"Touchez Pas Au Grisbi", Dir: Jacques Becker, 1954
Updated: Mar 19
If it's just a title that might ignite your curiosity for a particular film then Jacques Becker's ("Le Trou") 1954 film "Touchez Pas Au Grisbi" has that quality in aces, besides prompting questions like who or what is "Grisbi". Firstly it doesn't sound like a particularly French word, so is it a name ? - something that is implied in several of the posters above.
All becomes a little clearer with the English title of "Hands Off The Loot", which is a loose translation, "Grisbi" being one of many slang words in French for loot and of which the etymology is somewhat confused.
The title also immediately suggests pulp fiction and indeed Becker's film is a noir crime movie very much in the vein of hard-boiled pulp fiction.
In much the same way that "Le Trou" takes a superficially simple idea and embellishes it, "Touchez Pas Au Grisbi", a Franco-Italian production, plots a similar course.
Jean Gabin plays "Max", a leading Parisian gangster on the verge of retiring from the "game" after one last job, the successful heist of a large haul of gold bullion, with his long-time partner in crime "Riton", (René Dary). The film opens with a scene set in a restaurant haunt of the criminal fraternity and journalists in search of a scoop and where Max and Riton are kicking back over a drink while mulling over their hoped-for retirement.
Things become complicated however when Max's rival in crime, Angelo (Lino Ventura) finds out about the heist from Riton's two-timing girlfriend, a cabaret dancer and "gangster's moll", "Josy", played by a very young Jeanne Moreau, and decides to kidnap Riton in exchange for the bullion.
The narrative centers on Max's efforts to thwart Angelo's plan once he discovers Josy's treachery but things go wrong in a way that could be best summed up with the expression "the best laid schemes of mice and men".
Out of this superficially simple and linear plot Becker manages to extract a detail-filled story set in the seamy and violent Parisian underworld in a surprisingly frank way for a film from the 1950's, and in a quite shockingly graphic way in some scenes.
While it is clearly a nod to the Hollywood noir and gangster genres of an earlier period, these were limited in what they could show due to censorship, and this climate influenced American commercial cinema until the 1970's, partly due to the reach of American cinema outside of the U.S. European cinema was less constrained by such censorship issues and this is very evident in "Touchez Pas Au Grisbi".
For example, in a nightclub with a cabaret featured in the film, which is a front for criminal activity, we see semi-nude dancers on stage and on the wall behind the desk of "Pierrot", Max's ally, the night club owner, is a large photograph of topless dancers from his revue.
Additionally there are several scenes where Max makes reference to a female character's breasts and male characters grope women and comment freely in a way which feels quite shocking for a film of the period, but then the world being depicted is one of machismo and the women featured are depicted as being resigned to their roles as glamorous adornments to dangerous men, with the ever-present punishment of a slap across the face if they step out of line or resist their advances.
When Max makes a resolve to deal with Angelo we see a side of him that is implied by his criminal status but hidden behind Gabin's urbane and well-dressed exterior. With the gloves off he reverts to being a violent gangster and with the help of Pierrot pursues anyone he suspects of being in on Angelo's plan, starting with Josy, Riton's erstwhile squeeze, and then later, a young criminal, "Fifi" (Daniel Cauchet, who incidentally passed away from Covid-19 this year after a long career in film as an actor and producer) assigned by Angelo to "tail" Max.
These result in some of the most uncomfortably violent scenes in the film as Pierrot and Max torture the young man in a basement in order to extract vital information.
The film reaches a violent climax after Max agrees to hand over the loot to Angelo in exchange for Riton on a deserted country road at night but of course Angelo has other ideas and both he and his goons are armed to the teeth as are Max, Pierrot and Marco, another up and coming criminal who Max takes under his wing, for the rendezvous and exchange of "goods".
The film's denouement is violent, bloody and explosive, leading to Marco's death when a hand grenade is tossed by Angelo's goons, and finally when Angelo's car crashes after a furious car chase, taking with it the haul of gold when the car explodes in flames.
Max ends the film resigned to the fact that his retirement hasn't exactly gone to plan, Riton has died from his injuries after the machine-gun fight, but at least he has the girl, his beautiful mistress Betty (Marilyn Buferd) and the film ends where it started, in the restaurant where a group of chattering journalists eye up Betty enviously and wonder how a man of Max's advancing years still has the touch.
It's not difficult to imagine that "Touchez Pas Au Grisbi" influenced many later films as Hollywood adopted a less restrictive approach to depicting certain themes, from "Scarface" to the films of Tarantino, and set within the same milieu of the underworld and crime, at least 3 decades later and in that it sense it qualifies it as a classic of the film noir genre that was a little ahead of the curve.
"Touchez Pas Au Grisbi" Dir: Jacques Becker 1954