Jean-Luc Godard was supposedly the first to travel down the streets of France with a camera hidden in the basket of a bicycle, but Daniel Cauchy claims Jean-Pierre Melville did it seven years earlier on “Bob le Flambeur.”
Melville and perhaps most specifically “Bob le Flambeur” were pivotal in inspiring directors like Godard and Francois Truffaut in the evolution of the French New Wave, films that valued directorial style, visual dynamism, gritty realism and numerous American influences.
“Bob le Flambeur,” along with Jules Dassin’s “Rififi,” mark the beginning of the modern heist film, and it’s got all the trimmings of a landmark movie in leading a cultural revolution in Europe.
Translated literally as “Bob The High Roller,” Bob (Roger Duchesne) is a compulsive gambler with a past as a bank robber. He has such an unhealthy obsession with gambling, he sits down at a table, buys only one chip and loses it instantly in the ante. But the biggest gamble of his life will be to rob a Montmartre casino on the night of the Grand Prix when it holds 800 million francs. He enlists a team full of specialists as well as his two proteges, Paolo (Cauchy) and Paolo’s lovely new fling Anne (Isabelle Corey), to perform the heist. He seems only to be taking the risk because it is his compulsion. It’s a dangerous game.
The film is rife with details and planning scenes that would become common place in films like the “Ocean’s” movies (not ironically, “Bob le Flambeur” also inspired the original “Ocean’s Eleven”), but Melville embeds so much life and vitality in all of these moments. Canted angles illuminate the surprisingly chic checkered walls of night clubs and casinos, wipe cuts and a jazzy soundtrack bounce the action forward in time, and steamy nude scenes are as revealing as anything put in a film up to that point. You can practically see the French New Wave leaping from this film.
Melville said in an interview in 1961 that he had made a list of 63 American directors he admired from before the war. To do so with European directors, he said, would be near impossible to even come up with 10. Melville relished American films and culture. He strove to make a movie like “Bob le Flambeur” without having money or actors who were willing to commit to a shooting schedule that ran over two years, all so that an American audience could admire them. He had a personal style that was both loved and loathed, and within a few years of this film, he would be one of the names you could add to that list of European masters.