Touchez Pas au Grisbi Review
Just one last job. The ageing gangster trying to retire. How many times have we seen that plot in the crime genre? It’s a reliable cliché, but despite being made in 1954, Jacques Becker’s Touchez Pas au Grisbi feels as fresh and sophisticated a take on the idea as any since.
That fits the modus operandi for French cinema. Film retrospectives tend to favour the value of the extraordinary work by new wave directors like Truffaut and Godard, but France always had a deep appreciation for Hollywood. While the editors of Cahiers du cinéma may have been exasperated by their peers’ tendency to tread well-worn paths, the results are fantastic entertainment, undercut with wit and intelligence. And just as Kurosawa’s flattery of the Western through his Samurai films reinvigorated the genre, so you too may find that Becker’s film is a pristine gem that gleefully emphasises themes his American cousins had arguably taken for granted in the often lazy studio system. He made it easy for them too, because his films feel more international than even those of Jules Dassin (Riffifi) or Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Cercle Rouge).
Touchez Pas au Grisbi stars Jean Gabin as Max, a highly respected gentleman thief. He and his partner Riton (René Dary) have pulled off an audacious heist that has netted them millions in gold bullion. All he needs to do is get it fenced, but a rival gangster, Angelo (Lino Ventura), kidnaps Riton, demanding the bullion in exchange for his life.
The film title translates as “Hands Off The Loot” and combined with a plot like that, doesn’t it just sound like a lean, gritty b-movie? It is a lot of fun, but it’s not an exploitation flick. There is a great tradition of Film Noir and gangster movies in France, but this film doesn’t quite fit there either. Jacques Becker’s mastery of seemingly any genre, his consistent focus on character and plot, would actually make him a candidate for the auteur theory that Truffaut was championing the same year Touchez Pas au Grisbi was being released. In this example, there are action beats (well-executed set-pieces at that) but it is more of a melodrama. Sidney Lumet championed the genre and rightly so; it’s misunderstood, probably thanks to a propensity in Hollywood to over-boil character pieces. For Becker, his direction is masterful and composed, the dialogue a joy and the cast are exceptional.
Jean Gabin is wonderful as Max in a consummate performance of a man very at ease with his position, but old age is catching up with him and retirement beckons. He’s the epitome of cool, lively and sardonic and yet there is a tiredness in his eyes. It invests every scene, at least in the first two acts, before Max has to start applying pressure to find his partner. Still, he is not quick-tempered, but Gabin convinces as a substantial threat when crossed and on him, the film comfortably rests.
The hulking menace of Lino Ventura is a great villain in this strange world of honourable anti-heroes, the cast of which is fleshed out with memorable supporting characters; especially one of Max’s friends, a club owner with a sideline in torture. For a film so focussed on what’s basically the male menopause, the women are strongly played too. The plot turns on Riton’s girlfriend (Jeanne Moreau), which might be enough for a contemporary telling of the story, but Becker has room for the other women too.
Becker, for the most part, lets the cast play off one another and the pace of the film is engrossing. Perhaps the mood, intention, and eccentricity of the piece can be summed up in two sequences: first, Max has to lose Angelo’s gang who are trying to kidnap him as well as Riton and it’s a definitive cat and mouse scene. Then, he and Riton make it to a safe apartment and the urgency fades; what follows is merely two friends arguing over who gets the bed or the sofa, using the bathroom and settling in for the night. It’s effortless, has not a shred of exposition and nonetheless sums up the film entirely.
This incredible film has quite the heritage and deservedly so. The loneliness of career gangsters is essayed in The Long Good Friday and Heat, but in retrospect Becker’s fingerprints are clear. His assured version of the plot even at over 60 years old is the one with the most clarity of purpose and Jean Gabin’s Max is a classic anti-hero that should be far better known. He is a perfect balance of charm, efficiency, unflappable grit and a demeanour that simmers with annoyance because he really is too old for this shit.
Not bad for a melodrama. It’s common and understandable to see Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather as a watermark in crime cinema, but there is a tendency to neglect what came before. Directors like Jacques Becker were already successful in melding crime and drama and it’s likely that work like Touchez Pas au Grisbi had at least an unconscious influence. Even Jean Weiner’s score has a hint of Nino Rota’s more famous melody.
The transfer by StudioCanal is wonderful. Bright and pristine, it occasionally threatens to bloom, but there is little noise and the contrast between shadows and more brightly lit areas is excellent.
Interview with Professor Ginette Vincendeau (8m)
Professor Vincendeau is a great host, discussing the time the film was released and placing it in context with Truffaut’s criticism of French cinema at the time. She suggests that Jacques Becker was a model for the New Wave, even if he wasn't part of it.
Interview with Jean Becker (13m)
Jacques Becker’s son was a young set runner on the film, so he has lots of cheerful anecdotes about his father and the film.
Interview with Jeanne Moreau (5m)
Interesting archive interview, if rather awkwardly rehearsed, though it is typical marketing from the era. It’s fun to hear Jeanne, a future poster girl for French New Wave, talking about the film.