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Bob le Flambeur, Le Doulos, and Leon Morin, Priest on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

Kino’s Blu-ray releases help chart the crystallization of Jean-Pierre Melville’s distinctly rigorous style.

Bob le Flambeur
Photo: Rialto Pictures

From his first film, Le Silence de la Mer, Jean-Pierre Melville displayed a remarkable control of both atmosphere and pacing, generating suffocating dramatic tension with the most limited of means. His following two films—Les Enfants Terribles, an interesting, albeit misguided, collaboration with Jean Cocteau, and When You Read This Letter, a little seen romantic melodrama that the filmmaker disowned—are quite different. At one time, they almost suggested that Melville could have gone on to become a skilled journeyman, bouncing from genre to genre across his filmography. But the glimpse at the austere style Melville introduced in his debut would be re-introduced, and further chiseled and honed, once he began working in the genre he would master: the crime film.

In Bob le Flambeur, Melville’s gaze shifts to the crime-ridden pockets of Paris that were often overlooked in French cinema. Serving as the predominant milieu of his films from this point forward, this seedy world—populated by crooks, prostitutes, drunks, and degenerates—is rife with ambiguities that blur the traditional lines between good and evil, with cops and criminals often co-mingling, even co-conspiring. Moral certitude is lost amid the ever-present clouds of cigarette smoke that fill the cheap bars where these nightcrawlers congregate.

With Bob le Flambeur, Melville’s breezy weaving of location shooting and improvisational acting into the hardboiled tropes of American gangster films from the 1930s and ‘40s laid the groundwork not only for his evolving representation of film noir, but for the early classics of the French New Wave, most notably Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows and Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. But it’s Melville’s foregrounding of the role of fate in Bob le Flambeur, soon to become the most commonly recurring theme in the director’s canon, that marks the film as a truly distinct transition into the next phase of his career.

From Bob’s (Roger Duchesne) first roll of the dice, the audience understands that the suave, smooth-talking gambler is, unbeknownst to him, reliant upon forces outside of himself for survival. He’s an ex-con who can only get his kicks with games of chance, yet, despite his addiction, he holds tightly to his moral code of “honor amongst thieves” and a view of the underworld that is as black and white as the checkered patterns that adorn both his apartment floor and the walls of the casino where he soon begins to hemorrhage money on a regular basis. Melville meticulously ratchets up the tension just as Bob’s luck begins to sour and his stringent code and icy demeanor brush up against the more lax approaches taken by the younger crop of hoods with which he’s now working.

Before Bob’s last big heist plays out, the narrator dryly declares, “Now Bob will play his last hand and destiny will play out.” This feeling of impending doom renders the suspense both nerve-wracking and unusual, particularly because the audience, given knowledge of various betrayals, is all but certain that Bob’s plan will fail and is left to helplessly root for him to jump ship before it’s too late. Bob is a consummate professional, but he doesn’t realize the game’s being played with a stacked deck. Such is fate in Melville’s films.

By his next Parisian-set noir, 1962’s Le Doulos, Melville’s aesthetic had crystallized into a more rigid, emotionally restrained and visually precise style. The jazzy, buoyant energy of Bob le Flambeur is replaced with an asceticism akin to that of Robert Bresson, with narrative and compositions alike stripped of all excess, leaving every gesture and line of dialogue to carry with it a potentially deadly weight, ultimately delivered unceremoniously from the barrel of a gun. Our heroes are no longer gamblers down on their luck, but stone-cold killers provided with only one choice: to “die or lie.” And in this film, people do both quite regularly.

Where the machinations undergirding Bob’s fate in Bob le Flambeur are made clear even before the film’s big heist is set in motion, Le Doulos offers no such transparency, keeping nearly everyone’s motives and loyalties shrouded in ambiguity, hidden beneath deep, angular shadows that cut harshly through the screen like a knife. The characters’ pasts are mysteries, and who they are in the present can only be gleaned from the machinations on the job or the elaborate deceits they cook up as a means of survival. As for their futures, more often than not we know that these characters are on a collision course toward an early death.

Le Doulos’s narrative is perhaps Melville’s most labyrinthine, weaving an intricate web of deceit, betrayals, and misdirections that reveals new layers of subtext and psychological complexity with every twist and turn. Jean-Paul Belmondo’s Silien stands as one of Melville’s most enigmatic creations: a charmer with the police when he needs to be and a ruthlessly efficient crook whenever the occasion calls for it. And he remains a cryptic figure to his former cohort, Maurice Faugel (Serge Reggiani), who struggles to confront the possibility that Silien was the rat who set him up and landed him in the joint.

In Melville’s previous film, Leon Morin, Priest, Belmondo also plays a man who intentions are difficult to read. Only here, Leon’s (Belmondo) potential duplicitousness isn’t in service of self-preservation, but for the supposed eternal salvation of the various women he comforts, sometimes with a sexual flirtatiousness that makes his attempts to convert them to Catholicism all the more disingenuous. The film is a bit of an outlier in this middle period of Melville’s, yet its spareness and intense focus foresee the increasing minimalism that would take hold of the director’s style from Le Doulos through to Le Samouraï. Its questions of faith return us again to the role of fate, but the cold, unfeeling criminal world of Melville’s other ‘60s films is replaced with a quintessential struggle between the spirit and the flesh. And questions of honor and professionalism play out not through an elaborate heist or murder, but rather a series of tête-à-têtes between the attractive young priest, Leon, and the bisexual atheist, Barny (Emmanuelle Riva), he coyly tempts.

Where professionalism in the face of certain demise is a driving force in Melville’s crime films, in Leon Morin, Priest, the uneasy and inevitable intermingling of faith and desire yields a tension every bit as biting. If Bob le Flambeur and Le Doulos find men using their expertly honed criminal skills to keep their predestined fates at bay for as long as possible, Leon Morin, Preist sees a man who uses the means at his disposal—his natural charms and sex appeal—to instead rewrite the fates of the women he sees himself as protecting. That he’s successful because, rather than in spite, of his very unprofessionalism makes this film all the more intriguing as a counterpoint to Melville’s many exercises in noir.

Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Fambeur, Le Doulos, and Leon Morin, Priest are now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.

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