1956; directed by Jean-Pierre Melville; written by Auguste Le Breton and Jean-Pierre Melville; 98 mins
“… it turned out to be the last time that street guys like us were ever given anything that fuckin’ valuable again!” – Nicky Santoro, Casino
Bob Montagné is the consummate gambler, a legend in his own lifetime, he has the rule of the roost and command of the streets. He looks after his friends and has no time for pimps and woman-beaters, although he tries to keep his distance from women, emotionally. We meet him going through an unlucky streak and when the shit hits the fan, he is forced back into a life of crime. Along with some very close compadres, he sets about trying to knock off a casino in Deauville.
On the surface, this is a film all about procedure and method (notice the many chessboard or grid-like furnishings in Bob’s chosen environs). “The perfect crook” Bob’s first line, spoken whilst looking in a mirror; as much a reference to his life’s goals as to Melville‘s styling him after so many American movie stars. Luck and good fortune only really come to those who wait and Bob knows how to do that. The film’s narrative reflects this also, waiting 45 minutes before we even get to the idea to do the heist. The first half of the movie is taken up with learning about these characters, their world and how their codes and ethics define them.
Of course, the eternal joke being the flipside of that coin. That’s probably why the Casino quote occurred to me. Casino is a film about process and then human weaknesses that lead to ruin. In the end, Bob and his friends may have all the tricks of the trade down pat but they are victims to their own addictions. Bob is a gambling addict; the reason he ends up showing us his meticulous heist process is because he can’t put anything away for a rainy day. He is a slave to the dice. Similarly, his young friend, Paolo, is a sucker for the ladies and his relationship with aspiring hostess, Anne, proves to be an undoing in itself. An undoing of which Bob is to blame too having introduced them despite knowing Paolo’s nature. Bob can read people’s faces but is afraid of what’s underneath. Insert your own chess/card-game metaphor here.
The film, like so many of Melville’s other works, is stylishly shot (this time by Henri Decaë), really giving a ground-level view of the Paris underworld, showing us how glamorous and alluring it all is. The dialogue is typical french tough guy stuff but with a feeling of research behind it rather than just bluster. Melville’s third feature – and his first crime flick – would prove a year zero moment for many reasons: a definitive voice in the gangster movie canon, a huge influence on the French New Wave and a homage to Hollywood gangster noir that was influenced by and in turn would influence countless other filmmakers. In essence, a disguised, nostalgic shot across the bow to the world of movies.