April 12, 2009

Bob le Flambeur: Life is a gamble

French directors immediately after the war and right into the sixties and seventies preserved the look and feel of Paris for future generations. The Paris after the war with its difficulties, poverty and crime, its glamour and nightlife is more real to us than many places in the world today are thanks to the films that were made in, around and about it. One of their tendencies though is to use the vocabulary of American cinema- the thought of Hollywood- to describe the reality of postwar Europe. Goddard in Breathless for example has a hero who dresses and acts like Humphrey Bogart and a heroine who is actually American. You see in these films America as the land of opportunity and cinema that it really was after World War Two- the land of imagination, the dream of what Europe might be- glamorous and free. One of the idiosyncrasies of the films of this period is that they created a Paris of dreams, but they did so by using an America that the directors and actors were dreaming about. Of course that dream died across the period as the political left in Europe became more and more disillusioned with the states- and it was always more subtle, taking its standpoint from an admiration from that most tragic and unAmerican of genres- Film Noir- but it existed.

Jean Melville's Bob le Flambeur (Bob the Gambler) is one of the original French films which drew from Hollywood. The first name of the protagonist is a clue- Bob is hardly a normal French name. It is set in Paris- in Montmartre amongst the crooks and whores. They gather around in cafes. The film begins with Bob, a compulsive gambler, touring the cafes- where he meets various of his friends including Palo, a kid whom he has taken under his protection and a police officer that he knows. He also meets for the first time Anna, a young girl roaming the streets. Bob takes in Anna- though it is Palo who ends up having a relationship with her. The stage is set. The next steps are that Bob loses money at gambling and learns of a heist that he might take part in- he organises getting the backing for it (in a further borrowing the film has become the basis for films like Ocean's 11) and the heist is revealed to the police. The stage is set for the final denouement.

Of course to tell the story is not to explain the film- there are a number of interesting things going on here that deserve discussion. The first is the way that Bob as a character operates. Bob is addicted to gambling. He even has a fruit machine in his room at home- just so that he does not have to stop gambling at any moment. What Melville shows is that Bob cannot be defined by his gambling- his ethos is a strict one- he hits Anna, he pushes away pimps and tells Palo that involvement with them will terminate their friendship. Bob's addiction controls him- he cannot think of anything else whilst at the tables with dice and money. He cannot even think about the amount of money that he bets- placing more and more on the table. Rushing from a win on a racehorse to a game of cards- maintaining everywhere a quiet dedication to gambling. This addiction is one to a set of games that he more often than not loses- but it is in the nature of a compulsion, one does not get the sense that he always enjoys it, merely that it is an itch that he has to touch.

Bob of course has comrades. Men he has known for years including a police inspector- who accept him with a fatalism. Bob is a gambler- that is what he does. Perhaps his principle companion is Palo. Palo is an interesting character- a ladies' man, charming, smooth and stupid. Too stupid not to tell his girlfriend Anna of what the men might be about to do. Bob has been imprisoned- he was imprisoned for 20 years by the French state- Palo though has not and whereas Bob stays away from pimps and the like, Palo consorts with them. Bob's code is something that he tries to pass on to Palo- tries to get him to see. In many ways one senses that Bob is what Palo might become- Palo is what Bob was. In a sense there is a touching relationship between them that resembles one between a father and son. But Palo is not alone- there is the police inspector who sees Bob as an old friend and companion and tries to warn him that the police are on his tail, there are a multitude of old friends who share a certain sense of morality as well as a desire to gamble. There is Mark, who Bob despises for being a pimp and then there is Anna.

If Bob is a gambler with a compulsive itch, then Anna is a different kind of character. Played by Isabelle Corey (who was 15 when she starred in the film), she projects an amazing sensuality. She is flirtatiously waiting for a 'sugar daddy' to make her fortune. She has an innocent carnality and is willing to fall into bed with any man who will offer her something in return. Her carnality is innocent though- for though she knows corruption, she seems unaffected by corruption. There is a hint of amusement lurking in her eyes- a girlish laugh about and with the world that she inhabits in. She knows what men are- thinks that Palo when he talks of a robbery must be exaggerating to get her into bed and only later realises that she has given vital information away. What Bob spots about her and what we I think are meant to spot is that Anna stands on the brink of becoming a gangster's moll- she stands on the brink of disaster. Like Palo she may be dragged into this seedy world. Bob's protection is ineffective: like Palo (and like Bob before them both) Anna does not care enough for the future to sacrifice the present. She goes through life in cheerful resignation to reality.

The world of the cafes and the bars- the dice and the games- reminds us that life is a gamble. Every character here has staked his or her life on a turn of the dice. Ultimately this is what makes the film into something of a noir- the fatalistic mood reminds you of great American films of the 1940s. But in Bob it is extended to the old and the female- consequently it is extended into the family: Bob, Palo and Anna constitute a kind of family unit and what you see is the older member of the family warning the younger about the path that they are about to take, warning them that the gamble always beats the gambler. Bob the Gambler is the best person to talk about this: and even as he keeps gambling so he instructs others to keep away- but even as they keep living they keep gambling.


Dave Cole said...

Good write-up, but I'd add a couple of things. A few people in the film had obviously American names; I wonder if this was an admiration for the US after '45.


I found the ending didn't work; Polo dies but then Bob goes off quite with the money he has won legitimately. That didn't, for me, sit quite right and, I feel, illustrates one of the problems with the film: while the character of Bob was well developed, the people around him were not. They needed more.

**end spoiler**

It's a sort of Picovaya Dama in reverse. Good film, which could usefully be remade. Indeed, it has been, as The Good Thief which I might look out; it has a lower rating on IMDB than the original.

One of the joys of the film is the depiction, as you say, of Paris after the war.


Gracchi said...

Dave- I think there are three points in your interesting response- thanks for it by the way.

1. yes I agree with you on the naming issue- I think there is a homage to American movies deep in this film.

2. I disagree about the ending- I think in a way that its quite convincing because it embraces the sense that I had to for these people life is pretty cheap. Having lived through the war, the depression and been a gangster I'd assume that Bob was pretty au fait with death and didn't concentrate too much on it. I agree with your wider point though that Palo was not developed well enough probably throughout the film- though actually I think Anne is very well developed.

3. Yes it is a film that could be remade well- I don't know about the remake but i could imagine it working- there is a lot of material in this story that could be taken in different directions. I wonder if we should start a list- films that could be remade at some point!

James Higham said...

As a Francophile, I found this very interesting.

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