Jean-Pierre Melville’s love of the American gangster film found full expression in Bob le Flambeur, his uniquely French take on the genre. Inspired in part by John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle, the film captures the atmosphere of late night Paris: its casinos, bars, smoky rooms and gleaming moonlit streets, to perfection. It’s this lowlife milieu and the characters that inhabit it, rather than the plot, on which Melville focuses his attention.
Bob, played by Roger Duchesne, a veteran supporting player in his first leading role, is a fantastically memorable character. A well-known, white haired felon, with his best years behind him, Bob is revealed to be a complex character with a good heart who rescues Anne (Isabelle Corey) from the streets, and acts as a mentor to young Paulo (Daniel Cauchy). His fatalistic attitude towards life’s reversals of fortune marks him out as a quintessential Melvillian hero.
Bob Le Flambeur, like all Melville’s early films, was made at a fraction of the cost of an average feature made at that time. He cut costs by shooting on location in bars and clubs of, as well as in his own studio space. The brilliant cinematographer, Henri Decae, took full advantage of these limitations; his scenes of Paris, often shot at dawn when the streets were deserted, were reminiscent of the Poetic Realism of the 1930s. By contrast, the screenplay, which Melville wrote in collaboration with Auguste Le Breton, who also wrote Rififi, reflected Melvilles love of American Film Noir cinema.
In many ways, Bob Le Flambeur anticipated the look and style of the New Wave cinema that would follow in a few years. Its reworking of American pulp conventions, its documentary realism and driving jazz score, in particular, influenced Godard. Contemporary directors too, including John Woo and Quentin Tarantino, have regularly referenced Melville has a major influence.