Touchez pas au grisbi (1954): Jacques Becker’s highly sophisticated gangster classic

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The English translation of the film’s title is “Hands off the loot” or “Don’t touch the loot”. In U.K, it is known as Grisbi and in the U.S, it goes by a different name: Honor Among Thieves. The “loot” in the title refers to the eight gold bars that was stolen in a heist some weeks ago. The mastermind behind the heist is Max (played by Jean Gabin) and he was aided by his long time partner, Riton. The heist is never shown but rather as a newspaper headline that is seen by Max. He reads this in a calm, dispassionate manner as he is seated a nightclub that he regularly frequents with Riton and a couple of young showgirls that work there. Max and Riton are middle-aged and on the surface, their life looks grand but we can see that things are not quite what they seem. Max is visibly bored. He is well-aware of his age and doesn’t take pride in hanging out with a showgirl half his age. We can see that it’s not a serious relationship. They are soon by Marco, a young protege of Max’s. He is incredibly nice to Marco and even takes care of his tab at the club.

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The club is owned by Pierrot, a dear friend of Max. When Pierrot asks for Max’s help in facilitating a drug deal set by a gangster named Angelo (played by Lino Ventura), he declines and instead recommends Marco for it. After Max and Riton leave the club, they learn that Angelo has sent two men after them and Max learns what they are really after: the gold bars. Max saw the heist as the very last activity of his criminal life and he hoped to say goodbye to it after that. But when Angelo makes things difficult for him by kidnapping Riton, Max becomes conflicted realizes that the time has come for him to make a difficult decision. I cannot stress enough the greatness of this highly sophisticated gangster film from French director Jacques Becker. As I had mentioned in my previous post (which was a review of another Becker film), there is a significant difference in the style of every film he has made so far. But the quality of his direction is unmistakable. His well-focused and refined filmmaking style comes through in this one as well.

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Touchez pas au grisbi is highly regarded in film circles and it’s through a list of film recommendations by Martin Scorsese that the film first caught my attention. I’m a huge lover of gangster films and naturally, I was compelled to get hold of this film at once. It was my first experience with a Becker film and it was such a fulfilling experience that I was tempted to watch the film over and over again and by now, I’ve seen it as many times as I’ve seen The Godfather or The Godfather-II. Yes, my dear readers, the quality of the film is on par with those two films. In fact, I think they were strongly influenced by Grisbi and if you’ve seen these films more than five times, you could easily see the influence. Not just the American films but Grisbi served as a template for every French gangster film that soon followed, such as Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur or Jules Dassin’s Rififi. At the same time, the influence of the 40s American gangster films in some of the French gangster films is apparent. But what sets them apart from their American counterparts is that these films had the stamp of their directors all over them, especially Grisbi. The film’s soul is uncompromisingly French.

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The character of Max is quite similar to The Godfather’s Vito Corleone in that Max is as world-weary and wise as Vito and they both have a zero tolerance for any sort of foolishness. Max’s partner Riton doesn’t share his qualities and is rather a clumsy old fool who thinks he can take care of Angelo. But Max wouldn’t have none of it and in one scene reminds him that they are not young anymore. He shoves a mirror into Riton’s face and points to both of their sagging chins and the bags under their eyes and asks: “Do you think we’re a pretty sight?”. He is equally soft and hard with women and doesn’t mind giving them a good slapping if their lousy behavior jeopardizes his plans. The heist that is mentioned in the beginning is never shown and instead he focuses more on the characters, exploring their psychology and their dealings with each other. Becker’s style is not flashy and he employs a restrained and naturalistic style which is characteristic of all his films. The film provided Jean Gabin with his much needed comeback and he does a fantastic job playing the role of Max. Also, it provided an opportunity for a first time actor called Lino Ventura to make an outstanding debut. Ventura is my favorite of all the French actors and I love him more than Gabin, Delon or Belmondo.

 

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