Le Croupier et Le Flambeur By Mike White. Robberies in film date back to the earliest cinematic narratives, such as Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery...
Robberies in film date back to the earliest cinematic narratives, such as Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery. But it was in the ’40s and ’50s that the “heist flick” found its footing with the cinematic conventions of film noir. Thus were born classic films such as The Killing, The Asphalt Jungle, Criss-Cross, et cetera. These films usually set up a protagonist in desperate need of money or with a desire to “buck the system” and obtain a stake illegally, stealing and killing in order to fulfill the “American Dream.” As explored in greater detail in Foster Hirsch’s Detours and Lost Highways, the French New Wave had a penchant for reworking classic noir elements into their new style (Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, Godard’s A Bande Apart, et cetera).
Just as director Mike Hodges stayed at the fringes of the neo noir resurgence of the ’70s with his seminal work, Get Carter, French director Jean-Pierre Melville remained at the outskirts of the Nouvelle Vague throughout his career. While Godard was toying with the mechanics of filmmaking, Melville directed a series of self-described “love letters” to the glory of pre-war Paris and lost ideals. A closer look at Melville’s oeuvre will be included in Cashiers du Cinemart #13. Until then, this article will focus on Melville’s Bob Le Flambeur as a counter-point to Hodge’s 1997 film, Croupier.
Hang on Tightly
Bob Montagné (Roger Duchesne) is a punter. He gambles from dusk until dawn, living among the night people of Paris’s Montmartre. He moves from card game to craps game, ending his nocturnal activities with a ritualistic pull on his personal slot machine. As with most Melvillian protagonists, Bob lives by a code of honor-a Bushido for the underworld. Even among the riff-raff with which Bob consorts, he is a nobleman. This is ultimately Bob’s downfall. To be honorable is to be outmoded in the “modern world” of post-war France where so many showed their true colors by allying themselves with the Nazis. Romanticism is dead, but Bob still clings to it.
Though not desperate for money, Bob and his cronies concoct a scheme to rob Deauville Casino. The majority of the film shows Bob gathering his crew, getting the proper backing, and running his men through their paces. To provide everyone with a proper perspective of the casino, Bob even chalks out the floorplan in a field.
However, Melville makes the audience aware of several facts that spell doom for the robbery. Bob has refused to help Marc (Gerard Buhr), a pimp who physically abuses his girl. Marc rats Bob out to Inspector Ledru (Guy Decomble) in exchange for leniency. Additionally, the audience witnesses a scene of the robbery taking place, before which the omniscient narrator advises: “Here’s how Bob planned it all to happen.” Thus, we know the outcome will diverge from this idealized scenario. Melville’s cleverness is never more apparent than by revealing the robbery-the culmination of the movie’s narrative thrust-while making the audience aware that there’s more to the story.
As the real robbery begins, the police are on their way. Inspector Ledru hopes to stop Bob from committing such a foolish act as the two share a mutual respect (and follow a similar code of ethics). Bob is in his proper place at the casino, biding his time for the robbery. But how can Bob just wait around for the heist to begin when there’s money to be won? Simple, he can’t.
Bob begins to gamble. And, for once, Bob begins to win-and win big. He moves from table to table, his cache of chips growing larger with each game. By 5 A.M.the start of the intricately planned robbery, Bob has won millions of francs.
Of course, the cops foil the robbery. As he’s being hauled off to jail, several porters bring Bob his stacks of money, placing it into the truck of the police car.
“Criminal intent will get you five years but with a good lawyer, he could get it down to three years,” says Inspector Ledru.
“With a really top lawyer,” Bob says, “I could sue for damages.”
Though “defeated,” Bob has successfully joined the cynical post-War world.
Let Go Lightly
When Croupier begins. the protagonist, Jack (Clive Owen), shares a good number of traits with Bob. Jack is a writer-perhaps only slightly more risky of a profession than gambling. His first scene in Croupier has him going to see his potential publisher, Giles, desperate for work. Invoking Bob’s bedtime ritual, Giles plays the slot machine in his office while giving Jack three words of advice, “Write, write, write.”
While Jack struggles to give his new story a name (going from two words, to three, to just one), he sports a chapeau incongruous to ’90s London but identical to one Bob wears in the streets of Montmatre. One mustn’t overlook Jack’s blonde locks, which recall Bob’s gray hair.
It’s when Jack dyes his hair jet black that he begins his journey from one side of the table to the other. Punter no more, Jack becomes Jake-the man who runs the game. “The croupier never loses,” he thinks. In truth, he must lose everything in order to gain what he seeks. He must know the chaos of the casino in order to know order.
In his first meeting with his new boss, Mr. Reynolds (Alexander Morton), Jack is given three simple rules about the casino: 1) No gambling, 2) No fraternization with fellow croupiers, and 3) Do not recognize the punters (gamblers) outside the casino. Three words of advice, three rules to live by, three women in Jack’s life. To know and consort with two of them-Bella (Kate Hardie), a fellow croupier and Jani (Alex Kingston), a South-African punter-is to break two of the rules, and to break the heart of Jack’s girlfriend, Marion (Gina McKee).
It’s when Jack breaks the third rule that the narrative of Croupier begins to tread ground familiar to Bob Le Flambeur. Here Jack begins to resemble Jean (Claude Cerval), the croupier, of Melville’s film. Jack takes a gamble with his career and life by agreeing to be a pawn in a robbery scheme. However, where the better part of the heist film’s narrative shows the planning and execution of the robbery, Croupier subverts this to the extreme. Not only does the audience maintain Jack’s limited point of view-knowing only his small part in the larger plan-but Hodges shoots the robbery from the floor of the pit. By the time it’s all over, we’re not even sure what took place.
The pluralism of Croupier runs so rampant with its mirrors and doubles (even Jack’s zodiac sign is Gemini-the twins) that it’s difficult to see a third aspect of Jack’s character. Marion believes that everything comes in threes, and so should the audience. More than the blond punter Jack or brunet croupier Jake, our faithful narrator strives to be “up above the world, a writer looking down on his subject, a detached voyeur.” The rule breaking, the risk taking, the shedding of his former self-it’s our narrator on a trip to Zen Serenity. He strives for the world to turn ’round him, leaving him miraculously untouched.
This third aspect of our narrator’s personality goes unnamed. When he successfully attains enough material for a book, i croupier, it’s credited to neither Jack nor Jake but “Anonymous.” Note the two-word title of the book without comma between-there’s a separation of person and profession. Our narrator is neither one nor the other. Instead, he’s the blank space in-between.
The Bottom of the Deck
Certainly, there are scads of films about gambling in world cinema. Were director Mike Hodges and writer Paul Mayersburg consciously recalling Bob Le Flambeur in Croupier? Apart from a few similarities of hats and heists, do the films share much else? Yes, without a doubt.
To emphasize the dichotomy of the film, mirrors play a major role in the mise en scène of Croupier. Likewise, in the beginning of Bob Le Flambeur, Bob Montagné happens upon a dirty mirror after a rough night of gambling. “A fine hoodlum face,” he says wryly to himself. Both films are stylishly shot with lush cinematography. In both films, the world of the casino is portrayed as otherworldly: clean and bright as opposed to the grungy streets of London/Montmatre.
Both films stand on their own as classic character studies while diverging from classic noir heist films.
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