Touchez Pas Au Grisbi
Details: (M), 94 mins, France,
Synopsis: The great Jean Gabin resurrected his career with the role of Max, an ageing, world-weary gangster who, together with his best friend Riton, has just pulled off the heist of his life. Stealing 50 milllion francs worth of gold ingots, the pair are now set to retire with their sweethearts, Lola and Josy (a 25-year-old Jeanne Moreau), two much younger showgirls. But Max discovers that Josy has been cuckolding Riton with Angelo, the leader of a rival gang, and spilling all of their secrets to the competition. Soon, Max and Riton's plans are thrown into disarray, with Angelo and his cronies using all manner of dirty tricks to get their hands on the "loot".
Summed up in a few lines, Jacques Becker’s remarkable 1953 gangster movie sounds like a mere routine exercise. Set in a Paris of sparkling nightclubs, and dark streets it concerns an aging gangster, Max, played by a wearied and elegant Jean Gabin, who is looking forward to retirement after successfully pulling off the job of a lifetime but finds he cannot escape the underworld and its culture of double-cross.
As a description of the plot, that’s sufficient, even accurate but Tochez Pas Au Grisbi (the title roughly translates as Hands Off the Loot) is a film of character not action, nuance and subtlety, not crime epic myth making.
That’s not to suggest that Becker has dodged or evaded the tropes of the genre at all; there’s tough talk, a great deal of suspense, and intricate and complicated plotting in the best tradition of hard-boiled thrillers and a whopping great climatic shoot out.
Still, as film scholar Adrian Martin argues in his excellent commentary contained on this fine Madman disc, Grisbi is that rarity in crime films, a gangster movie of tenderness, even contemplation.
Perhaps this delicate, sad quality is best summed up in the movies most famous scene. Max and his pal Riton (Rene Dary) have retreated to a magnificently appointed ‘crash’ pad. In a lengthy, talky sequence, Becker gradually evokes the strengths of their friendship and its strains. As the pair take in a supper of caviar, Max admonishes Riton for dating a much younger girl Josy (played by a strikingly beautiful Jeanne Moreau). Not for any risk to their loot mind you…more because Max just reckons that they have to face up to the fact that their youth is behind them and to think otherwise is a little, well, unseemly, and unrealistic. It’s one of the great ironies of the plot, that Josy is indeed a threat to Max and Riton. She’s been back dooring Riton, with a younger and prettier rival, Angelo (Lino Ventura) and he has his eye on the loot and Max’s position as the Mr Big of Parisian crooks.
Indeed, ironies, infidelities and poses are a feature of this great film and Becker doesn’t romanticise or give too much dignity to the characters since their attitudes and perspective are so rooted in the criminal milieau. Max it’s revealed has a much younger girl friend too, and his cool veneer is a mask for a smouldering penchant for violence. He’s not above slapping around a few femmes to get to what he wants either. But it isn’t the darkness that’s so appealing about Grisbi, it’s the light, the soul of these limited and fascinating characters. As critic Geoffrey O’Brien says, “it’s a film where we learn how gangsters brush their teeth.”
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