‘Hands off the Loot!’ Jacques Becker’s crackling Paris crime tale is a time machine to an age of Parisian tough guys in double breasted suits, who never show their cards, and mistreat women in ways the Hollywood production code would never allow. Old thief Jean Gabin’s ill-gotten wealth is threatened by the newcomer creep Lino Ventura, thanks to the treachery of a very young Jeanne Moreau; the struggle revives weapons and tactics not used since the Occupation. One of the GREAT Euro crime classics is now looking terrific in Kino/Studio Canal’s restoration.
Touchez pas au grisbi
KL Studio Classics
1954 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 96 min. / Honor among Thieves / Street Date August 13, 2019 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Jean Gabin, René Dary, Paul Frankeur, Lino Ventura, Jeanne Moreau, Dora Doll, Daniel Cauchy, Michel Jourdan, Marilyn Buferd, Denise Clair, Gaby Basset, Delia Scala.
Cinematography: Pierre Montazel
Film Editor: Marguerite Renoir
Original Music: Jean Wiener
Written by Jacques Becker, Maurice Griffe, Albert Simonin from his novel Produced by Georges Charlot, Robert Dorfmann
Directed by Jacques Becker
Hands Off the Loot!
It’s high time for CineSavant to catch up with the French crime classics now being released by Kino Lorber. I’ve recently covered the great Le Doulos by Jean-Pierre Melville, but there’s so much more: Kino’s got the conduit to the vast Studio Canal holdings, so we’re in the midst of a Renaissance of vintage Gallic thrillers, in restorations that far outpace Criterion’s excellent editions of fifteen years ago. If you’ve only seen Du rififi chez les hommes, be assured that you’ve got new territory to explore. Kino also has a new release of Bob le flambeur and the unfamiliar Razzia sur la Chnouf. I hope they continue with other titles I’ve only read about.
Anyone who loves film noir will go nuts over these utterly cool ’50s and ’60s thrillers. The French stars have a class and style apart from what Hollywood was generating. Because they could present content that our Production Code forbade, the films better reflect our own tradition of hardboiled literature. The ones filmed on the streets become travelogues to another time and place.
From an Albert Simonin novel about dishonor among thieves, Touchez pas au grisbi owes nothing to the American model. Star Jean Gabin, the prime exponent of 1930s natural realism, revitalized his career with this new role. His self-assured Max might be continuing the story of Pépé le moko, had the rascal been able to return to his beloved Paris. For added thrills there is the fun of the ravishing Jeanne Moreau in an early featured performance, and Lino Ventura in his first.
Longtime partners in crime Max ‘the brain’ and Henri ‘Riton’ Ducros (Jean Gabin & René Dary) are looking forward to retiring as soon as it is safe to cash in the fortune in gold bullion they have stolen. The heist went so well that not even the underworld knows that it was theirs. Max is scaling back his high-living ways, accepting the fact that he’s no longer a young rake, but Riton makes the mistake of hinting to the unreliable showgirl Josy (Jeanne Moreau) that he’s sitting on a big score. Josy and her friend Lola (Dora Doll) have a penchant for cocaine and money, and it’s not long before drug dealer Angelo Fraiser (Lino Ventura) is plotting to force Max and Riton to ‘hand over the loot.’ To avoid the trap Max must enlist his old pal Pierrot (Paul Frankeur), a club owner with whom he shares deep roots in the Resistance — Pierrot still has a stash of machine guns, and his own interrogation chamber.
Jacques Becker’s crime films stressed the ordinary lives of extraordinary criminals; every review of Touchez pas au grisbimentions the scene where the tough-guy heroes brush their teeth. Style is everything. The crooks of Albert Simonin and Auguste le Breton exude style from their pores. Civilian squares are not welcome backstage in Pierrot’s club, or in the diner of Madame Bouche (Denise Clair). We even see some tourist types being directed to another restaurant.
The characterizations are deep and mellow. Max is easing out of the high life to avoid becoming one of the geezers on the dance floor who has to buy the company of women. He tries to point this out to his still-vain partner, to no avail: (“Look at the bags under your eyes!” Riton’s urge for Jeanne Moreau’s Rosy is the undoing of all of their plans. Unflagging comradeship is Max’s redeeming quality. He knows of Riton’s flaws but won’t abandon him.
Touchez pa au grisbi is a good litmus test with which to compare period realities and values against the revisionism of PC police. Becker takes us to a different time and place, into a thoroughly sexist sub-society of where the gentlemen only lookrespectable. In this pocket of paternal privilege women are divide into those one can molest, and others that one cannot. Our hero Max may embody the Parisian style counterpart of Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum, but with the ladies he’s still an old-fashioned French pig. When not simply groping the women he encounters, Max cheerfully compliments their charms. Max apparently borrows other mens’ mistresses at will. Jeanne Moreau’s Josy may be irresistible, but Max isn’t biting, She’s a reckless tramp, plain and simple, a cocaine fiend who will betray her man the moment a better deal comes along.
Then again, what with the way women are mistreated in this insular underworld society, perhaps Josy is simply expressing her overall discontent with these men.
Josy and the always-smiling, only slightly more reliable Lola (Dora Doll) are balanced by the more experienced women attached to the aging criminals, who have already sacrificed so much. The loyal Bouche is surely one of Max’s past lovers. Pierrot’s wife Marinette (Gaby Basset) watches the gang arm themselves to the teeth and all but begs Max not to get her husband killed. It’s too late for her to re-start her life.
While Hollywood films were stressing the ruthless impersonality of modern American crime, Touchez pas au grisbi involves us in a deep meditation on loyalty. Max’s future is invested in some gold bars hidden in the trunk of a parked car, but he’s willing to forfeit them to save Riton. Nightclub owner Pierrot enters the fight simply on Max’s request. War-era machine guns are distributed from a secret cache, and the hunt is on. Although he looks like an accountant, Pierrot is a tough customer who uses tactics obviously learned during the German Occupation. He’s ready to torture punk gunsel Fifi (Daniel Cauchy of Bob le flambeur) in a special room that might have seen use against collaborators.
Or should we not jump to conclusions? The Occupation had its own French Gestapo, composed mainly of crooks like Max, Riton and Pierrot. We note that the hand grenades used by Angelo’s men are the vintage German potato-masher variety. Just how deeply connected were all these crooks with the wrong side of the Occupation?
Just the same, we side with Max from the start. He shows his good side when he pays a the lunch tab for a young pal, Marco (Michel Jourdan) and sets him up for a job with Angelo. Although the irony is acute, Max never grouses that the fellow’s first assignment is to extort money from his benefactor. Such things are taken as natural occurences.
The cozy clannishness of the crooks is entirely deceptive, as hungry younger Turks are always out to throw a wedge into a good thing. Lino Ventura’s drug dealer Angelo is a trusted insider, yet has no qualms about using kidnapping and extortion to cheat Max and Riton out of their ill-gotten gold. Angelo employs Italians and even Spaniards in his dealings — how low can he stoop?
Max is impressively resourceful — he keeps an entire secret apartment for emergencies when he has to hide out — he and Riton can drink Champagne but only eat non-perishable crackers. Max also has one more babe stashed away, for a rainy day. The American dream goddess Betty (Marilyn Buferd) seems to be Max’s retirement relationship. She drives a huge Yankee convertible that would bring Jean-Pierre Melville to tears. Max may lecture Riton about age and impotence, but he seems wholly capable of keeping any girlfriend satisfied. This fantasy of underworld potency is likely what revived Jean Gabin’s career.
The ultimate star of Touchez pas au grisbi is Paris itself. Starting with a pan over gray rooftops to the Moulin Rouge, every scene is a visual treat. This is the city that once existed, before modern glass buildings took over. We enjoy every cobblestoned street and decorated foyer. Max holds up two would-be kidnappers in an open-frame elevator, and even his parking garage has interesting accordion grates to protect the cars. Many films noir take place in generic city street sets, but this French film gives us a look at a real past, now gone forever. Is it possible to be nostalgic for places we never experienced?
Touchez pas au grisbi’s familiar pattern of violence and killings is sobered by real-life frustrations. It doesn’t matter how badly one wants the loot if it’s in a burning car too hot to touch. Max promises Pierrot’s wife that her man will come back in one piece, but when the opposition uses hand grenades nobody can predict what will happen. Unlike some vintage Euro-crime stories, this one ends in a machine gun battle on a country road. The wild swerving of a stricken car makes total sense in the knowledge that it is carrying an oversized load of gold bullion. In the end, we see Max in the company of his wealthy American girlfriend Betty. Always controlled and composed, he shows none of the wear and tear of his ordeal. Although her companionship may now be his only future, things could be a lot worse.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Touchez pas au grisbi is a beauty. The polished restoration outclasses Criterion’s DVD from 2005, and is light years beyond the murky, poorly-subtitled old theatrical prints. According to the IMDB, the film wasn’t released in the U.S. until 1959, and then only in a few art theaters. The dull replacement title was Honor Among Thieves.
Criterion fronted some good extras but the items pieced together by Kino may be even better. Nick Pinkerton delivers his audio commentary in a monotone, but packs it with information on every bit player — one of the middle-aged actors was a famed child performer in silent Feuillade movies, called ‘Bebe.’ We discover that the beautiful Marilyn Buferd was a Miss America winner who made a number of French films. That unfortunately didn’t translate to success back in the states, where she was wasted in trash like Queen of Outer Space and The Unearthly. At least half of Pinkerton’s scene-specific commentary is about a minute out of sync. It makes listening a bit of a chore, when what he’s talking about is a full scene late.
Jeanne Moreau appears in an older series of ‘commercial break’ faux-informal pieces, pretending that she’s hosting the TV presentation in between working on her latest movie. She’s charming just the same. A new interview with the fine critic Ginette Vincendeau gives us more background on Albert Simonin and Jacques Becker. She mentions that the original book of Touchez pa au grisbi is unpleasantly base and violent. That’s the case with the originals for several other noir classics, that were toned down on the way to the screen: William Lindsay Gresham’s Nightmare Alley and Gerald Kersh’s Night and the City come to mind. Ms. Vincendeau notes that Jacques Becker’s early death in 1960 dulled his legacy even though the New Wave crowd considered him a core ‘Auteur.’ By not being around to enjoy the new media attention given directors, Becker instead remained fairly obscure.
A second, lengthy new interview is a sentimental piece with Jacques Becker’s son Jean, who also became a film director. Jean has personal memories of the film. He even plays the doorman at Marco’s nightclub.
The running time listed on the disc is incorrect; it’s a full 96 minutes. The cover illustration is terrific, but I’m going to guess that the image of Jeanne Moreau is from a reissue, or even a different movie — her hair and collar look far too ’60s.’
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Touchez pas au grisbi
Supplements: Audio commentary by Nick Pinkerton; new interview with filmmaker Jean Becker; vintage interview with actress Jeanne Moreau; new interview with Ginette Vincendeau; Theatrical Trailer, other Gabin and French crime thrillers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: September 17, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson