Bob le Flambeur (Jean-Pierre Melville / France, 1956):

The tale of "an old young man" opens with dawn-fresh views of Montmartre, striped shirts at a sandwich stand and a beret-wearing gamine casually riding off on an American sailor’s motorcycle. (The neon billboards dormant by sunrise come to life as Cocteau emblems in Pigalle’s nocturnal netherworld: "Narcisse," "Le Sphinx," etc.) Bob the High Roller (Roger Duchesne) is a gentleman-rogue with Bogart’s fedora on his gray head and the deadpan of a lifelong bluffer; on friendly terms with the Inspector (Guy Decomble) after the Rimbaud Bank robbery, he now loses dapperly in gambling dens, drives a Plymouth to the Heads-or-Tails Bar, and follows his own code amid pimps and mugs. Forever flipping coins or working a living-room slot machine, the gambler can’t resist helping himself to one last score. "L’audace, toujours l’audace." The "commando unit" recruited for the casino heist includes Bob’s laddish protégée (Daniel Cauchy), whose aping of the older man’s brand of cool extends to falling for his soigné surrogate daughter (Isabelle Corey). ("Don’t you know I love you," he tells her in bed. The kitten shrugs. "No one’s forcing you to.") Jean-Pierre Melville’s sly and svelte human comedy strikes an articulate cinephiliac give-and-take, with Pépé le Moko, Casablanca and The Asphalt Jungle behind it and Bay of Angels, California Split and Hard Eight ahead. "Was he really the first to copy American hoods?" "Actually, it was the Yanks who copied..." The caper is rehearsed in a deserted field and imagined as a wordless ballet of guns and halls, there are double-crosses and double images (the single brightly lit nightclub in a darkened skyline becomes the Cadillac forgotten in the beach). For all the comely blabbermouths and shrewish wives, the great duplicitous bitch is Lady Luck, who mesmerizes the seasoned gangster at the roulette. "Happy now, asshole? You won." Truffaut and Godard adored it, despite Melville’s prophecy of the Nouvelle Vague as a fawning, copycat kid who ends up on the sidewalk riddled with bullets. Cinematography by Henri Decaë. With André Garet, Claude Cerval, Simone Paris, François André, and Howard Vernon. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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