Director Neil Jordan has fashioned this remake of the classic French film noir Bob le Flambeur as his own film.
The Good Thief is the first thriller in a long, long time so successfully carried on the strength of unstrained witty dialog & character, requiring no moronic car chases down staircases or noisy shoot-outs to sustain the suspense.
Nick Nolte turns in a powerful performance as Bob, who wants out of his self-destructive drug-addicted, gambling-addicted, criminal lifestyle. Bad luck conspires to put him in the way of "one last heist," a great sub-genre of crime cinema which almost always means "one heist too many."
This time he's doing "two heists at once," one a hoax to attract the attention of the police, the other the real thing which Bob hopes will pass undetected until after his crew is long gone with the loot.
A great international ensemble cast provides powerful support-roles & side-performances, every character shimmering with their own unique eccentricities, gritty beauty, & peculiar sexiness.
I've rarely liked criminals so much, though a classic of similar sympathetic nature would be Jules Dassin's splendid Rififi (1955). The tension of The Good Thief remains intense because the viewer doesn't want any of these criminals to be caught & imprisoned or shot dead.
In the original Bob Le Flambeur (1955) Monsieur Bob is an aging gambler. He meets a young woman still in her teens, beautiful, aloof, cynical, in love with the Bohemian Montmartre district & the Rue Pigalle.
Bob tries to talk her into not hanging out in this neighborhood or she'll end up "a street princess." She has no intention of listening to fatherly advice. But as she's homeless, she's eager to accept his offer of shelter. Soon she starts bedding not but Bob but his young apprentice gambler Paul.
He's called "Bob" because he affects certain Americanisms is dress & attitude. He was one of the first Parisians, before the war, to imitate American mobsters. After he served time for a bank job, & after the war changed the nature of Parisian gangsterism for the worse, he more or less went legit, if life on the edge as a gambler is ever legitimate.
He drives a Chevy convertible & a Bogart hat. Alhough well beyond his prime, as portrayed by Roger Duchesne, Bob is no less the height of melancholic cool. We can certainly comprehend how he remains so famous around Montmartre.
Director Jean-Pierre Melville was of course never a gangster; he was a hard-core fan of American gangster films & Japanese yakuza films, which influenced not only Bob le Flambeur but the majority of his films including his even greater classic gangster film Les Samourai (1967).
So while Bob the Gambler is not an autobiographical character, his story does record with accurately a period of time around the today-lamented Rue Pigalle, it's sex & sensuality, its gambling & crime, it's pimps & prostitutes, it's jazz clubs & cafes, all framed in dangerous Romanticism.
The sequence when Bob meets Anne (Isabelle Corey) on the street, calling out to her from his car, duplicates how Melville actually met her, seeing her walking along the sidewalk & knowing at once he wanted her for this film. The minute details of the film are all from Melville's experience in the Montmartre district, which is to great extent the real star of this beautifully shot widescreen b/w film noir.
After a streak of bad luck gambling, Bob decides to come out of retirement as a thief, & lays a plan for a casino heist worth millions. The film is never really about the heist but about the characters & their lives, but there's a long patch in the middle of the film that slows down to a sluggardly pacing & requires some patience, some of the time being spent showing the planning of the heist & getting too far away from the details of Parisian Bohemia. But even this slow part has moments of intensity, & to realize the guy playing the safe-cracker is a real gangster revealing actual methods lends an added fascination.
Detective Ledru rather admires Bob, owing him his life, & hates that he might have to arrest the famous high-roller. A lot of the suspense of the film comes not from action or from some paradigm of good vs evil, or honest vs dishonest, for there are no really "bad" guys in this story. Bob though a shadowed figure of crime seems almost angelic with his halo of ivory hair, an angel leading a demonic life, & it's only too bad that one side or the other, crime or the law, has to be a loser.
As the night of the crime descends, this is where Neil Jordan's remake goes in a totally different direction. Where Nick Nolte as The Good Thief plans a double-crime, one of which is to throw off the police, Bob by comparison is not that clever. He has only one plan, & it goes wrong in just so many ways, his apprentice Paul spilling the plot to his girlfriend; Anne believing Paul is full of empty talk repeats it to the wrong pimp; the croupier who is in on the heist has been talked into betraying the gang by his deplorable wife.
Bob's gambling is much more his addiction than his pasttime or method of making a living. And when the very hour of the crime arrives, he hasn't a clue how close the police really are, despite that Ledru has made every attempt to warn him off. When he finds himself in a winning streak in the casino, his sickness falls full upon him & he cannot tear himself from the gambling table, so that for all the betrayals & ineptitudes that might have brought him down, he is ultimately as afflicted with folly as any.
There's a certain beauty of Fate & personality in the story of Bob the Gambler. He seems so world-wise & decent on some level, yet there are reasons his life is marked by failures & wrong choices. it's not a perfect film but even with its flaws it's a masterpiece, the influence of which has impacted French & American cinema ever since.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl