One of my 10 Classics to Watch in 2015, or “blind spot” movies, was supposed to be Rififi (1955), but it turns out I won’t have access to it via streaming or disc before the end of the year, so I’ll substitute another new-to-me French movie from centered on a heist: Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur (1956).
Robert “Bob” Montagné (Roger Duchesne in a wonderful performance) is an aging gangster, a loner and high-rolling gambler (closest translation of flambeur) gone straight, and whose luck is so bad these days he’d “even lose at hopscotch.” Everybody in his part of Paris knows and admires him. He’s regarded with a mixture of sympathy, gratitude and respect by his police inspector friend Ledru (Guy Decomble), whose life Bob once saved, and who now watches Bob and his circle of friends closely, and constantly urges him to avoid crime.
Bob’s been behaving himself after prison time 20 years ago, and he honors an old friend by keeping an eye on his son, arrogant young hood Paolo (Daniel Cauchy). Bob is decent, caring, and generous, has helped a lady friend buy her bar and advises a teen admirer, Anne (Isabelle Corey), to steer clear of prostitution and away from pimp and stool pigeon Marc (Gérard Buhr). Bob’s a classy old timer who refuses to deal with lowlifes or otherwise compromise his morals, but clever and controlled as he seems, he can’t curb his compulsion (he even keeps a slot machine in his closet to get his fix) or resist anything that looks like a sure bet.
Once these players and personalities, and the clues of their potential intersections and problems are dealt out in the film’s first half, Bob hears from a safecracker who heard from a croupier that the Deauville casino safe holds $800 million francs, just waiting for Bob to organize one last big holdup. The heist planning gets under way, an expert ”commando” team is assembled to study the roads and driving times, rehearse in a yard marked to match the casino layout, and conduct some riveting safe-cracking dry runs.
But the most you’ll ever see of the actual heist is the one flash-forward fantasy where we watch “how Bob pictured it.” The scheme is hopelessly derailed by greedy meddlers, loose lips and Bob’s own addiction, nobody has the sense to call it off, and none of that really matters. In this film the caper is less important, intricate or engrossing than the way these characters turn and fall into their preordained criminal places, like safe lock tumblers, or Bob’s double-faced flipping coin. Best of all, it’s Bob’s own nature, his inability to tear himself away from an epic winning streak that distracts him from the heist and gets him caught, and also brings him some unexpected rewards.
This is a cool movie in every sense of the word: stylish, understated, restrained, comically ironic and cutting edge. The use of handheld camera (on a bike), location filming, and jazz score predates the French New Wave, the elegantly tuxedoed and intense casino glam brings to mind James Bond and the setting and twist ending inspired films from Ocean’s 11 (1960) to this day, as well as a remake, The Good Thief (2003).