For old time crime boss Max, friendship and trust are the bonds that irreversibly link the partner to the penalty, the opponent to each other. Like malfeasant musketeers, vowing to take a stand – or a bullet – for another member of the illegal infantry, crooks cling to their clan, knowing that the solace they seek and the compassion they want will never be found in the outside world. But there is a price to be paid for all this unswerving loyalty and basic blind faith. If your cohort screws up, he takes all of you with him. And said street is almost always non-reciprocal. If your buddy makes out like the proverbial bandit, it's rare that he or she decides to share their unearned windfall with you. Though thievery may be thick, blood...and personal gain, are apparently much more viscous.
In his amazing crime thriller Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (translation: "Hands off the Loot!") famed French director Jacques Becker gives his aging antihero, the suave sophisticated gangster Max the Mentor a choice. He can maintain the partnership and people he's cherished for his entire life, or allow chaos to destroy his well-ordered semi-retirement. Max can see the end of the road in sight, the rest he has worked for his whole career. But a misguided allegiance by his longtime friend Riton may have ruined everything. Now he must wage wars he thought were long over, and try to keep from losing everything. After all, if one thief goes, so do they all. They're thick that way, remember?
While visiting a favorite nightclub, Max is called in by the owner, Pierrot, to settle a dispute with drug dealer Angelo. The crime kingpin wants his men to peddle the dope in the club, but Pierrot doesn't trust these goons. Naturally, Max has a solution – he will offer up the services of his protégé, Marco. After all, if Max vouches for him, Marco is the man. Anyway, after catching Riton's girl Josy with Angelo, Max decides to help his buddy out in the love life department. But before he can get to the truth, he discovers that there are hit men after him. Soon Riton is kidnapped. Trying to get to the bottom of the double-cross, Max learns a few hard lessons about friendship, security and the power of pillow talk. It all ends on a lonely highway with guns drawn and tensions mounting, as Max must choose between his life...and the well being of those he holds dear.
Mesmerizing to watch as it slowly unfolds, perfectly paced so as to never miss a beat of suspense or story, and filled with the kind of directorial brilliance that is all but absent from modern moviemaking, Jacques Becker's Touchez Pas Au Grisbi is one of the best marriages of material and moviemaker ever to be preserved on celluloid. An assistant to the legendary Jean Renoir during what is perhaps that director's greatest era as a cinematic artist (he had the privilege of working on such masterpieces as The Grand Illusion and The Lower Depths) and hailed for his attention to character and detail, Becker exemplifies the filmmaker as visual storyteller. As influenced by Hollywood – especially the work of King Vidor - as he was the auteurs in his native France, Becker would come to directing rather late in his career (after a few first aborted attempts and a WWII stint as a prisoner of war) but the movies he made in the short time before his death (in 1960 at only 54 years of age) would form the cornerstone of an entire era in French cinema. Touchez Pas Au Grisbi, from 1954, ushered in the série noire school of films, a genre that would last for the next 20 years.
And it is easy to see why. Alive with electric performances, filled with the kind of luxuriant existentialism that would resonate throughout the world of film (making up the main philosophy for the films of the 50s and 60s) and crafting a clockwork plot that never once falls backward onto and forward into itself, Touchez is a work of total enchantment. As the narrative moves along, slowly divulging its secrets and carefully placing its dramatic catalysts to where they're almost unseen, Becker demands your attention and never once fails to repay your patience. Touchez is a film that never tells you where it is going, surprises you with the turns it does take, and asks if you remember all the intricate groundwork the director laid out before, to get you there. Unlike other crime thrillers that hope to get by on the blazing of a gun or the beating of a bad guy, Touchez relies on character and motivation, split second timing and an intimate knowledge of the Paris underworld to spill its chills.
At the heart of this precise, prescient narrative is Max the Mentor, an aging underworld dandy regaling in his ordered, anticipated universe. Indeed, everything about Max's life is predestined and predetermined, from where he will eat (the local bistro/ gang meeting place run by the understanding Madame Bouche) to how he brushes his teeth at night. Regulation is normalcy for Max, a comforting knowledge that everything that could possibly threaten his livelihood and his life is predicted and protected against. Even if the slightest problem rears its head, Max is confidant that he has an almost instantaneous answer. Whether it's where to go and what to do when threatened, to how he will explain a lover's adultery to his friend, everything about Max is planned out and perfected. It's the only way he can imagine staying sane, and safe, especially in his line of work.
Of course, the one thing Max cannot control completely is other people, and he soon has problems stemming from all sides of the interpersonal equation. As a notorious womanizer, Max can't quite seem to keep his mistresses straight. Some claim him for their very own without a single word or gesture of encouragement on his part, while others aren't sure what to make of his obvious advances. From the society girls seemingly smitten by his dapper danger, to the showgirl who just wants a hood she can moll for, the constant flurry of flirts and skirts around Max's ordered perimeter indicates that, while he can keep his friends close and his enemies closer, he has an almost impossible time locking one lady into his heart. And then there are his pals, or more specifically, his life long associate and partner Riton. It is with this confidante's help that Max has pulled off the biggest job of his life. It is with his aid that he soon hopes to retire. And it is through his innocent bedroom bungle (without giving much away, let's just say Riton brags about the wrong thing while in the sack) that Max's entire world is about to turn disjointed and chaotic.
The main gist of Touchez's narrative is how Max will now deal with the fact that his fellow criminals know he is responsible for the biggest gold heist in the history of France. Like Jimmy Conway's dilemma after the Luftansa score in Goodfellas, Max now understands that all his powers of control and criminality must come into play if he is to keep any or all of what he worked so hard to achieve. Only issue is, these are aspects of his rather sedentary life and now mellowed personality that he thought he long since tossed aside. Having to get up the gumption to fight, to work out all the angles to once again protect both himself and his stash will be, perhaps, the last grand gesture in this gangster's life. Becker plays on this problem beautifully, making us root for this cool cat criminal to succeed. During the first act of the story, Max is such a beneficent patron to those around him that we don't want to see him lose that sway and swagger. To have to get back down into the dirt and desperation with his associate crooks, just to guard himself from a situation he did not create, is almost too much for someone like the current Max to bear. And it's this final fall from self-assumed grace that creates the classic character arc in this film and places us at the edge of our seat.
Becker is brilliant at staging this downward spiral, moving his movie from the swanky clubs and fancy digs of Max's secret apartment into the back alleys and shadowy hotel rooms of those who would take away his life. The darkened streets of Paris seem especially bleak, without any of the neon glamour we expect from the so-called City of Lights, and once we head out to the countryside for our final standoff, it's as if God himself provides the sole spotlight on the players, illuminating only the smallest area of action. The rest of the backdrop is as black as the hearts of the hit men secretly waiting to ambush Max and his mob.
The use of light and dark, gloom and garishness is a key to Becker's success. It's as if the director is hinting at how the situations will play out by just how bright or dour the surroundings are. At first we get the white walls and flashy footlights of Pierrot's club. Then suddenly, we shift to the vague outline of Max's building and flat. When he takes off to his private headquarters, we are once again introduced to cleanliness and white clarity. But as the revelations from Riton take their toll, Max's world becomes subsumed in gloom. It isn't long before we are rutting around in a dingy cellar (doubling as a possible torture chamber) and seeking out stool pigeons in a dimly lit hovel hotel room. All the while, Becker keeps his color-coded dichotomy at work, even going so far as to have his character reflect this facet. Riton has a wry, pencil thin moustache that stands out black against his pasty, puffy face. Both Angelo the mobster and Josy his paramour in betrayal are dark, broody brunettes. Even our hero is made even more ambiguous, outfitted in an indistinct gray most of the time, from the fabric in his suit to the color of his coiffure. While this could be just referencing his age, it could also be a sign that Max has not quite made up his mind which way his moral compass actually points.
Indeed, all the motives in Touchez are clouded in questionable logic. Why Riton does what he does seems pointless, considering what Max tells him about the problems of pandering to women. Angelo obviously wants the wealth Max is in possession of, but this comes directly after saying that he hopes to keep the well-dressed Don as a friend for life. Pierrot uses Max as his unspoken muscle, yet appears to need none of his aid once trouble comes knocking at his club door. And young Marco is a little too eager to please, as if he is simply waiting for Max to mess up before he can step in and craft a kind of criminal coup de tat, finally undermining his beloved boss. Becker uses the messy intentions of his characters to suggest the violence he refuses to show (he personally abhorred such slaughter spectacle in films) as well as underlining the unpredictability he knows exists in the criminal underworld. Instead of actual stabbings, Becker would rather suggest the placement of the blade in the back by accentuating the two faced nature of the principles.
Oddly enough, the only clear cut characters in this film are the women...and for the most part, Max. As the ethical core of the film, Becker argues that he is only in this for the protection of a pal. Combining love with honor, dignity with friendship, Max cannot turn his back on Riton, no matter how tempting the trade off might be. There are a couple of scenes where Max speaks to himself (in voiceover narration) about what a fool he's been for carrying this criminal klutz for so long. But he never once wavers from his desire to set him free, even going so far as to give up his own plans to save him outright. A last minute grab for the stash is still consistent with this direct desire. After all, once he's achieved his goal, why wouldn't he try to piece his previous life back together?
The same sort of predetermined mindset exists in the jaded Josy. A lady lead by the aphrodisiacal power of money and muscle, she stays with Riton until something better comes along. Then all she has to do is use her forceful feminine wiles to shift the nest egg from one paramour to the other. Hers is not a complicated plot or a tricky bit of subterfuge. No, she is only using that most lethal of all womanly weapons – lust – knowing that no man, not Angelo now or Riton before, can resist her.
Naturally, it requires performers of amazing cinematic subtlety and dramatic dexterity to pull of this kind of acting legerdemain. Becker wisely fills out his cast with legends and archetypes, people who fit the bill he is posting both characteristically and visually. In Jean Gabin, Becker has one of the great French fatalists of all time. Gabin can have a smile smeared across his face and still look like he's about to lose everything. By 1954 he was considered a washed up has-been, and Touchez represented a rebirth both in the hearts of his countrymen and as a box office king. His Max here is magnificent, a study in controlled composure and behind the eyes craftiness. Max appears to be two steps ahead of everyone because Gabin gets us to believe it. This also adds to the atmosphere of dread in the film. When Gabin begins to suggest that Max may not have all the answers and could be heading for a final, irrevocable fall, our involvement with this character has us fearing for his future. While waiting for a ticking time bomb to explode or anticipating when the cold hearted killer will strike next are the basic elements of an everyday thriller, Becker is getting us wound up and tense over a character and his circumstances. This is why Touchez Pas Au Grisbi is so great, and why Gabin is so magnificent in it.
Also impressive is René Dary as the meek, misguided Riton. There is a scene in Max's secret apartment, where Riton learns the truth about Josy and his own blissfully unaware blabbermouth where you can literally watch Dary shape-shift before your eyes. Up until this moment, Riton has seemed like an equal to Max, a man that is both important and inseparable from his partner. But the minute he learns the truth and realizes the consequences to everyone involved, Riton withers and dies, and a new, nebbish-like non-entity emerges. Dary then becomes an illustrated albatross around Max's next, a sad sack excuse for why the crime lord's structured life is now spinning out of control. It's a tough call to get us caring for someone who's threatened our hero in such a manner, but Dary manages it with a look of genuine hurt and guilt.
In one of her first film roles, the mythic Jeanne Moreau is excellent as the manipulative Josy. Plying her skills on anyone who'll accept (she even makes a play for Max), there is a sexiness and a secretiveness in Moreau's garish golddigger that makes her a potent villain and a amiable accomplice to all the violence that is about to spring forth. In a movie filled with incredibly beautiful women (Becker sure had an eye when it came to attractive ladies) Moreau stands out, hinting at the international superstar she would soon become. And though he was unknown to cinema before Touchez, Lino Ventura is archetypically perfect as the beefy, brooding bungle of kinetic killing, Angelo.
Yet it all pales in comparison to what Becker accomplishes behind the camera. His framing is exquisite, capturing the import in his images with every shot. The compositions speak of hidden agendas, unknown relationships and suggested personal problems. Partially responsible for the script (which he co-wrote along with scribes Maurice Griffe and Grisbi novelist Albert Simonin) Becker creates a veritable puzzle box of a plot, a carefully interwoven set of clues and conventions that come together in the most satisfying of fashions. Using a uniquely modern musical score by Jean Wiener, filled with nods to Morricone and Parisian cafe culture, our filmmaker fills out every facet of his vision, from what his characters will look like and wear, to the soundtrack playing behind their pantomime. Like his mentor Renoir, Becker is a complete motion picture craftsman, never letting a single element of his movie escape his visionary creative control. Sometimes, such authority leads to a corruption of art. But in Becker's capable hands, Touchez Pas Au Grisbi turns into an item of instant iconography. It is easy to see why this film is so influential, as it represents a rarity in mid-50s cinema – a filmic whole, speaking its own special celluloid language.
From the opening moments where Max enters the semi-private restaurant run by Madame Bouche to the final moment where he realizes where his life is headed (oddly enough, taking place at the very same locale) Touchez Pas Au Grisbi has allowed us to witness the culmination of a career and the undoing of a dynasty. We know Max will never be the same after what he's been through. There are too many favors owed, too many opportunities wasted or gone for good. Even with a beautiful woman on his arm and a still substantial circle of influence at his disposal, Max has lost the very thing he tried his damnedest to preserve – that self-assured sense of order.
Or maybe, his look of bemusement comes from the fact that he now realizes that he never had that much control to begin with. Maybe he is so shaken because EVERYTHING about his life has turned out to be a lie. If a man who he worked with in such close confidence could cause such chaos with just the slightest slip of the tongue, imagine what other horrors wait just outside the perfectly painted and polished doors of his home. Touchez Pas Au Grisbi may translate to "hands off the loot", but there is one treasure Max just couldn't keep safe. It wasn't security or order, control or authority. It was who he was deep down inside. Now it's been destroyed, and he'll never get it back. Maybe this is what they mean when they say crime doesn't pay. Or maybe, the truth is that the personal price is far too dear to warrant reward.
The Q&A features Lino Ventura (Angelo), taken from a 1972 episode of Pour Le Cinema, Daniel Chaucy (from a recent 2002 discussion) and a talk with composer Jean Wiener (from the 1978 TV special Hommage a Jean Gabin). Perhaps the most interesting of the bunch is Chaucy, as he provides some incredible insights into the film's creation and his friendship with star Gabin. He points out that Touchez was considered an unimportant film during its making, since it contained no stars and Gabin was all but forgotten in France by that time. He also points out a plot hole or two that derived from his having to film a role in The Count of Monte Cristo while making Touchez. Lino's piece is more reflective on his entire career as a whole, though we do learn a little about his life prior to film (he was a championship wrestler and promoter). Thanks to Wiener, we learn that the score he created was almost all tossed aside by Becker, who used only the haunting main theme throughout the film.
The Cineastes piece is a little less in-depth. After addressing Becker and mostly minor information about the film and how it differed from the novel, we are treated to clips from Touchez. Unfortunately, these scenes take up the majority of the discussion time. Indeed, most of the material here barely scratches the surface on why Becker is such an important filmmaker and why Touchez is so influential. Still, just to have this film on DVD is reward enough for eager fans and cinema lovers.