A few days ago I had a realization: We may destroy that which we love most, but often our object is more than happy to return the favor. The charming and elegant crook Roger Duchesne plays in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur is a stylish case in point. Bob is a well-dressed rogue who wends his way through the moral penumbra of a classic film noir – effortlessly but inexorably towards destructions of his own making. I say “destructions” in the plural because even his dissipations have failings of their own. Bob, reformed criminal, juggles friendships to the underworld, the law and various stray waifs, attempting to keep each out of the clutches of the others. He sets the plot in motion by compulsively gambling away the small fortune he must have accumulated before leaving crime for a lovely artists’ studio in Montmartre. Forced to execute one last score to re-feather his skint nest egg, he plans to the last detail a heist of the casino at Deauville, assembling a crack team of dedicated specialists, only at the last minute to be betrayed… or is he? Bob misses his cue to launch the team into illegal action when he succumbs at the last minute to his legal addiction and gambles the night away, winning some unimaginable sum – and cashes out just as the cops catch up to him. Even our destruction can self-destruct.
The best laid plans of mice and Frenchmen, laid low by their own natures. Bob le flambeur revels in that ambiguity and perversity. The kids Bob tries to protect want to be corrupted by the big city. Bob’s cop friends go out of their way to protect Bob himself from succumbing to his old habits. Part of the heist fails not because of police work or double-crossing but because of an angry wife. And she hadn’t even seen our clothing receipts. In some degree, this feature is a reflection of the filmmaking of its time, the post-World War II period where French film noir in particular featured sympathetic, principled, crooks, and cops who were proud to collude with – or at least tolerate – them, a legacy of the shameful events in occupied territories where the law had become the instrument of oppression. Deauville itself, of course, was one of the inspirations for Ian Fleming’s Royale-lès-Eaux, a resort town re-establishing itself as a gambling destination after the horrors of occupation and war.
In Bob we have the elements of romantic poignancy, in contrast to the gimmicky, heavily branded supermen of the Ocean’s Eleven series, one of the thinly veiled remakes Bob le flambeur inspired. Today we have Ocean star George Clooney splashed across fashion pages in a badly cut tailcoat he is contractually required to say is Armani made to measure. Instead, Bob is, as The New York Times’ Vincent Canby put it, “a reformed bank robber […] in a Jean Gabin wardrobe.” Indeed, Duchesne wore his beautifully cut suits with the same world-weary elegance of Camps-attired film noir mainstay Gabin. Who knows who made Duchesne’s suits? It shouldn’t matter. To be well-dressed, recognize that there is no true escapism à la Ocean’s Eleven, no escape from the inherent flaws in our plans and our nature, or even our compulsions for something beautiful to wear. We cannot escape from ourselves. Our only hope of liberation from fruitless delusion is to admit that. Through self-awareness, to return to a single self, and in that return find release, in recognition of our flaws, true elegance.
Quality content, like quality clothing, ages well. This article first appeared on the No Man blog in June 2015.