Crime Scene is a monthly Vague Visages column about the relationship between crime cinema and movie locations. This Bob le Flambeur essay contains spoilers. Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1956 film features Isabelle Corey, Daniel Cauchy and Roger Duchesne. Check out VV movie reviews, along with cast/character articles, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings, at the home page.
Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur (1956) opens on the Sacré Coeur church at the top of Montmartre, one of the iconic cultural treasures of Paris. The narration, spoken by the director, describes the steps down into the neighboring area as a descent into hell. Much of Bob le Flambeur takes place in Montmartre and the adjacent Pigalle, intertwined with the area’s then-reputation as a bohemian, nighttime center, a seedy underworld of bars, casinos and cafes, all of which seem to run 24/7.
Melville, of course, was renowned firstly as one of the great directors of French noir, taking the building blocks of Hollywood crime cinema and stripping them down to the basics while developing an austere genre cinema. His cinematic universe (the first MCU?) is one of laconic anti-heroes, crooked cops, plentiful betrayals and perpetual nighttime. All of Melville’s films are concretely grounded in time and geography — the Alpine village of Léon Morin, Priest (1961), the ghostly seaside town of Un Flic (1972) or the panoply of wartime France in Army of Shadows (1969) — but Bob le Flambeur is the most specific in its geography. The movie feels both factual and “real” in its use of location, and yet it’s instantaneously mythic, as if the director filmed these lands exclusively to eulogize them immediately. Melville’s Paris is a poetically insomniac version, one that I’m not sure ever really existed. The City of Light has been written about and filmed so much that one has long since forgotten what is real and what is urban legend.
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The Pigalle and Montmartre of the 1950s were indeed home to much of the city’s dark side and its nocturnal denizens. Bob blends perfectly into this milieu; an aging hardcore gambling addict and career thief, he first appears at dawn, having spent all night gambling away his money and drinking, only to head to another bar and continue. Melville quickly familiarizes viewers with the title character’s addiction: having won big at the horses one day, Bob immediately blows it all that night in a casino in the seaside town of Deauville. It’s there, through hearsay, that he begins to concoct a plan to rob the casino — the archetypal “one last heist.” The Deauville casino might promise an opulent juxtaposition to the seedy neon lights of Pigalle, but it quickly becomes clear that its clientele are essentially the same, just dressed better for a night out.
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The actor Roger Duchesne, who plays Bob, wears his character like a perfectly-tailored suit. He was himself a criminal on and off in his life, though many exact details are scarce. Duchesne was a moderately popular actor in pre-war France but a collaborator with the Nazis during the war, and he was resultantly blacklisted from working in film thereafter. Bob le Flambeur and the little-seen exploitation film Marchands de Filles (1957) are his only post-war credits (according to IMDb). Duchesne’s debonair hair and elegant suits, along with the creases around his eyes, speak to a lifetime of bad decisions and poor judgment, enlivened by the odd ill-gotten victory.
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Melville, born as Jean-Pierre Grumbach, was of Jewish descent, a self-declared communist in the 30s, a resistance member in the war (though he was often sketchy on the exact details of his activity) and described himself as a right-wing anarchist and Gaullist in the years after. This collision-collaboration between star and director provides much of the thematic poetry of Bob le Flambeur, enmeshing with its perpetual twilight. Both, I think, felt they belonged to marginal political ideologies or value systems, though it’s hardly as if France magically vanquished the philosophy of Nazism overnight, nor is it as if the arch-conservatism of Charles de Gaulle was anything other than the major political force of post-war France, arguably until today in the shambling spectre of Emmanuel Macron. But the sense of forever being on the way out — of always having to look for one last job, card game or drink, of anxiously trying to justify one’s existence and fronting that up with machismo — seems to imbue the figure of Bob/Roger and Melville’s cinema with an elegant fatalism.
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It finds its perfect geographical twin in the landscape of Pigalle. The opening shots of Bob le Flambeur depict night-dwellers stumbling out of bars at dawn, brushing against morning commuters traveling in the opposite direction. Bob’s apartment looks out onto a cramped view of the Sacré Coeur basilica, a vision of heaven he’ll never attain. The bartenders, waiters, local detectives and barflys up and down the street know Duchesne’s character by sight. At one key point, Bob returns to the hovel he grew up in, a cracked broken one-room building, and describes an upbringing of poverty, where crime is the only way out. The hovel too is in sight of the Sacré Coeur. The basilica exists seemingly as a visual landmark in Bob’s life, as if he’s not allowed to ever truly leave its gravitational pull. Yet, much like a local who has never visited the standard tourist hotspots of Paris, one can hardly imagine Bob or Roger ever setting foot on the steps of Sacré Coeur. Redemption is always visible but never attainable.
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This version of Pigalle and Montmartre has a long and rich cinematic history, but did it ever really exist in the first place? Paris is the first location in this column I’ve actually visited, and I do not like the city: over-expensive and overhyped, a gentrified, culturally-vapid playground for the rich, the famous Parisienne rudeness not as cute as it thinks it is. The modern-day streets of Pigalle and Montmartre might still have plentiful bars and nightlife, but they are ersatz and overly clean, a facsimile version built for tourists to live out their fantasies and then go home at 1 am. Bob’s Pigalle has certainly long since been annihilated now, but it’s already disappearing in Melville’s film, a romanticized version of a place in terminal decline.
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Melville’s filmmaking style seems to place his characters and places in amber, an elegiac stasis hoping to capture this world before it disappears, as it disappears, though it has to exist to disappear in the first place. Melville’s protagonists rarely “grow” or “develop” in the traditional three-act sense. Bob starts and finishes the film as a crook with a gambling addiction. His best pal, the young Paulo (Daniel Cauchy), who sees him as a surrogate father, is just a youthful, more foolish version of him. The policeman (Guy Decomble) and the prostitute (Isabelle Corey) remain the policeman and the prostitute. Whether Bob goes to prison or not after the film’s credits is not important. If he doesn’t, he only returns to the groundhog night world of Pigalle, alongside all his fellow thieves, which might not be hell as the opening narrative suggests, but a purgatory to wait out one’s sentence until release.
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That process will repeat until Bob’s death. The same card games, the same backrooms, the same drinks ad infinitum. Heist films often make a show of the process itself: the construction, planning and execution of the crime as central to the film’s pleasures. In Bob le Flambeur, audiences see the construction and planning of the heist. Bob draws out the casino’s floor plan on a patch of wasteland with his crew (a shot repeated in many a homage to Melville’s film). They practice the timing over and over again, hoping to shave seconds off their time like a track athlete, yet without confronting the messy reality of what a real heist looks like, particularly once it collides with the unpredictability of nervous, twitchy human minds.
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In the end, though, the execution of the heist is not shown, but rather entirely withheld because it does not matter. The process has been perfected. All that’s left is to return to purgatory and pay off one’s debts, day after day, night after night. Perhaps it was when Bob had finished with his purgatory that the seedy romantic Paris of the imagined past ended and the modern-day tourist town Paris started.
Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specializing in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that, he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.
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Categories: 1950s, 2020s, 2023 Film Essays, Crime, Crime Scene by Fedor Tot, Drama, Featured, Thriller
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