Jean-Pierre Melville's Bob Le Flambeur is considered one of the best and most influential of the French film noir from the 1950s. And unlike many of its type, this quintessential heist movie plays it light and breezy instead of dark and brooding.
Not that there isn't a sense of dread in the story. Bob (Roger Duchesne), a retired bank robber, has channeled his restless spirit into a gambling habit, and haunts the dingy streets of Montmartre (lovingly shot by Henry Decae) into the wee hours of the night. Knowing that he's mired in a losing streak, Bob decides to go for one last big score that will set him for life (the classic set-up), so instead of being dragged into it a la Rififi's Jean Servais, he's his own worst enemy. (Melville had wanted to direct Rififi, and got the film's writer, Auguste Le Breton, to collaborate with him on Bob.)
Like so many of his cinematic peers, the silver-haired Bob lives by his own code, a criminal who likes some of the riff-raff whom he encounters and dismissing others as lesser than he without making a big deal out of it. He's living life by his own rules, the ultimate gangster fantasy, fashioning a stylish appearance with his clean fedora and tooling around town in his Cadillac convertible. He sees a lot of himself in his trouble-prone protégé Daniel, to the point where instead of falling for a teen femme fatale (Isabel Corey), he takes her in and even plays matchmaker.
Duchesne, who was known as the man's man of his day, plays Bob with such self-assuredness you can't help but cheer him on, even if, in a nice twist by Melville, you don't want his gang's impossible raid on the casino at Deauville to succeed.
Critics hailed the 1955 film's freeform shooting style as a precursor to the French New Wave that would soon follow, and directors like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard cite Melville as a huge influence on their work. In this newly restored version presented by the New Orleans Film Society, contemporary viewers get a chance to see what all the fuss was about -- and have a lot of fun in the process.