Bob le flambeur, or Bob the High Roller, an early film by Jean-Pierre Melville, set the template for so many later American “heist” movies that, at first glance, it’s almost difficult to write about. The characters will all seem familiar. You have Bob, the veteran, 50-something gambler who wants to make one big score before retiring, Anne, the teenage girl eager to begin a life as a petty criminal, Paulo, Bob’s dimwitted 20-something sidekick, Marc, the woman beater and ex-pimp coerced by the police into turning informer, and a supporting cast of petty criminals, cops, and bohemian low lifes. The plot will seem familiar to anybody who’s seen one of the Steven Soderbergh “Oceans” films. A crack team of criminals comes together to do a “job” in an exotic, romantic location. Something goes wrong. There’s an ironic plot twist. The ending leaves an opening for a sequel.
If you look more closely, however, you’ll begin to notice how most of the American remakes of Bob le flambeur pulled it out of a political and cultural context that every Frenchman in the 1950s would have understood. Bob Montagné lives in a duplex in the Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre. It’s not quite what you would call luxurious, but he does have a tall pair of windows that look out over The Sacré-Cœur Basilica. Actually, the view is even better than I’m describing it. The Sacré-Cœur Basilica fills his pair of windows, a vision of heaven shimmering in the distance. For an American, the The Sacré-Cœur Basilica is “that big white church up on the hill in Paris.” It’s a pretty postcard, nothing more. For an Irish Catholic like Bono, it was a great place to stage a U2 video. But for a Frenchman, The Sacré-Cœur Basilica is the “victory mosque” built by the French ruling class over the mass grave of the Paris Commune. For “Montmartre,” substitute “Berkeley in the 60s” or “Kent State,” then multiply that times one hundred. For an American, Montmartre is a romantic, far off, exotic place. For a Frenchman, Montmartre is the ancient capitol of French radicalism, of the Jacobins, of the Paris Commune, of the militant French working class.
Bob Montagné, a role George Clooney was born to play, may be an elegant, silver-haired, middle-aged gentleman, but he’s no bourgeois. As Melville makes clear when he has Bob take Anne back to the ratty little shack where his mother lived, Bob is a slum kid. Montmartre isn’t a far-off exotic place. It’s his home town. Well into middle-age, Bob is still scamming his way through life. Anne is no victim. She’s a shameless little hussy, but Bob knows she’s on a dead-end road. She won’t always be young and pretty. Eventually, if she doesn’t change her ways, she’ll just be another saggy, washed-up old whore on the streets of Paris. But how will she, or Bob’s sidekick Paulo, change their ways? The French class system has condemned all of them to the choice between a dull, soul crushing life in the working class, or the ante-purgatory of the Montmartre ghetto. Montmartre, the film’s narrator tells us, is “a little piece of heaven and a little piece of hell.”
I have read critical essays on Bob le Flambeur which have argued that part of Bob’s respect in his little corner of Montmartre comes from the idea that he’s an old school, 1930s crime figure in the 1950s, that he comes from a generation of petty thieves and gamblers that refused to collaborate with the Nazis. I don’t know enough about the history of organized crime in France to make any guesses about how Bob made his living during the German occupation. He did spend time in prison, so perhaps he sat the whole thing out behind bars, but it’s clear that there’s now a workable equilibrium between the French state and the underworld in Montmartre. The police like Bob. He’s a criminal and they’re the police, but there’s never any personal animosity. The cops wink at small time gambling and prostitution. Pimps, on the other hand, are despised equally, both by Bob — who’s quick to offer a loan to Marc, another petty criminal, until he realizes he’s an ex-pimp and a woman beater— and by the police, who put the screws on Marc to become an informer.
What happens when that equilibrium breaks down?
The police tell Marc they’re not interested in gambling or prostitution. Neither threatens the French class system as it stands. What they want is “something big.” That’s what they get when Bob, after losing his life savings at a fancy, seaside casino in Deauville — imagine the French version of The Hamptons — comes up with the idea of robbing their safe, a high-tech marvel with four locks and a lift that brings it down underground after closing time. The safe, which, supposedly, contains 800 million Francs, is the way out, Bob’s vision of transcending his roots as a Montmartre slum kid. Not only will that 800 million Francs allow Bob to retire, just planning the heist makes him CEO of his own little company. He finds investors. He strong arms a casino employee, another ex-pimp who doesn’t want his employers to find out about his past, into giving him a floor plan, and the make and model of the safe. He hires a technical expert, a master safe cracker who breaks locks with a stethoscope and an oscilloscope.
Then everything goes wrong.
Bob’s sidekick Paulo, who’s deeply in love with Anne — she can take him or leave him — tries to impress her by bragging about the big job he and Bob have planned. Anne, who doesn’t take Paulo seriously, brags to Marc, who she’s sleeping with on the side. Marc promises to tell the cops. Paulo murders him before can follow through on it, more out of jealousy over Anne than to protect the job, but the wife of Bob’s inside man at the casino come up with her own scheme to get her husband off the hook and Bob locked up. A skilled professional thief, of course, would immediately call off the job, but it’s not that easy. Bob is committed. He’s already got investors. Robbing the seaside casino has the call of fate. It’s now or never. It’s his last chance. So they go through with it. Bob takes his place as a “lookout” at one of the gambling tables. His crews gets in place. The cops prepare a raid. Then Bob’s luck changes, all for the good. But it’s too late, and the movie ends with a question.
What happens when the unstoppable force of a streak of good luck meets up with the immovable object of a cursed fate?