Jean-Pierre Melville’s oeuvre is the subject of a new box-set due from Studio Canal next month, and the newly restored Bob Le Flambeur is a real highlight.
An early cut from the French filmmaker, Bob Le Flambeur charts the plight of the titular Bob, a retired career criminal, forced back for that ever-fateful one-last-job. Fusing the American crime thrillers of the pre-war period with more thoughtful, spirited Gallic undertones, Melville’s film makes for a frantic precursor to the Nouvelle Vague period of French cinema.
The wit and postmodernity that one would come to association with the New Wave is on full show (a fourth-wall moment involving a glockenspiel is particularly memorable). When the film was reissued after the cultural explosion of the Nouvelle Vague it was referred to in marketing as “the undiscovered masterpiece that started it all”, while there’s a contrasting suggestion of the overt in the widely painted thematic undertones that play out alongside the main plot. Bob’s descent plays out on a near Biblical scale, with these bigger ideas housed inside of a more playful shell.
Bob Le Flambeur opens atop Montmartre, looking down upon it’s scruffier, rambunctious, sibling, Pigalle, the district in which much of the film is spent. The Pigalle of the mid-century was a murky space, and here it is one cloaked in smog at twilight. Bob’s is a story of late-night gambling dens and the men who inhabit them. “Montmartre is both heaven and …. hell” can be heard being spoken by Melville himself, during the film’s opening monologue, with the action cutting from the erratic streets of Paris to the wistful serenity of Deauville, with the collision of the two bringing about the film’s chaotic final moments.
Bob Le Flambeur is deserving of the lofty moniker bestowed upon it in the years since release, and makes for an engaging and impressive piece of work. The Melville collection is available from 4th December.