Bob le flambeur Review
Classic French cinema has done well on DVD in the UK of late, particularly now that Optimum has full access to StudioCanal’s massive back catalogue. The last few years have seen many a pre- and post-noir classic hit the shelf whether a trio of superb Jacques Becker’s (Casque d’Or, Touchez pas au Grisbi, Le Trou, prime Henri-Georges Clouzot or minor cult flicks starring the likes of Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Fans of Jean-Pierre Melville, in particular, have had much to celebrate what with Le Silence de la mer getting the Masters of Cinema treatment, a quintet of BFI discs – including his arguable masterpiece L’Armée des Ombres - and two Optimum releases: Le Flic, his final film, and this particular disc, Bob le flambeur, also Melville’s first gangster movie.
Released in 1956, not long after American noir had reached its apotheosis with Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, Bob le flambeur is clearly indebted to its US forerunners. Melville would later provide the genre with his own particular model courtesy of Le Doulos, Le Samouraï and the rest, but here he’s not quite so elegant. Indeed, whereas the subsequent works would be especially refined, Bob le flambeur is decidedly seedy: its plot, its characters, its milieu. Scripted by August le Breton (an original screenplay, though his novels figured in the celebrated Serie noire range), the setting is Pigalle and open with a literal descent into this urban hell. Bob is an old style ex-con with his own moral code. Thus he’ll take a young girl under his wing to protect her from a possible route into prostitution or keep an eye on the son of a dead buddy (his death, we learn, resulting from the same job that led him to the pen) but also exist solely during the hours between nightfall and dusk, gamble excessively (and unfortuitously) as a means of living, and agree to one last job simply, to quote a review in Time Out, “so that he can perform a robbery in a dinner jacket.”
Indeed, style is important here – location exteriors, art deco backrooms, conspicuous smoking – but it’s the fatalism of the piece which looms large. From that initial descent (made literal courtesy of an opening voice-over) we’re never going to end up in a happy place, but then this is noir territory. Cinema has taught us that heists rarely pay off – from Kubrick’s The Killing to Reservoir Dogs - and Bob le flambeur is no different. Yet whilst it prefigures both these movies (to simply choose the most obvious pair) Melville isn’t content with giving us merely another superior genre entry. Rather he performs a delicate balancing act, at once of a piece with Kiss of Death or The Big Combo in its bleak underpinnings, but also providing something considerably lighter without letting his tongue quite settle in his cheek. Take Roger Duchesne’s Bob, a model of aloofness and a stark contrast to Nick Nolte’s haggard embodiment of the same role in Neil Jordan’s 2002 remake, The Good Thief. Or the playfulness with which Melville chucks in an unexpected, especially at the time, iris shot. Or the sardonic final exchange between Bob and his police inspector friend. Or the nimbleness of Eddie Barclay’s score. It’s not quite a comedy, though the term ‘comedy of manners’ may very well apply. It is perhaps for the best that Melville chose to develop the darker, more fatalistic edges in his subsequent gangsters flicks rather than go the other route and end up with farce (cf. Jules Dassin shift from Brute Force and Night and the City via Rififi to the internationalism of Topkapi). But in its none too serious way Bob le Flambeur is as great a piece of entertainment as Le Cercle rouge or Le Samouraï, say, maybe even more so.
Burnt-in subtitles aside, Bob le flambeur comes to disc (or rather came to disc, as Optimum released it two years back) in a small but impressive little package. The presentation itself is really quite impressive. Moderate signs of age are noticeable, but on the whole the picture quality is crisp, clean and of course retains the original Academy ratio. It more than deserves to rank alongside the BFI and Masters of Cinema discs also on the market. The soundtrack similarly demonstrates it age at times, but again clarity is as fine as should expected from a film of this vintage and no major problems are present. As for extras the main piece is critic Ginette Vincendeau’s contextualising introduction. As with those she provided for the BFI discs we get both an overview of Melville and his career alongside more specific discussion of the film itself: the American influence, the effect on the nouvelle vague, etc. Rounding off the package we also find the original theatrical trailer which comes, as with the main movie, burnt-in subtitles. Perhaps not as rounded a package as the other UK Melville discs (no booklet, no commentary, etc.) but for its lower price this is more than acceptable.