Forget about An American in Paris and Amélie. Bob Montagné knows the real Montmartre. It is a place where you can find dodgy night clubs and all-night card games. The latter have always been Montagné’s bread and butter, but he has been on a ruinous losing streak lately. Out of desperation he will revert to his old criminal ways in Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic caper film, Bob le Flambeur (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York, freshly restored in 4K.
Twenty years ago, Montagné did time for a hold-up, but he has been straight ever since. As a professional gambler, he still rubs shoulders with the underground, but he keeps his nose clean and maintains a non-snitching friendship with Inspector Ledru, a cop whose life Montagné once saved. For years, “Bob the High-Roller” made a good living off cards and dice, but his luck has turned. However, a casual conversation with his former safe-cracker crony gives him an idea.
An old associate now working as a croupier at the Deauville casino puts them onto the perfect time the hit the cash-rich safe. It will be a complicated job, requiring a large crew, but Montagné knows people. His first recruit will be his protégé, Paolo, but the aspiring dissolute character is distracted by his desire for Anne, a pretty but selfish femme fatale-runaway Montagné saved from Montmartre’s more exploitative elements. Marc the pimp, Ledru’s sleazy new informant is also sniffing around for something to satisfy the copper.
Flambeur is partly a heist film and partly a gambling movie, but it is all pure noir. Originally, Melville wanted Jean Gabin for the title role, but he settled for journeyman thesp Roger Duchesne, who is now best-remembered for Montagné—and justly so. It is a terrific, career-defining performance, filled with the sort of jaded, world weary insouciance only a middle-aged French leading man at the peak of his power could carry off. The mane is gray, but he is still cooler than Fonzie or even James Dean.
Isabelle Corey is also quite something else as Anne. She debuted in Flambeur, immediately becoming the French “It Girl” of the late 1950s, but after Vadim’s …And God Created Woman, nearly all of her subsequent work would be in Italian productions. Regardless, she and Duchesne have some wonderfully potent non-romantic chemistry going on.
Henri Decaë’s ultra-noir black-and-white cinematography is a joy to soak in. Plus, the moody soundtrack, heavy on vibes and boudoir saxophone, composed by French jazz musician and record label founder Eddie Barclay with bandleader Jo Boyer, is right on the money. The twists are deliciously ironic but perfectly fitting, so it seems bizarre in retrospect it was not an immediate hit in France and did not score a proper American release until 1982, especially since it is now considered a key influence for the French Nouvelle Vague. Very highly recommended, Bob le Flambeur opens this Friday (1/5) in New York, at Film Forum.