Paris. Bob Montagne (Roger Duchesne) likes to gamble. More than that, he lives to gamble, he has no other purpose in his existence, and spends dusk till dawn at the poker table, or throwing dice, and if he manages to rouse himself after that kind of activity the previous night, he will gladly visit the horse racing and spend money there too. These funds go like water down the drain, for Bob, despite his many years practice, has never attained any kind of level of aptitude at his mission; certainly he tries to look the part of success, always dressed up and dapper, but his smooth, middle aged silver fox appearance masks a man who would in many people's minds be a complete loser...
Bob was important to someone, however, and that was his director, Jean-Pierre Melville, who obsessed over the character for the best part of a couple of years before whipping this, his first crime flick, into shape. Why was it significant? That was because there were a large number of significant directors who counted it as among their favourites, from the inevitable Quentin Tarantino to Paul Thomas Anderson (whose debut Hard Eight owes a debt here) to Mike Hodges (whose sleeper hit Croupier similarly took its cue from this) and many more; there was something about its doomed romanticism that struck a chord in a particular type of man, filmmaker or otherwise.
Maybe they would have liked a mentor relationship, from whichever perspective, as Bob has with young gangster Paulo (Daniel Cauchy), as depicted here with world-weary sympathy, or perhaps it was the whole twilight world of those who lived on the periphery, either thanks to being pushed there or by choice, and should they choose to stick their heads above the parapet they could easily find their heads getting shot off if they were not careful enough. Although it was not a film that took place entirely in the night time hours, it contained a mood that assuredly felt that way, and for its fans they would acknowledge Melville had got the crime milieu just right first time, no matter his later achievements.
Funnily enough, he did not make as many movies as you might expect, and not all were crime yarns, but it was in the genre that his aficionados champion him thanks to a capability in presenting the denizens of such a world and making them come across as utterly authentic. That said, Melville's approach could be icy, distantly observant more than warm and friendly, always a sign that you are going to be taken very seriously indeed by cognoscenti and casual crime movie follower alike - no room for jokes here, it's a matter of life and death and more often than not before the end credits have rolled there will have been someone meeting the wrong end of a gun and collapsed, often in the gutter with a bullet in their chest, plugged by a fellow gangster, hitman or the lawman who has been on their trail.
Duchesne was a canny item of casting, looking not so past it that he could not turn the head of an attractive lady had he been on a winning streak, yet since we know that streak will never come, he is relegated to his in-between existence of bars and backrooms with the occasional casino or racetrack to break up the monotony. Yet here's the thing: every day may be the same, but it is not monotonous for Bob, who sees each new hour as a fresh opportunity to make that fortune we just know if he ever actually won, would be squandered just as quickly as it was amassed, for it was only that pure moment of winning that made it into his consciousness, everything else barely mattered. However, he does know a hard luck case when he sees one and takes drifter Anne (Isabelle Corey) under his wing, spurring him on to organise a heist that will finally see his boat come in. That this did indeed end on an extended joke did not make it a comedy, it elicited a hollow laugh, and if it was a bit silly when you got down to it, there was a neat irony in Bob's victory and defeat. Music by Eddie Barclay and Jo Boyer.
[This film and five others directed by Melville are available on a Blu-ray box set The Jean-Pierre Melville Collection, with in-depth featurettes as supplements on each disc.]