Bob Le Flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville, France, 1956)


Screenshot 2020-02-23 at 12.24.52

An achingly romantic and effortlessly cool gangster film. A voice-over narration at the beginning leads us into a world of night just before the dawn, that moment where the night is over, the nightclubs close, the prostitutes go get a bite to eat on their way home, and cleaning ladies, already late, race to work. Some people have jobs, some people don’t have a bed to sleep in and must improvise, perhaps with a willing American sailor. On one side is the heaven represented by the Sacre Coeur church, on the other, the hell which is for some also a little bit of heaven, represented by the neon lights and easy sex of Pigalle, where Bob lives, with a wonderful view of the Sacre Coeur from his living room window, a metaphor for the film as a whole.

We see nightclubs, with drinking, dancing and gambling. We hear jazz. Sex is sold to get by, but in an easy way, without the film getting all judgmental about it; which is not to say that the film offers no judgment. The lower depths has its own ethics. About the worst thing you can be is a squealer or a pimp. But the film complicates even this: you can squeal without knowing it. Being a pimp doesn’t mean a girl won’t have sex with you for fun or even marry you later, after you quit the profession, and sure to ruin your life just as you ruined so many before.


Bob le flambeur seems to take place in a liminal world of complex relations that call on the past, on many lives already lived and unknowable except to those who lived them: on bonds of obligations — and affections — where betrayal in some is as certain as loyalty in others. It’s a film of romantic attitudes, of stances not very cool boys would like to aspire to, of sex and death and jazz. The links between this film, Le Samourai and Un Flic are direct: the underworld, the jazz, the nightclubs, the solitude, the elective affinities, the love that kills and the more solid affections that last…at least before the final shootout.

The film has a wonderful sense of place, of mood, of compulsion, and feelings that are understated but strongly felt. If the story is about the acceptance of existential ache, the way it’s told is formally dazzling and playful: the irises in and out, cutting through vertical or horizontal wipes, a jump cut, beautiful purposeful camera movement, and lighting that shimmers. It’s like the past and present of film technique effortlessly deployed in the service of the story. One notices how many of the camera set ups are on precise diagonals. It’s telling that the most extreme and beautiful close-ups in the film are at the very moment of unwitting betrayal that sparks the denouement (see above). It’s a film I never tire of, currently on MUBI.

With Roger Duchesne as Bob, Isabelle Corey as the young woman on her cups, Guy Decomble, the impatient schoolteacher in 400 Blows, plays a police inspector friends with and possibly indebted to Bob. The music is by Eddie Barclay and Jo Boyer and the great cinematography is by one of the greats, Henri Decae.


José Arroyo

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