Tuesday, August 13, 2013

FI: Touchez pas au grisbi

Touchez pas au grisbi
France, 1954
Directed and co-written by Jacques Becker

A great sense of atmosphere suffuses the methodical, noir-tinged gangster movie Touchez pas au grisbi. Most of this atmosphere is conveyed by the combination of director Jacques Becker's stark compositions and deliberate pacing, and Pierre Montazel's low-key cinematography. But so much of the film's tone is set solely by star Jean Gabin's face. Gabin had been one of France's biggest stars in the '30s, but by 1954 that star had waned somewhat, and his hard-lived years had begun to show. Here, however, Gabin uses his wrinkled, puffy visage as an asset in conveying old-school gangster Max's slow, weary detachment from the lifestyle that used to thrill him. Touchez pas au grisbi is less about dashing gangsters committing crimes and plotting heists, and more about attempting to age with dignity and class while protecting and caring for what's yours—whether friendships, relationships, ill-gotten gains, or even your self image.

Prior to the film, Max and his friend Riton (René Dary) have committed a daring "last heist" of eight massive gold bars, keeping their own involvement hidden from everyone, including associates Angelo (Lino Ventura) and Pierrot (Paul Frankeur). But the impulsive Riton blabs to his showgirl girlfriend Josy (a young Jeanne Moreau), unaware that she's having an affair with Angelo. Once Angelo finds out about the gold, Max is again forced to cover for his friend while protecting their retirement nest egg at any cost. The film's central conflict then becomes one of the old school—Max, Riton, Pierrot— who prefer loyalty and due diligence, versus the youthful Angelo and his disrespectful, corner-cutting crew.

The film's slower moments might throw you off, but they are used to establish Max's thoroughness and love of doing things properly, contrasting his patience with the younger characters' poor planning and impulsive violence. The film is also concerned with image and perception: Max wants to seem benevolent and legitimate, Riton wants to seem younger and flashier, and Angelo wants to be the baddest guy in town, and their conflict brings out the distance between each man's image and reality. In spite of his image, Max is no angel, and the film demonstrates how even your meticulously-planned "retirement" can be thrown off track by the same violent methods you previously employed. Violence is fact of life for gangsters; the things that motivate its use may change, but it never goes away. It's this fatalism, rooted in the noble futility of doing the right thing, that makes Touchez pas au grisbi special.

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