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DVD SAVANT

Touchez pas au grisbi


Touchez pas au grisbi
Criterion 271
1954 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 96 min. / Hands Off the Loot! / Street Date January 18, 2004 / 29.95
Starring Jean Gabin, René Dary, Lino Ventura, Jeanne Moreau, Dora Doll, Daniel Cauchy, Michel Jourdan, Marilyn Buferd
Cinematography Pierre Montazel
Production Designer Jean d'Eaubonne
Film Editor Marguerite Renoir
Original Music Jean Wiener
Written by Jacques Becker, Maurice Griffe, Albert Simonin from his novel
Produced by Georges Charlot, Robert Dorfmann
Directed by Jacques Becker

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Anyone who loves film noir crime films will go nuts over Touchez pas au grisbi, a French tale of honor among thieves that owes nothing to the American model. Gallic star Jean Gabin, the prime exponent of 1930s natural realism, revitalized his career in this hardboiled but ultimately civilized thriller. It might be a continuation of the story of Pépé le moko, had he been able to return to his beloved Paris.

For added thrills there is the fun of seeing Jeanne Moreau and Lino Ventura in very early performances. After enjoying the exotic Du rififi chez les hommes and Bob le flambeur, we hope there are more of these exciting European crime masterpieces out there.

Synopsis:

Longtime partners Max "The Brain" and Riton (Jean Gabin & René Dary) are looking forward to retiring as soon as it is safe to cash in the millions in gold bullion they have stolen. Max is scaling back his high-living ways, acknowledging the fact that he's no longer a young rake, but Riton makes the mistake of hinting to Josy (Jeanne Moreau) that he's sitting on a big score. Josy and her friend Lola (Dora Doll) are prostitute-showgirls with a penchant for cocaine and money, and it's not long before drug dealer Angelo Fraiser (Lino Ventura) is making plans to force Max and Riton to "hand over the loot."

Jacques Becker made crime films that stressed the ordinary lives of extraordinary criminals; every note I've read about Touchez pas au grisbi includes the revelation that it dutifully includes a scene where the tough-guy heroes brush their teeth. Many American movie gangsters derived their style from the costume department but here in the Paris of Simonin and Auguste le Breton the crooks seem to exude style from their pores. The nightlife in Michel Jourdan's club and their favorite diner is kept separate from that of square civilians. We even see some tourist types being directed to another restaurant.

The cozy clannishness of the crooks is entirely deceptive, as everybody watches everybody else for a way to throw a wedge into a good thing. Lino Ventura's Angelo is a quiet drug dealer but has no qualms about using kidnapping and extortion to cheat Max and Riton out of their ill-gotten gold. The normal women that our heroes run with are disloyal bitches (that's what Max decides, anyway) that snort cocaine (on camera, in detail, 1954!) and sell themselves to the highest bidder.

The characterizations are deep and mellow. Max is easing out of the high life to avoid becoming one of the geezers on the dance floor who has to buy the company of women. He tries to point this out to his still-vain partner ("look at the bags under your eyes!") to no avail; Riton's urge for Moreau's Rosy is the undoing of all their plans.

While Hollywood films were stressing the ruthless impersonality of modern American crime, Touchez pas au grisbi involves us in a deep meditation on loyalty. Max's entire life is invested in some gold bars hidden in the trunk of a parked car, but he willingly forfeits them to redeem Riton from their enemies. Nightclub owner Marco is a tough customer who uses tactics obviously learned during the German occupation, and is ready to torture punk gunsel Fifi (Daniel Cauchy of Bob le flambeur) in a special room that might have seen use against collaborators (or the resistance, perhaps). When push comes to shove, Max's true friends come to his aid. War-era machine guns are distributed from secret caches, and the hunt is on.

We side with Max from the start when he pays a young crook's lunch tab and sets him up for a job with Angelo. Although the irony is acute, Max never grouses that the fellow's first assignment is to extort money from his benefactor. Such things are taken as natural occurences.

The other big star of Touchez pas au grisbi is Paris itself. Starting with a pan to the Moulin Rouge over gray rooftops, every scene is a visual treat. This is the city that once existed, before modern glass buildings took over. We enjoy every cobblestoned street and decorated foyer. Max holds up two would-be kidnappers in an open-frame elevator, and even his parking garage has interesting accordion grates to protect the cars. Many films noir took place in generic city street sets, but this French film gives us a look at a real past.

(spoilers)

Touchez pas au grisbi works itself out in a familiar pattern of violence and killings sobered by real-life frustrations. It doesn't matter how badly one wants the loot if it's in a burning car too hot to touch. Max promises Marco's wife that her man will come back in one piece, but when the opposition uses hand grenades nobody can predict what will happen. And all of one's good planning can easily go up in smoke. In the end, we see Max taking a renewed interest in his wealthy American girlfriend Betty (Marilyn Buferd). Always controlled and composed, he shows none of the wear and tear of his ordeal. Frankly, his only future now might be at her side. Things could be a lot worse.  1


Criterion's DVD of Touchez pas au grisbi shows the benefit of digital restoration for video; I saw a Rialto print of this picture on a screen a year ago and the disc looks and sounds far better. The slick B&W photography is a pleasure to watch and there are few if any marks on the print.

The extras include a trailer and several interview excerpts, mostly culled from earlier French docus. Daniel Cauchy is in a new (2002) piece while Lino Ventura and composer Jean Weiner (Max has a nifty harmonica theme) come from older material. A slightly longer featurette has snippets from screenwriter Maurice Griffe, Albert Simonin and Francois Truffaut. Both they and the insightful insert essayists Philip Kemp and Geoffrey O'Brien stress the fact that director Jacques Becker Le trou worked in the same cultural blind spot as fellow Frenchman Georges Franju, after the classics (Becker was assistant director to Jean Renoir during his best period) but before the New Wave.

The flow of classy genre fare from Europe on DVD only seems to get better. When I first read about Touchez pas au grisbi about ten years ago I had no idea it would ever surface for us to enjoy. DVD is in a very exciting stage.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Touchez pas au grisbi rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: interview clips, archival and new, original trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 6, 2005


Footnotes:

1. The beautiful Marilyn Buferd was a Miss America winner who made a number of French films. That unfortunately didn't translate to success back in the states, where she was wasted in trash like Queen of Outer Space and The Unearthly
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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