Jean Gabin, in his great older, wiser, elegant phase, is Max, the smooth elder statesman of gangsters in the French underworld in Jacques Becker’s graceful, wistful gangster film Touchez pas au grisbi (France, 1954).
A silver haired man who still has young women chasing him (and he, bemused mercenary that he is, just as easily dumps them), Max belongs to the old world of criminals, where a romantic code of loyalty rules and friendship trumps profit and even good sense. The conflict comes in the clash with the chaotic post-war generation of ruthless thugs. Affable drug dealer and aspiring mob boss Angelo (Lino Ventura in his feature debut) discovers the secret of his hidden loot—the “grisbi” of the title, a small fortune in gold bars stolen before the film even opens—and strikes at Max’s weak link, his thick-headed best friend and partner Riton (Rene Dary).
Director Jacques Becker takes his time with the tale, turning such digressions as a simple meal or an informal consultation into a fully realized scene with a rhythm and a drama all its own. He shoots the film in a quietly elegant style that marries the poetic realism of the thirties with post-war realism, a wistful idealism of “gentleman” thieves with the mercenary treachery of the new urban hoodlum.
The film revels in the laid-back pacing and in his loyalty to friends. Every scene is energized by Gabin’s cagey, confident Max, a worldly figure of grace and dignity who turns ruthless when a friend’s life is at stake, and the film is enriched with a wonderful gallery of characters (including a small but delightful turn by young Jeanne Moreau as a pouty golddigging chorus girl).
Touchez pas au grisbi (the title translates to “Don’t Touch the Loot”) is a fantasy of romantic gangster honor that exists only in the movies and Becker not only knows it, he embraces it. The film ushered in a new mode of French gangster film, of meticulously plotted and elegantly directed capers executed by aging professionals whose codes and friendships are threatened in a world of brazen young punks with no loyalty. It looks forward not only to Becker’s brilliant prison escape thriller Le Trou (1960) but to the great French noir gangster classics of Jean-Pierre Melville.
Black and white, in French with English subtitles
Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Touchez pas au grisbi [Blu-ray]
Touchez pas au grisbi [DVD]
Touchez pas au grisbi (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]
The Kino Classics release features commentary by Film Critic Nick Pinkerton, interviews with director Jean Becker, actress Jeanne Moreau, and professor/film critic Guenette Vincentia.