This was my first time seeing Bob le Flambeur, and I was blown away. The only other works of Melville's I had seen were Le Doulos and Le Samouraï. While all three of these films work in the gangster milieu, Bob le Flambeur is decidedly more humanistic than the other two. The other two films are in a world where it is every man for himself. To put a twist on a well worn cliché Bob is the gangster with a heart of gold. We learn that Bob saved the life of a policeman years ago by pushing his accomplice's hand away as he pulled the trigger of a gun aimed at inspector Ledru. Whether it was expressly for saving the policeman's life or sparing his accomplice the maximum prison penalty that killing a cop would bring it isn't clear, but Bob could've just as easily stood by and done nothing. It's hard to imagine Silien from Le Doulos or Alain from Le Samouraï sticking his neck out like that for either reason, either to save a policeman's life or to save an accomplice some jail time. Perhaps Melville's opinions of gangsters changed over the years? It's interesting to see Melville portray the gangster type as someone with upstanding morals. Melville's portrayal of the Bob as a sharp-dressed, charming, kind-hearted gangster stands in contrast to Truffaut's from Shoot The Piano Player, where they were misogynistic, bumbling hoods.
Bob seems to respect women much more so than Truffaut's gangsters. In one of the early scenes an associate, Marc, drops by needing to borrow money to skip town. Bob gets his wallet out and is ready to loan him some francs until Marc says he is on the lam after beating up his "girlfriend" (most likely on of his hookers). Bob refuses to lend him the money and sends him away. He takes in Anne, a pretty young homeless girl, and gives her money for a hotel and then lets her sleep in his apartment without trying to use it as an advantage to have sex with her. I'm sure it's no coincidence that the apartment has a commanding view of the Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart) basilica in the background. In the beginning we hear Melville's voiceover talking about distance between heaven & hell. The Sacre Coeur sits on the highest point of Paris (heaven) and overlooks Pigalle (hell), the sketchy part of town where Bob first sees Anne being picked up by an American sailor. Taken that into consideration, Melville portrays Bob almost as a saint, a divine guardian for wayward girls. We also learn that Bob loaned money to Yvonne to open her café. One gets the feeling that perhaps Bob and Yvonne may have been lovers at one point but that things didn't quite work out.
Bob also functions as a sort of father figure to Paulo, a young, inexperienced, gangster wanna-be. In one scene he breaks up a conversation between Paulo and Marc as they are working out the details of a scam. Bob pulls Paulo outside and warns him not to get mixed up with Marc. Behind Bob, out of focus, we see a neon sign that says "Romance" in the background as he lectures Paulo. This could be read that perhaps Bob was once like Paulo and had ideas of a romanticized life outside of the law, but is now older and wiser, having served his time in prison as a result of the path he chose. On the other side, behind Paulo, we see a sign that says Sans Souci (care-free), a comment on Paulo's inexperience and never having been arrested.
While Bob le Flambeur came out a few years prior to the new wave explosion, there are elements of the film that clearly influenced it. While it is relatively straight forward as far as its narrative, editing, and camera angles are concerned, there are still enough deviations from the classical Hollywood style to set it apart. First of all the subject matter, the gangster/criminal underworld/noir genre, would be used by Godard and Truffaut, among others in the new wave. (put in sound effects at racetrack here). There is also an excellent example of non-classical editing used in the scene where the safecracker is practicing on a mock-up of the safe they are going to rob at the D'eauville casino. The scene recalls C.T. Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc with succession of facial close-up shots of the gang of crooks (and their dog). It doesn't do anything to move the storyline ahead and is visually disorienting, and both of these techniques were used by the new wave directors.