Lets get a few things straight.
Bob is known by everyone. Bob is a lousy gambler. Bob has a slot machine in his closet. Bob will house a beautiful young prostitute, but not fuck her. To fuck her would stain his honour. To fuck her would be to lose self-possession, yield to lusts and eagerness. Bob is self-possessed. Bob’s been legit for nearly twenty years. Bob is nearly broke.
There are so many things at play, here, in 1956, that it is difficult not to see Melville as a colonist, a Pizarro of French cinema, laying down fault-lines. He breathed America, but this is New Wave: pure emblematic cool. You feel the sweat and sting of film noir and the gangster movie, of Bogart and Huston, the cruelties of Fritz Lang, but there is Godard and Truffaut, Chabrol and Demy and everybody else, waiting, poised, hidden in the summer shadows of a new Paris. The delineations and borders erected by staccato film criticisms are here nowhere present: Bob Le Flambeur contains multitudes. It is the grandfather of many bastard children.
At its heart, the film is about cosmic irony. Bob cannot quit, even though he never wins. He hits the slots after a big win at the races, and loses it all. This is a dance of fate. It can be no other way. His honour, every handful of it, has earned him nothing, or no earthly riches. And here we catch glimpses of greater meanings. Flambeur means ‘gambler’, yes, but it also implies the verb ‘flanueur’: for stroller, lounger, loafer. Melville’s film opens on an oneiric vision of Monmartre, one waking to lost fortunes, caught between heaven and hell. This, then, is Bob’s world. He never made it beyond the city limits. It is Melville’s voice we hear, narrating the strange tale. Bob has fallen, and wanders these morning streets, reflected in passing windows, laughing at his own likenesses. He needs something, the lure of a sting, something impossible, to draw him back from Stygian corners and empty maunderings. First: the girl. Then: the heist. Both come at once, and his luck follows.
This is genre filmmaking and exists in the clatter of its dialogue, the incessant buzz of these Monmartre streets, the vast warmth of the frame. These characters, and the actors beneath, simply have to be, in silent acknowledgement that something remarkable is happening. Great figures would flock to Melville: Belmondo, Delon, Montand. But here, they are not needed. Here we need only Bob, and his lonely goodness. He needs the heist, but abandons it at the crucial moment. Instead, he gambles, not in earnest, but with the audacity of one who always loses. And, of course, he wins millions and is hauled away to jail, determined that a good lawyer will see him to some earthly Paradise.
Melville appears in Breathless, as a film director who seeks to ‘become immortal and then die’. And what finer way to become truly deathless than to make films like this.