Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Place of the Gambler

One of the coolest movies I've ever seen is 1956's Bob le flambeur ("Bob the Gambler"), a gangster film directed by Jean-Pierre Melville. The story of an "old young man", it's a slice from the life of a man who casually gets by on things most people would consider reckless but he also conveys the depth and experience of a fellow who's been around a while and knows just what he's doing. He's distinguished from a younger supporting cast who are all cool in their own ways, inhabiting a shadowy, beautiful Montmartre.

Whether this movie could properly be called a film noir is debatable--I'd say yes, not just for the lighting and the crime but for the interplay between concepts of choice and fate. Bob (Roger Duchesne) lives by gambling, one of the purest combinations of choice and fate--you choose to play a game that leaves your fortune to fate. He used to pull heists but he's been clean for twenty years, he's even friends with a cop.

Then he loses big at the races one day and gets wind of eight hundred million francs being held in the vault of a casino. He weighs the decision carefully before deciding to go forward, at which point he begins to assemble a team and Bob le flambeur becomes the prototypical heist film. But a lot has happened in the movie before this.

Time is spent creating this world of criminal Montmartre. We meet a pimp who tries to borrow money from Bob but Bob's scruples won't allow him to help someone who abuses women. This both establishes part of the world and contributes to Bob's character. We meet a young man named Paolo (Daniel Cauchy) who, someone observes "does everything like Bob," at which someone else notes all young people want to be like someone they look up to. But Paolo surpasses Bob in one regard; with the beautiful, fascinating Anne (Isabelle Corey).

Bob takes her under his wing when he sees this young woman walking the streets apparently without a care in the world. Her lack of shame or fear is almost supernatural. When someone suggests beautiful young women like her usually have sugar daddies, she replies, "I just got one," meaning Bob. But it turns out she prefers to have sex with younger men and she doesn't get attached to any one of them.

There's not really any plot justification for the level of detail in her development except that it helps establish the world and Bob's self-control. Between the elegant costumes that never seem to quite cover her chest, Corey's performance, and the way she's shot by Melville and his cinematographer, never quite lingering as long as you'd like, she offers such temptation you admire Bob for having the strength not to fall down on his knees and beg for her affection. Paolo doesn't have that strength.

I love how this scene is put together, reversing between two point of view shots; from her looking straight at the high angle camera, naked in bed, lazy and playful, to Paolo standing over the low angle camera, insistently stepping forward with the light behind him, the visual appropriately coming on too strong as he rashly gives her sensitive information to prove himself that she didn't even ask for.

And then the film has one of the great gambling scenes at the end, largely to do with the surprise in its context, the sense of a hand of fate maybe or just pure luck. Is it cruelty or grace? It's hard to say but the question ensures you can't take your eyes away for a moment.

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