Loosely based on an apparently trashy novel by Albert Simonin, it's a kind of post-caper film, in which the robbery of eight gold bars isn't shown and barely discussed by those who pulled the job. The genius of Becker's adaptation is its characters, structure, and pacing: it starts off methodically, establishing its cast of characters and, just when it seems to be meandering colorfully but aimlessly with no clear purpose, it takes off and becomes tremendously tense and exciting. Though enormously influential, even prompting two mostly unrelated follow-ups (Le cave se rebiffe, 1961, also with Gabin; and Les tontons figueurs, 1963), the film hasn't lost its edge; it still plays beautifully.
Fiftyish career criminal Max (Gabin) dines with longtime associate Riton (RenÚ Dary) and protegee Marco (Michel Jourdan) at Madame Bouche's, an exclusive hangout for gangsters that turns away "civilian" customers even when the place is half-empty. Also present are Josy (Jeanne Moreau, impossibly young), Riton's girlfriend, and Lola (Dora Doll's), Max's date, loose women, dancers, from the local burlesque house. Everyone there is talking about the sensational robbery at Orly Airport.
But Max is tired and just wants to go home, alone, though he's persuaded to continue with the merrymakers as they move a swanky nightclub owned by gang leader Pierrot (Paul Frankeur). Max suggests to Pierrot and drug dealer Angelo (Lino Ventura) that they hire Marco, vouching for his character. Angelo expresses admiration for Max's loyalty and generosity. Later, in Lola's dressing room, Max finds Angelo making out with Josy. Realizing middle-aged Riton, who fancies himself quite the ladies' man, is being played for a fool, Max persuades his old friend to return home, though he doesn't mention the tryst he stumbled upon. The following day Max visits his Uncle Oscar (Paul Oettly), pressing him to fence the stolen gold quickly, fearing Riton may have inadvertently revealed their crime to Angelo via Josy.
Soon after, Max is being followed by gangsters using an ambulance for cover, and learns that Angelo is already at Riton's apartment, presumably to lure him out into the countryside and murder him. Max whisks Riton to what today would be described as a safehouse, a luxurious, secret apartment Max keeps, stocked with Champagne, biscuits, and pÔtÚ.
It's at this point first-time viewers are beginning to wonder what Grisbi is all about. In a long, deliberately-paced sequence, the two men take off their clothes, change into pajamas, and Max, in the bathroom, methodically brushes his teeth. Then Becker shows us Riton doing likewise, stopping to gaze at himself in the mirror, studying his aging features.
Gradually, it dawns on the viewer what the film is really all about. Max, an "honest," polite if circumspect gentleman gangster, has been carrying his friend Riton for years. In a later scene the audience hears his thoughts, Max bemoaning all the money he's lost through the years getting his well-meaning but irresponsible friend out of one jam after another. All the money he could have made by now, if not for Riton, he thinks to himself.
(Spoilers) And thus revealed is his one weakness: Max is a sentimentalist, the opposite of cold-blooded killer Angelo. He suffers Riton's failings because he loves his friend, even more than all the beautiful women Max sleeps with put together. When Riton abruptly vanishes, obviously kidnapped by Angelo, a frustrated Max instead visits and sleeps with Betty (Marilyn Buferd), one of his many mistresses. However, Max feels guilty, almost like an unfaithful husband cheating on his wife. Max may sleep around, copping a feel with other pretty girls, but his heart (if not his sexuality) belongs to Riton, fool though his friend may be. An extremely tense and violent climax follows, an exchange where Max has set up an ambush. The last half-hour of the picture is almost unbearably exciting, even 65 years after it was made.
Gabin is a wonder, stony-faced yet expressive. He's unfailingly polite and charming for most of the film, but once Riton is kidnapped, Becker reveals Max will stop at nothing to get his friend back, slapping around Josy and Lola, and as if casually discussing a business deal, torture one of Angelo's underlings. In one of the extras, Becker's son Jean, later a director himself, describes his father's admiration of Gabin's screen presence, talking almost like a schoolgirl. "Isn't he magnificent?" the older Becker said of Gabin. And indeed he is.
Jeanne Moreau and Lino Ventura were at the beginnings of their career, though one would hardly have guessed it. Jean Becker, who worked as a gopher on the film, even playing a bit part onscreen, recalled Ventura has having the confidence and relaxed manner of a huge star, even at that point when he was still relatively unknown. (Ventura is billed dead-last in the credits, despite his fairly large part.) When Gabin is onscreen the viewer's eyes focus on him, except when Moreau and Ventura are around, a testament to all three actors.
Video & Audio
? Kino's new Blu-ray of Touchez pas au grisbi, licensed from Canal-Plus, offers a 4K transfer, which for the most part looks great, the black-and-white, 1.37:1 standard framing image strong throughout. Equally splendid is the DTS-HD 2.0 (mono) Master Audio, and the English subtitling is good. Region "A" encoded.
Supplements include a new audio commentary by critic Nick Pinkerton; a recent on-camera interview with Jean (not Jacques) Becker, described above, which is warm and interesting; an interview with film professor Ginette Vicendeau, focusing mostly on the source novel and the film's and Becker's relationship with later New Wave directors; and an archival interview with Moreau, filmed not long after the film's release, apparently for French television. A trailer is also included.
A great French film well represented in this excellent Blu-ray release, Touchez pas au grisbi is a DVD Talk Collectors Series title.