Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (director Jacques Becker, 1954) is a consumate French classic, and if you’re looking for something different, a new angle on the gangster genre, then you are implored to check it out. Touchez Pas Au Grisbi has a great story, superior performances, largely from Jean Gabin, but most essentially it plays against a great backdrop of thugs, prostitutes and other underworld characters — here shot in many genuinely seedy settings in and around Montmartre. A good gangster film always demands this kind of background colour, and Grisbi has it all. Merd Alors, it’s 60 years old but it is as burning hot as any turd Tarantino might turn out! I promise you'll love it.
Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (translated as: Hands off the Loot) is psychologically designed to perfection. In this flick, to be a gangster is as normal as any other profession. Gangsters still eat and most memorably of all, clean their teeth. I am struggling to think of another film in which we see gangsters in pyjamas and cleaning their teeth — but in Touchez Pas Au Grisbi, we’ve this and a lot more.
Underground Torture in Grisbi
What is most obvious about the Parisian gangsters portrayed is that they aren’t modelled on the American variety, as most were in European cinema at the time. When Godard began making gangster films shortly after Grisbi was released, his actors took their lead from Humphrey Bogart, and figged around in black and white with fake looking guns in a pastiche of the hard-boiled — but here in Grisbi, the villains are most definitely French. Further, the night clubs, restaurants, watering places, apartments and streets are beautifully filmed, and evoke the criminal underworld in a way you will never tire of.
Gangsters in Pyjamas
It’s not all tough though — far from it. You can’t watch Touchez Pas Au Grisbi, for example, without being moved by the gangsters in pyjamas scene that I’ve already mentioned. After stating in no uncertain terms that the nightclub life is boring, and that he much prefers to be at home, it is still a surprise to watch an extended and largely silent scene in which Jean Gabin hides out with his old friend Riton (Remy Dary), and the two of them get dressed for bed.
René Dary - wearing the finest moustache in French cinematic history
On top of that if proof were needed that Touchez Pas Au Grisbi is Gallic to the core and doesn’t look to Hollywood for models of gangsterism, there is a great conversation between Jean Gabin and Remy Dary in which the two men share a bowl of pate. It’s a dialogue scene and the men could be doing anything — drinking, whoring, walking the streets or just sitting in a dark room, behind a desk, as we see in so much film noir. But here, the two men sit at a small table and perform the pate ritual, which is so involved as to be more interesting than the dialogue. I may never fully work out how it is that two men eating pate can be so compelling.
It’s this kind of ritual that builds up a long-lasting and yet soft tension in Grisbi. Touchez Pas Au Grisbi is a film about older men, heading into their retirement, old friendships that are embedded with so many codes, never mentioned but always clear when we see them acted upon.
We see screen legend Jean Gabin here, possibly at his best, often wordless, portraying with Rene Dary a friendship that isn’t homoerotic, merely a longstanding bond of trust. The story unfolds at a gentle pace and deals with Jean Gabin’s old friend having made a silly mistake.
If you're into French film, you will see a few great faces here, and for me it was a pleasure to see a 25 year old Jeanne Moreau. There's bags of different reasons to enjoy Grisbi, however. It may be over 60 years old but you’ll be amazed at how much you enjoy it; the story is straightforward and is told with power and a strange picturesque quality.
Grisbi is an easy film, purely and basically enjoyable. It’s the subtleties that make it, and the feeling that for much of it you are deep within a character study, really getting to know somebody. There are barely any moments when Jean Gabin isn’t on screen, and he appears to be in virtually every scene, often saying very little.
If you don’t know Jean Gabin, Grisbi is a great place to meet him. Temperamental, Gabin was fired from several films in his career, and never made it in Hollywood due to unreasonable demands, and although his career seemed to be heading nowhere in the 1950s, Touchez Pas Au Grisbi was a huge international hit, and was another example of his career reviving when it seemed to be moribund and heading for oblivion.
Gabin had a fairly long romance with actress Marlene Dietrich, which has been described (by Wikipedia at least) as ‘torrid’. To see them in action together, there is a real gem, called Martin Roumaganc (1946), which is a little like Streetcar Named Desire, and actually came out a year before Williams' Streetcar opened on Broadway. In Martin Roumaganc (dir: Georges Lacombe) a prostitute played by Dietrich (as in Streetcar, her character's name is weirdly Blanche) falls for an inarticulate, rough-and-ready, Stanley Kowalski type — played by Gabin. The film is virtually unknown today due to censorial hacking — a 1948 release removed all reference to the fact that Dietrich’s character is a prostitute, taking out 31 minutes from the film, and leaving something that doesn’t make entire sense.
Fans are recommended to visit The Musée Jean Gabin in his native town, Mériel. In fact, given that the James Dean Museum is now closed, Jean Gabin is apparently the only (non-cowboy) movie star in the world with his own museum. There’s accolade for you!