Wednesday 11 November 2009

Bob the Gambler (1956)

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville
Star: Roger Duchesne
'As told in Montmartre, here is the curious tale of Bob the Gambler...' and it comes with a serious pedigree. No less a cinematic name than Stanley Kubrick said that he gave up making crime films because Jean-Pierre Melville had already made the best of them with this one. Jean Luc-Godard called it the best of the French films influenced by American film noir and it seriously influenced the French New Wave that began only a few years later with pictures like The 400 Blows and Breathless. You can see that influence in some of the editing, as well as the casting of thoroughly natural beauties like Isabelle Corey, refreshingly amateur yet utterly beguiling as an ingenue called Anne.

The Bob of the title is Robert Montagn├ę, a compulsive gambler played by Roger Duchesne. Everyone who's truly part of Montmartre knows Bob: not just the the cops and the crooks but also everyone in between. He's an old school crook who the narration calls 'an old young man who was already a legend of the recent past.' From his appearance that recent past is obviously the American film noir: with his hat and trenchcoat, he looks like a hard boiled detective, aging and tired and a little long in the tooth. He doesn't talk much. The cops call him a hood who's wised up with age, time served having calmed him down, but they're wrong on all counts. He's even a reference point for people to compare others too and they're right. Young Paolo is obviously trying to be Bob.

Because Bob's luck is waning, he decides to set up a job, perhaps the first one in twenty years and a big one too that will be the crowning achievement of his career. The Deauville casino safe has 800 million francs in it on the day of the grand prix and he thinks he's worked a way for it to come to him. He also plenty of contacts, old and new, to make the caper work. However, as the opening narration tells us Montmartre is both Heaven and Hell, and the story takes us through both with a delightful ironic touch. It refuses to leave its steady and painstaking pace, but in doing so becomes a sheer delight. Bob has been betrayed even before he sets out for his big job, but we're never sure how anything is going to play out.

Jean-Pierre Melville was a maverick, who came to cinema as a fan after seeing White Shadows in the South Seas in the twenties, making his own home movies in 16mm. After the war, he became an independent film maker and while his output was never prolific it was important, beginning with his feature length debut, Le silence de la Mer in 1949. He directed only 14 films over almost a thirty year span and one of those was a short. This came early in his career, after Les enfants terribles but long before Le samouraï and Army of Shadows, and it's my first experience of his work. Just from this film alone it isn't difficult to see how influential it must have been, though surprisingly it's only been remade once, as Neil Jordan's The Good Thief in 2002, with Nick Nolte in the lead role.

It isn't just Melville's hand that makes this film so special. The script by Auguste le Breton is superb, as painstaking in the way it builds up the characters and details the upcoming heist as Bob isn't when picking the right people to take part. In fact the heist itself becomes less important as the film goes on. Initially we see it put together: the participants recruited, the details planned, the caper financed. Then we see it rehearsed, on a football pitch with the floor plan of the casino marked out in white paint. We even see it come to fruition in Bob's mind. Over time though it really doesn't matter, for a number of reasons, not all of which I'm going to write about here.

Most importantly, the film is about character, not just Bob but especially him. Bob is very much a man of two halves, as highlighted by the fact that he is a thief and inveterate gambler but who is unmistakably the hero of our story, also by the title of the remake, The Good Thief. He has a bad side that seems to define him, his gambling being an addiction and his path in life being one of a gangster. Yet even as a gangster in the good old days he had a good side. He refuses to shelter pimps on the lam, seeing that as repulsive. He helps Yvonne finance Le Carpeaux, a bar that is a frequent setting for the story, apparently without anything needed in return. He saves the ingenue Anne from a life on the streets, again without reward, even though she's more than willing to offer herself as one.

What we see is a question that continues to reaffirm itself throughout the story. While there never sees to be a struggle between his good and bad side, it's obvious from moment one that each holds the other back from reaching its full potential. Given our western expectation that people are either good and bad, it's impossible to fit Bob into that model. He even has a solid relationship with the chief of police, Commissaire Ledru, though he's no informer. The two merely have a connection, Bob having saved his life once, and in many ways they are friends. Leaping well over the French New Wave, this relationship influenced the modern generation of French filmmakers, being a major influence on The Transporter.

Even the lesser characters are well defined. Anne the ingenue is at once an ephemeral character and one of the deepest in the story. She's apparently uninvolved with the main thrust of the plot yet intricately woven into it to the degree that she is the cause of much of it. Isabelle Corey is so natural in her debut role, that it's surprising to see that she only made fifteen films before retiring from the screen six years later. Anne is a very modern character but defined in a very fifties way, a young lady utterly confident in her feminine wiles and utterly willing to flit around with the breeze. She knows what she wants but isn't too concerned about how she gets it. She's almost excluded from the whole good and bad character delineation because she's apart from both. Only one scene shows her fit into either.

Daniel Cauchy is an excellent Paolo, caught up in a big world he thinks he has power over but is really just still young enough to know everything. Apparently Melville auditioned the young Alain Delon as Paolo but didn't cast him because he saw that he'd steal the film. Delon debuted instead a year later in When a Woman Meddles. Guy Decomble is excellent as Commissaire Ledru, a good cop who does a good job but one who has always known that he may have to arrest his friend Bob. He's not torn between friendship and duty, but nonetheless doesn't want the situation to ever get to the point where he might be. There's insinuation that while he still wouldn't be torn, his colleagues aren't so sure of that.

None of these actors are big names, as indeed Roger Duchesne wasn't in the lead, though I was surprised to find that this was his last but one film. He looks great as Bob, fitting all his character paradoxes, his only flaw being that he sometimes resembles Leslie Nielsen a little too closely. Perhaps the fact that I didn't recognise anyone and they didn't really look like anyone else, Duchesne excepted, helps the film to succeed in grounding itself. The camerawork helps too, sometimes handheld, rarely overtly cinematic in the old ways, and the sound is wonderful. The score by Eddie Barclay and Jo Boyer builds the tension constantly. I have two more Melvilles on my DVR, courtesy of the Sundance Channel and while I was eager to record them, I'm now even more eager to watch them.

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