Touchez Pas au Grisbi

Jacques Becker’s “Touchez pas au grisbi,” a french-language film from 1954, can be described as a meandering gangster film, with underworld figures more interested in food and romance than material gain.  It features Jean Gabin in a riveting performance as Max, a well-respected ex-convict with a secret stash of stolen loot.  The characters in the film, including Max’s partner-in-crime Riton, refer to the loot — 8 heavy gold bars worth 50 million francs — by the slang term “grisbi.”  However, Max seems little concerned with the grisbi until he learns a heavy named Angelo (Lino Ventura) may be out out to get it.

Lino Ventura (left) faces off against Jean Gabin in "Touchez pas au grisbi."

Lino Ventura (left) faces off against Jean Gabin in “Touchez pas au grisbi.”

The film opens with Max finishing his meal at Madame Bouche’s restaurant, where it becomes clear from Madame Bouche (Denise Clair) and all the restaurant patrons that Max is an admired man.  At this point, the movie establishes Max’s friendship with Riton, a less imposing man played by René Dary.  Max and Riton then drive to a cabaret with chorus girls Lola (Dora Doll) and Josy (played by the incomparable Jeanne Moreau).  Lola promises Max a night of ecstasy, but Max begs off and leaves the cabaret early after explaining his weariness.  Max’s reticence in accepting Lola’s advances remains unclear until later, when we learn that Max knows the hiding place of the loot.

Despite Max’s careful planning to fence the gold bars, he faces a major obstacle when 2 men follow him back to his apartment.  He manages to ditch the pursuers, but he must warn Riton.  Max shows Riton the loot’s hiding place at the location of his secret apartment and, in a moving scene, Max prepares a supper of bread and pâté.  He warns Riton about Angelo, and later the colleagues slowly prepare to sleep for the night — they make their individual beds and brush their teeth.  Although these domestic activities do not move the plot along, they express Becker’s desire to show that the everyday lives of underworld figures are banal.

Max lives in a world of violent men, so it doesn’t take long for Becker to delve into that aspect of his life.  Angelo puts the heat on Riton and Max must decide whether to give up the grisbi for the life of his friend.  Riton appears somewhat hapless, but nevertheless, Max does his best to remain a trusted friend.  When the film turns violent, it changes deftly from a quiet character study to a high-tension standoff between Angelo and Max.  What happens to the grisbi at the end becomes a major surprise.

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