his chauffeur.
But apart from the Bonnot Gang’s unique, daring, and innovative modus operandi that creates a pivotal point in the history of crime, the loosely formed gang operated on a philosophy that embraced Illegalism. The gang members were all working class men, anarchists who branched into Illegalism, making the decision that rather than slave in a system in which they could barely survive, a life of crime was a viable, logical and to them, the only alternative. Committed to lives of illegality, they were therefore called Illegalists.
Similarly, Melville’s characters also opt for lives of illegalism. The decision to choose lives of criminality is a major theme in the film. Most of the people in Bob’s circle--while they live and eek out a living from the human vices--now lead more or less straight lives. But their criminal pasts remain. Bob was a bank robber, and so was Paolo’s father. Jean the croupier at the Deauville casino was a pimp, and while he’s now straight, he still exists on the fringes on society listening to his wife complain about wanting the finer things in life. The Scotsman has supposedly retired to a quiet life with his racehorses, but he can’t resist returning to an illegal life either. Marc the Pimp has some sort of connection with the rag trade, and he’s trying to rope Paolo in, but this seems to be more a scam or a fencing operation than a viable career option. Bob offers Anne sanctuary with the implication that he’s “saving” her from becoming a “pavement princess.” But Anne doesn’t necessarily want to be ‘saved’ from a life of prostitution. With Bob’s help, Anne gets a job in a Pigalle nightclub where being semi-clad helps her sell flowers. Soon she rises to hostess, and before the film ends, it appears that she’s back as a prostitute by choice and in spite of intervention by Bob. Bob gambles for a living, and while he doubtless profits from tourists out for an evening’s thrill, when the film begins he does nothing illegal. But the film emphasizes the point that before the war, Bob and his group of pals were all criminals, and by the end of the film, many people in Bob’s circle have chosen to return to a life of criminality.
Melville’s subtle overlooked reference to the Bonnot Gang establishes that Bob Le Flambeur is not a simple French tribute to American gangsterism but rather Melville takes a gestalt approach to the phenomenon of crime through his cinematic analysis of Bob and his acquaintances. By referring to the Bonnot Gang as the inspiration for Bob, Melville offers a cinematic continuum of illegalism and those who choose to pursue lives of illegality and crime.
The Criterion release is superb. Melville, operating on an almost zero budget, filmed some parts of the movie using a hand-held camera while he rode a bicycle. This low-tech, but infinitely practical approach appears throughout the film. There are no fancy camera angles, no flashbacks or flash-forwards--just a gritty, rich black and white realism that captures the gaudy glitter and tawdry glamour of nighttime Pigalle. The Criterion DVD includes an interview with Daniel Cauchy (Paolo) and a radio interview with Melville.