#294. Bob le Flambeur (1956)

What Bob le Flambeur (Bob the Gambler) drives home, given where it’s situated on the List, is that the 1950s was really fucking different in Europe than the US. But maybe that’s true of every decade. Here, in a slick gangster movie that emulates the American sort from the 1930s (Little Caesar, Public Enemy) but adds a dose of elegance, we can see some of the boundary-pushing we saw in Diabolique and Wages of Fear. There’s a bare breast in Bob le Flambeur and (spoilers ahead) it flirts with something I’ve been itching to see in American movies as the Hays Code loosens its censorious grip: after crafting a complex, likeable, interesting anti-hero in Bob, a down-on-his-luck gambler and, finally, heist conspirator, the movie flirts with the idea of letting him get away with his crime.

I wasn’t inclined to think of this as being part of the French New Wave but, having seen this poster, it does actually seem like the start.

            Of course, the crime doesn’t ultimately get committed—but it nearly gets committed; and, in the eyes of certain censors, the planning of the crime is probably enough to warrant punishment.

            The List doesn’t feature nearly so many European movies as American ones, so maybe I’m mistaken in thinking that there’s a worldwide concern about the depiction of a criminal ever getting away with his crime. But I’d say that the movies that Bob le Flambeur most echoes from the List are Pepe le Moko and Story of a Cheat, both of which are French, both of which feature dashing, elegant, eloquent criminals—personable men whom we come to like.

            Men who are also steered, by the films’ moral compass, toward ruin.

            At the end of Bob le Flambeur, the elaborate casino heist that he and some colleagues have been planning for so long is (1) made unnecessary when Bob, killing time at the casino in disguise as a casual gambler, ends up winning millions of dollars just before the heist is about to go down, and (2) is interrupted by police just before Bob, with his winnings in tow, can run outside and call it off.

            A shootout ensues.

            Bob’s young protégé is killed.

            We see grief from Bob, remorse, as he’s being wedged with another potential robber into the backseat of a police car, his poker winnings loaded into the trunk.

            But also…we see hope.

            Because, for all of his intent, Bob dind’t actually commit the heist. And, of the ones who actually rolled up with guns drawn and confronted the waiting police—all of them are either killed or arrested. So when, in the backseat of the squad car, Bob is being told about how, with a good lawyer, his charges and sentencing can be reduced, and then reduced farther still…we see a smirk.

It’s also really fucking pretty, the blacks and the whites, the streets at night lit up by storefront signs.

            The suggestion, it seems, is that he’s gonna get out of this, and live happily ever after with his fortune and friends.

            In this respect the movie also feels like an homage to, and at the same time a resurrection of, its near-namesake: Dr Mabuse, The Gambler. The first real crime epic on the List, an expressionist masterpiece from Fritz Lang in 1916, where over the course of four hours he fleshes out one of the most compellingly brilliant and devious anti-heroes in cinema. Mabuse (whose story also treats us to suspenseful scenes of poker) is revived at the end of that movie, and appears as a kind of zombie in its sequel The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, also directed by Lang.

            The rescue of Bob is maybe a sort of rescue of Mabuse.

            Anyway. Bob le Flambeur is a good time, moody and stylish and enjoyable even as just a francophilic time capsule. I love the way they pronounce “Bob.”

            Beaub. Beughb.

            Yeah it’s a real good time.

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