Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Hulu Flashback: The existential cool of Bob le Flambeur

Bob Montagne (Roger Duchesne) walks like a slumming prince through the shadowland of pre-dawn Paris. His hat tilted at a jaunty angle, a cigarette dangling from his frowning lips, he's a trenchcoated knight errant, master of all he surveys.

Still ruggedly handsome in his autumnal years, he has the imperturbable bearing of someone who has seen it all, done it all, and cared for little of it. Even so, there's still some spark in the old boy. As he notes the sidewalk flirtations of a teen-age temptress, you can see a flash of disapproval in his near-impassive eyes. But if you look closely enough, you'll also see a flicker of bemused appreciation.

Quite an entrance, eh? And quite a larger-than-life creation, this Bob Montagne, the hardboiled but honorable hero of Bob le Flambeur (Bob the Gambler), the classic 1956 melodrama directed and co-written by the late, great Jean-Pierre Melville.

A forerunner of the auteurs who launched the French New Wave in the late '50s and early '60s, Melville eschewed studio sets and lavish production values, preferring to work on real locations -- on real streets, in real apartments and alleyways -- with small camera crews. He used many of the same semi-guerrilla techniques later adopted by such New Wavers as Francois Truffaut (who cast Decomble, the grizzled cop of Bob le Flambeur, as a strict schoolteacher in The 400 Blows) and Jean-Luc Godard. In 1959, Godard acknowledged the debt by casting Melville as a visiting celebrity in Breathless, and peppered that movie's dialogue with references to a certain Bob Montagne.

Much like many of the younger New Wavers, Melville paid affectionate tribute to American film-noir thrillers of the '40s and early '50s. The big difference is, Melville's tributes came first.

Bob Montagne obviously is blood kin to the noble tough guys once essayed by Humphrey Bogart and George Raft. But Bob le Flambeur is not a slavish imitation, or an overly reverential homage. The movie can be enjoyed on its own terms, for its own merits, as a street-smart comedy of manners, and as a slyly stylized evocation of underworld life in post-World War II Paris. Call it pulp fiction elevated to high art by a romantic sensibility, and you won't be far off the mark.

You can read my full review of Bob le Flambeur -- written in 2001, on the occasion of the film's theatrical re-release -- here. And you can read my review of The Good Thief, Neil Joran's exceptionally entertaining 2003 remake starring Nick Nolte -- here.

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