Bob Montagné is a middle-aged man of dignified looks and tastes. He is by nature a gambler, although his luck is at times spotty, having spent a stint in jail some years ago. Nonetheless, he is looking for one big hit, when his luck suddenly seems to change for the better. First, he takes in a protégé, a thin young man named Paolo (Daniel Cauchy). Then he protects a young woman, Anne (played by a then-seventeen year old Isabelle Corey) from pimp Marc (Gérard Buhr), and leads her into the arms of Paolo. And all of a sudden, when Bob and his partner Roger try to make a small fortune and fail, the heist of a lifetime falls into his lap, through the conversation of a mutual friend, Jean, working as a casino croupier in Deauville.
Moment by moment, Bob The Gambler takes fewer and fewer risks. The man with a slot machine in his closet decides not to pull the lever, waiting until he can get to the true jackpot. He blackmails the croupier for 500,000 francs (in hopes of a 800,000,000 franc jackpot), but loses half the cut in negotiating with the man bankrolling the operation. Bob switches from a career of risk to one of calcuation: “We have all taken risks, but on quick, unplanned jobs.” Diagrams turn into chalk outlines on the ground, and the safecracker’s stethoscope gives way to his oscilloscope. The film cuts to the heist being performed in Bob’s head, down to the last detail. Bob The Gambler is now acting like Bob The Micromanager.
And yet other forces are planning against Bob. More than one person knows his plan, and Paolo kills Marc before he can completely inform the police. By this time, however, the croupier’s wife has also called Inspector Ledru (Guy Decomble). Those who aren’t trying to rat Bob out are trying to prevent him from making a mistake. Yvonne, owner of the “Pile ou Face” (Heads Or Tails) bar, tries to repay an old debt to Bob. Inspector Ledru, owing Bob his life from a previous incident, tries to let Bob know he’s on to him, but to no avail. Bob does not want to surrender to authority nor to common sense.
When all his planning goes by the wayside, the luck kicks back in. Bob goes on a hot streak, turning a 1,000 franc bet into a fortune. He forgets the plan, and with that goes the perfection of the previous walkthrough. His accomplices do not get through the front vestibule, and Paolo is gunned down. Bob, however, has his life, his fortune, and the means to keep it.
What is special about Bob le Flambeur is that it is a film with all the film noir sensibilities, except for the bleak ending. Does Bob get caught in his scheme? Yes. But with his winnings in tow, it is still possible for him to lawyer up and even countersue the police. Does his protégé die at the hands of the police? Yes. But in Paolo’s life and death he liberates Anne from both a life of prostitution and a life of domesticity. Few French films if any would have done such a thing; even Rififi and Le Salaire de la Peur had Pyrrhic victories, and with censorship codes still intact in America, an ambiguous ending would have been heretical.
Director Jean-Pierre Melville can be thought of as the “missing link” between film noir and le nouvelle vague. Jean-Luc Godard not only used Melville as an actor in his breakthough film Breathless, but took from him directly his use of the jump cut, which can be seen in Bob le Flambeur. Meanwhile, Melville continued to use the film noir narrative and economic style throughout his career, only on a scale afforded by later recognition, such as in Le Samouraï and Le Cercle Rouge.
At one point, Melville tips his hat to one of the masters of French film noir, Henri-Georges Clouzot. Bob discovers the girl he saves from a life of prostitution, and takes him to his place, apartment 36. He jokes that it is the same number as the Quai des Orfévres, which is the name of Clouzot’s 1947 film of a young dancer whose love of older men gets her into trouble with her husband.
The narrator describes Bob as “...an old young man who was already a legend of the recent past”, and Roger Duchesne fits the role perfectly. Duchense was fifty years old when Bob le Flambeur was released, and near the end of a long acting career. However, like his character, Duchesne’s life was not at its end; he would die at the age of 90 in 1996.
Bob le Flambeur was remade in 2002 by Neil Jordan, with some critical but not commercial success, as The Good Thief, starring Nick Nolte as Bob.