French director Jean-Pierre Melville's status as a maverick inspiration for the New Wave directors became known after Godard cast him in "Breathless" as the celebrity being interviewed at the airport. There's even a casual reference to "Bob le Flambeur" in "Breathless," but this fact did little for Melville's own movies during the subsequent expansion of the foreign-film audience here. Only his second feature, a movie version of Jean Cocteau's "Les Enfants Terribles" made in 1949, was revived with any frequency, and it was already a staple of the foreign-film repertory.

However, the selection committee of the New York Film Festival remained loyal to Melville (whose real name, incidentally, was Jean-Pierre Grumbach--he assumed a fictitious surname out of adoration for Herman Melville), and a festival "rediscovery" of "Bob le Flambeur" in 1981 seems to have paid belated dividends. Triumph Films, a specialized distribution subsidiary formed by Columbia and the European company Gaumont earlier this year, made "Bob" its third acquisition for the American market, following "Das Boot" and "La Vie Continue," and a number of reviewers have greeted the picture as a long-lost masterpiece.

The evidence itself tends to confirm Melville's assessment that "Bob" emerged as something less than a masterpiece and left plenty to be desired. An intriguing but far from impressive or flawless antique, it seems a tentative, hit-and-miss attempt at a certain kind of stylization -- a simultaneously sardonic and romantic evocation of an urban criminal milieu. Approaching this particular cinematic relic with inflated expectations could pave the way for a major disappointment, so it's advisable to trust the filmmaker's own modest perception of what he achieved. "From my memories of a world I had known pretty well," Melville said, "I wanted to paint as truthful a picture as possible of the prewar French milieu. My original intention was to make a serious film, but after I had seen Huston's masterpiece 'The Asphalt Jungle,' I realized I could no longer deal, either dramatically or tragically, with the preparation and execution of a robbery. So I decided to reshape my scenario completely and turn it into a lighthearted film. 'Bob le Flambeur' is not a pure policier, not a thriller, but a comedy of manners."

Bob Montagne, played by Roger Duchesne, is a silver-haired underworld eminence in his fifties who leads a nocturnal existence in the nightclubs and backroom gambling dens of Pigalle. A professional thief in his youth and a former convict, he has retired from an active criminal career and devotes himself to gambling. A chance encounter with a former crony, Jean, now employed as a croupier at the Deauville casino, plants the seed of an ambitious new scheme -- knocking over the joint on the night of the Grand Prix -- in the minds of Bob and another old pal, Roger.

As the temptation grows into an intricately planned caper, Bob's criminal comeback is complicated and threatened by the romantic entanglements of two callow, unreliable prote'ge's -- Paolo (Daniel Cauchy), the son of a pal killed in a holdup years earlier, and Anne (Isabelle Corey), a trouble-seeking teen-ager discovered prowling the streets. Taking a paternal interest, Bob tries to steer Anne away from prostitution, but this stray sex kitten carries on simultaneous affairs with the unwary Paolo and a pimp named Marc, who also happens to be a police informer.

The material sounds more provocative than it plays. As the story unfolds, the potential erotic and melodramatic tension seem to be suffocated by defective plot manipulations. For example, I'm not sure what causes the robbery attempt to be reactivated after the crooks are alerted to the likelihood of betrayal and appear to scrub the operation. There's a clever, justly famous comic twist to the knockover -- while stationed in the casino in the hours preceding the caper, Bob begins playing the tables and has such a phenomenal run of luck that he loses track of time and makes his own armed robbery conspiracy superfluous. Given this turn of events, it becomes even more difficult to attach any importance to the aspects of the story that need to be taken seriously and certainly have dire consequences for some of the characters. Although "Bob" becomes more amusing down the stretch, it also seems to violate its own ground rules in the process.

The film's pictorial texture is distinctive and appealing enough to satisfy many enthusiasts. The cinematographer, Henri Decae, got his start with Melville and later became an indispensable collaborator of the New Wave directors. "Bob" is shot in a high-contrast black-and-white that does endow much of the imagery with a witty, seductive sheen.

One can imagine "Bob" generating a little more oomph if Jean Gabin had played the lead. Duchesne, at best a second-string Gabin, doesn't seem to project the necessary, inscrutable force of personality. The only striking performer is Corey, spotted by Melville on the streets of Paris when she was just 15. Instead of rivaling Bardot, a theoretical possibility on the basis of her sheer, precocious erotic suggestiveness, she ended up being overwhelmed by Bardot a year later when she was foolish enough to accept a subordinate role in "And God Created Woman." In retrospect, "Bob le Flambeur" may be better qualified to inspire an Isabelle Corey cult than a Jean-Pierre Melville cult.