Touchez Pas Au Grisbi: The Criterion Collection
One of the many novelties of Jacques Becker's fine crime picture Touchez Pas Au Grisbi is in the way the genre hopping filmmaker buries the narrative lead. After 20 minutes of set-up to lord-knows-what, during which Becker establishes his protagonist Max (the great Jean Gabin) as just about the finest mensch in all of Paris, friend to thief and chorine alike, the director finally bows to incident: on his way home via taxi after a night out with his best friend Riton (Rene Dary) and young protégé Marcos (Michel Jourdan), someone is following Max. Though it's not entirely surprising that someone in his profession would invite such suspicious activity, the viewer is still mildly taken aback. Why would anyone place a tail on so honorable a gentleman as Max? The relative inexplicability of this plot development succeeds in lending an original air to the hoariest of gangster film clichés, and, thus, engages the viewer's imagination. Becker is obviously up to something, withholding crucial information, and, having blown a sizable portion of the first act on seemingly minor character detail, one suddenly feels the excitement of plunging into the unknown rather than going through the paces of a typical mob movie.
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And therein lies Becker's modest genius: Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (1954) is, at its core, a typical mob flick. It really is just another heist movie featuring an admirable, aging gangster looking to make one last, big score so that he can exit the racket for good. What's uncommon about it is that Becker chooses not to inform the viewer of this until the tail end of the first act, which is when we learn that Max and Riton are the perpetrators of an audacious gold bullion score discussed peripherally in the film's opening moments. Perceptive viewers obviously knew to attach some importance to the imparting of that information, but it hardly seemed prominent when compared to Becker's emphasis on Max's malaise. Indeed, the major question in the early going of the film has nothing to do with whether Max will get away with it, but rather will he get to bed at a decent hour. Hilariously, after discussing with the careless Riton what they will do with their gold now that the sneaky Angelo (Lino Ventura) is on to them, Max finally achieves his earlier objective, and, in a protracted bit of sly comedic business, absolutely relishes the preparations to slumber, retrieving brand new pajamas for both himself and Riton, vigorously brushing his teeth with regimental attention to detail, and, finally, enjoying the last smoke of the day as head at last hits pillow. In the morning, he will wake up refreshed and go about attempting to sell off his haul to his Uncle, a fence, after which point the film will more or less faithfully observe the genre's narrative dictates. Riton's foolish lust for a promiscuous choir girl, Josy (Jeanne Moreau), is exploited by Angelo, who kidnaps the lovesick dolt and holds him for an astronomical ransom (i.e. the gold). While Max is furious with Riton, muttering to himself in voice-over about how much more loot he could've taken down without his inept partnership, they are still bound by a lifetime of friendship; thus, Max enlists the aid of Marcos and another old friend, the club owner Pierrot (Paul Frankeur), to free Riton.
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This is when all of the screen time dedicated to exploring the nuances of Max's world really pay off, building to an immensely satisfying, rat-a-tat scene a faire with genuine emotional resonance. If, by the film's melancholy denouement, there doesn't seem to be a walloping thematic resolution, well, that's just emblematic of Becker's tendency to avoid overarching commentary. As Truffaut wrote of the director (one of his favorites), "Becker doesn't have any intention of mystifying or demystifying anyone; his films are neither statements nor indictments." This aversion to definitiveness perhaps a reaction to having apprenticed under the master of message, Jean Renoir frees up the viewer to luxuriate in the extended passages of idiosyncratic human behavior without puzzling at the intent of each gesture, or feeling the need to extrapolate a deeper thematic meaning. Becker's merely toying with convention, seeing how long he can delay each reveal while testing the audience's tolerance for inessential activity. That he gets away with it at every turn suggests that Becker possessed that same inherent understanding of cinema that belonged to the greats. And while he may have sacrificed legendary status by not aspiring to deep profundity, there's nonetheless a particular brilliance on display in his best works, of which Touchez Pas Au Grisbi is most certainly one.
The Criterion Collection presents Touchez Pas Au Grisbi in a beautiful full-frame (1.33:1) transfer with nicely cleaned-up Dolby Digital monaural audio. Extras include a trio of insightful interviews with actors Lino Ventura (9 min.) and Daniel Cauchy (7 min.), and composer Jean Wiener (2 min.), and a brief excerpt from the Becker episode of "Cineastes de Notre Temps" (5 min.). Also on board is the theatrical trailer. Keep-case.