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The point of origin for the modern French gangster film, Touchez pas au grisbi (translated as "Hands off the loot!") is based on a phenomenally popular 1953 novel by Albert-Charles Simonin (1905-1980) that is still in print in France today. Raised in the La Chapelle district of Paris, Simonin used his intimate knowledge of the milieu to lend his novels a special sense of authenticity; he revitalized the roman policier genre in general by incorporating gangster lingo into his prose style and later compiled a dictionary of Parisian slang.
Becker's film, which features a sharply written script by Becker, Simonin and Maurice Griffe, keeps the slang in the dialogue but pares down the plot to its essentials. Another director might have chosen to open the film with the Orly robbery as a suspenseful set piece along the lines of the burglary sequences in John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle or Jules Dassin's Rififi, but Becker is interested mainly in revealing character. He gives even minor characters the opportunity to stand out in at least one memorable moment: for instance, we see a theater electrician pinch a showgirls' behind backstage without changing his expression. Similarly, when Max walks out of a shop without drinking the brandy he ordered and leaves a generous tip, the proprietor pours the liquor back into the bottle and says to his wife, "We need more customers like him." But of all the film's many "privileged moments," to borrow Francois Truffaut's term, none is richer or more poignant than the famous scene in which Max and Riton reflect quietly on their lives while brushing their teeth and getting ready for bed in the tastefully decorated, anonymous apartment in which they are supposed to live out the rest of their days.
Touchez pas au grisbi was widely viewed at the time as a comeback vehicle for Gabin, who gives the best performance of the latter half of his career. In this film Gabin's screen persona, with his stoic fatalism, establishes a direct link between the French Poetic Realism of the 1930s--as embodied in films such as Marcel Carne's Port of Shadows and Le Jour se Leve--and the baroque, existential gangster films of Jean-Pierre Melville that would follow in Becker's wake. It's a bit comical to see the aging Gabin flirting with every pretty young thing who crosses his path, but it's certainly not out of character for the protagonist Max. The ex-wrestler Lino Ventura also stands out in his first film role as the treacherous Angelo, as does a young Jeanne Moreau, who is already using her trademark pout to maximum effect. Becker's direction is spare and unfussy, allowing the story to flow naturally without in any way sacrificing expressiveness or visual interest.
The new Criterion transfer is beautiful, with finely rendered contrast that showcases the film's atmospheric black-and-white cinematography by Pierre Montazel. The 35mm print used for the transfer is in excellent condition, and the mono audio is clear and free of distortion. Although the DVD lacks an audio commentary track, it does have interviews with the actors Daniel Cauchy (who plays Fifi-le-Dingue), Lino Ventura, and composer Jean Wiener. It also includes an excerpt from an episode of French television series Cineastes de notre temps devoted to Becker and the original theatrical trailer. Lastly, the liner notes contain well-written essays by Philip Kemp and Geoffrey O'Brien on Becker as a director and on the film, respectively. Jacques Becker's austere, psychologically acute Touchez pas au grisbi is easily one of the most enjoyable French films of the Fifties, so its incarnation as a Criterion Collection DVD is unreservedly welcome.
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by James Steffen