Touchez Pas au Grisbi

France (1954) Dir. Jacques Becker

The English translation of the title of this French gangster drama is “Don’t touch the loot” which sounds quite comedic, explaining why it was released here in the UK under the more serious title of Honour Among Thieves.

Max (Jean Gabin) is an aging criminal who looking to retire, having recently pulled off a heist involving twelve gold bars worth 50 million francs with his partner Riton (René Dary). On a night out to a burlesque club where Riton’s girlfriend Josy (Jeanne Moreau) works as a dancer, Max catches Josy in a clinch with young gangster Angelo (Lino Ventura). Josy claims she no longer loves Riton and wants Max to break the news to him since they are old friends.

That night Max is followed home by two of Angelo’s men; at the same time Riton is visited by Angelo and a henchman but Max manages to warn Riton in time. Admitting that he told Josy about the gold, who in turn told Angelo, Riton takes it upon himself to deal with it but is attacked and kidnapped by Angelo. Now Max is forced to hand over the gold to secure Riton’s release.

Jacques Becker is not a name I am familiar with but this film makes him someone whose work needs further investigation. Becker’s career wasn’t that long as he died aged just 53 in 1960, but he cut his teeth as assistant director to Jean Renoir on his classic films so he comes with an impressive pedigree. Touchez Pas au Grisbi is considered one of Becker’s more influential works and one can see why.

This is probably the most laid back gangster film you’ll ever see, ripe with typically French laissez faire attitude as Max calmly traverses from one situation to the next, never looking anything less than smart and suave and keeping his cool – until the end of course! Behind this composed exterior is a man whose rage is simmering and when he needs to get down and dirty he will, but not without formulating a plan first.

The film opens with Max, Riton, Josy and her dancing partner Lola (Dora Doll) sitting in a smoky café among other small groups of people. This is actually Madame Bouche’s run by the eponymous lady herself (Denise Clair) which is a hangout for criminals. Only in France. This should lead to some comic interludes and while the tone is light and jocular in this setting Becker never succumbs to this temptation, which may be a shame but ultimately not too much of a loss either.

Max is clearly someone that you need to get up early to outsmart, as evident by how easily he outwitted Angelo’s two henchmen and extracted information from them to boot. Riton isn’t so smart thus his weakness for the ladies and his lose talk around Josy leading to this whole fiasco. In a scene so cool Tarantino would kill himself to successfully emulate, Max calmly reads Riton the riot act over late night snack of continental toast and wine, never once raising his voice or showing signs of anger, while Riton is forced to agree.

Unfortunately Riton’s foolhardy sense of bravado leads him to confront Josy while Max is arranging with his uncle Oscar (Paul Oettly) to have the gold converted into cash – while flirting with Oscar’s secretary Hughette (Delia Scala) of course. To deal with Angelo and Riton’s kidnapping, Max calls on old friend Pierrot (Paul Frankeur) and young hard man Marco (Michel Jourdan), promising Pierrot’s wife Marinette (Gaby Basset – Jean Gabin’s ex-wife) that her husband won’t be out all night.

I don’t know if Max was a minor influence on James Bond at all but his laid-back demeanour is certainly comparable at glance to 007. Even at this late stage in his life Max comes across as someone you don’t want to mess with which may be why he often finds himself in the role of mediator whenever there is a problem. Quite how he managed to snag a girlfriend like Betty (played by real life Miss America of 1946 Marilyn Buferd) we must leave to our imagination.

In keeping with the crime theme Becker employs the familiar noir mise-en-scene of light and shade and obtuse camera angles for added effect. Many of the usual elements – such as the fancy women, duplicity, betrayal and the good old shootout are present, but delivered at Becker’s own pace. This is a character driven story and the action is saved until the final act and while brief, it’s impact is greater than it would have been had there been preceding gun battles in the film.

Jean Gabin’s career had been in a decline following World War II but this film was the start of a renaissance for him until his death in 1976. Here Gabin realises he can no longer play the young lead yet he dominated this film playing Max with the same energy and presence that made him a star twenty years earlier. Even though we know Max is a criminal we can’t help but view him as the de facto good guy.

In the support cast we find a future legend of French cinema in Jeanne Moreau, getting modest screen time as Josy, while making his debut is another popular French actor Lino Ventura as the cocky Angelo. René Dary fills what is essentially a sidekick role in Riton, but never lets the character feel ineffective. Arguably the most fascinating performance comes from Paul Frankeur as Pierrot, initially a portly, balding almost avuncular chap who unexpectedly transforms into a hands-on, violent bad ass when the chips are down.

Becker and Touchez Pas au Grisbi have both probably slipped under the radar of many film fans which needs remedying on the evidence of this great film. The DNA of many future classic French noir can be found here while offering a treat for all serious cineastes and filmmakers alike.