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Grisbi, in the parlance of the French underworld, means "loot." In the case of 1954's Touchez pas au grisbi ("don't touch the loot"), it's a small fortune in gold bars that cool, sophisticated underworld legend Max le Menteur (Jean Gabin) has stolen before the film even opens. "50 Million Stolen at Orly, Still Not Recovered," announces a newspaper headline, which brings a knowing smile to Max's face as he sits down to a meal, in a nightclub that caters to the underworld, with his less seasoned partner Riton (Rene Dary) and a pair of showgirls (Dora Doll and a young, pouty Jeanne Moreau in one of her earliest roles).
A silver haired man who still strolls into his favorite restaurants and nightclubs with a pretty young damsel on his arm, Max belongs to the old world of criminals, where a romantic code of loyalty and friendship trumps profit and even good sense. "Why did I decide to work with that moron?" he ponders in a voice-over, realizing that Riton, who he affectionately calls "Porcupine Head," is the weak link in his plan to retire rich. And sure enough, that is exactly where affable drug dealer, rival crook and aspiring mob boss Angelo, played by the barrel-chested Lino Ventura in his feature debut, strikes. Ventura, who went on to stardom in such gangster classics and heist films as Class tous risques (1960), Le deuxieme souffl (1966) and Le cercle rouge (1970), represents a reckless, mercenary new wave of predatory thugs that threaten the old world of romantic gangster honor that exists only in the movies.
Touchez pas au grisbi was the first crime film from director Jacques Becker, one of the most underrated and versatile directors in the French film industry in the years between World War II and the explosion of the French nouvelle vague. Becker apprenticed under Jean Renoir in the 1930s, working as his assistant on such classics as Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939), and made his feature directorial debut in 1942. He made comedies, thrillers, romantic dramas and a notable costume drama, Casque d'Or (1952), before tackling the Albert Simonin novel Touchez pas au grisbi, which he radically reworked in collaboration with the author. Together they defied the familiar conventions of the gangster drama.
The defining heist is over before Touchez pas au grisbi even begins and Becker uses violence sparingly, saving the fireworks for the dynamic climax. Instead, he shoots the film in a quietly elegant style that combines the poetic realism of the thirties (exemplified by the great films of Renoir and Gabin) with post-war realism. Max is bored with women and nightlife, seeking his pleasures in friendship, a meal of wine and cheese and his dreams of retirement in the style to which he's become accustomed. "The real subjects of Grisbi are aging and friendship," wrote young film critic Truffaut in his review of the film.
Gabin was one of the superstars of French cinema in the thirties but French audiences were slow in forgiving him his flight to Hollywood during World War II. Even after returning to fight in the Free French Navy and earning accolades and awards around the world (including two Best Actor awards at Venice), Gabin's films were not well attended in his home country. In fact, producer Robert Dorfmann originally wanted Daniel Gelin, a much younger and more popular actor, for the part of Max, but according to Gabin biographer Charles Zigman, Gelin recognized that he was far too young to portray the veteran criminal and recommended Gabin (a colleague, co-star and friend) for the role.
Just as Gabin defined the anti-hero of the thirties in Le Quai des Brumes (1938, as the AWOL soldier seeking escape from a harsh world) and Pepe Le Moko (1937, as the aristocratic crime boss trapped in the catacombs of the Casbah), he redefined the dapper gangster veteran of the post-war years here. The older, wiser Max of Grisbi is elegant, confident, dignified, an underworld elder statesman of grace and dignity. Touchez pas au grisbi became Gabin's first hit since returning to France in World War II and it resurrected his career, elevating him to leading man status once again. But this time he was the older, wiser, more experienced veteran, defined by a knowing resignation to the inevitabilities to life, and yet just as cool as ever.
Touchez pas au grisbi became Becker's biggest film in a decade and established a new mode of French gangster film, a meticulously plotted and elegantly directed caper executed by aging professionals whose codes and friendships are threatened in a world of brazen young punks with no loyalty. Films like Rififi (1955), Bob le Flambeur (1956) and Le Samourai (1967), as original and distinctive as they are, come out of this new tradition defined by Jacques Becker and Jean Gabin in Touchez pas au grisbi.
Producer: Robert Dorfmann
Director: Jacques Becker
Screenplay: Jacques Becker, Albert Simonin, Maurice Griffe (adaptation); Albert Simonin (dialogue); Albert Simonin (novel)
Cinematography: Pierre Montazel
Art Direction: Jean d'Eaubonne
Music: Jean Wiener
Film Editing: Marguerite Renoir
Cast: Jean Gabin (Max dit Max le Menteur), Ren Dary (Henri Ducros dit Riton), Dora Doll (Lola), Vittorio Sanipoli (Ramon), Marilyn Bufferd (Betty), Gaby Basset (Marinette), Barge (Eugne), Bouvette (Le chauffeur de taxi), Daniel Cauchy (Fifi), Denise Clair (Madame Bouche).
by Sean Axmaker