A film about criminals where the audience never witnesses the crime is a succinct and perfectly constructed tale of gang loyalty.
Max (Jean Gabin) and Henri Ducros, known to all as Riton (René Dary), meet often at the cafe of Madame Bouche (Denise Clair) where they always get a table and the cake is always tasty, something Madame Bouche is happy to supply as they are regular customers who pay well. The pair are dining with Marco (Michel Jourdan), Josy (Jeanne Moreau), and Lola (Dora Doll), who is due to dance at the local club, and convinces her fellow diners to go and watch her. The headlines of the newspapers reveal that a massive heist took place at Orly airport where 200lb of gold, worth in the region of 50 million Francs, has been taken. Of course it is the criminal partners of twenty years who stole the bullion and have stashed it away. When Max finally reveals its location to Riton the latter is bemused – “And you run around with over 50 million under your arse?” The plan is to sell the stash for cash, most likely at a reduced price, but Max just wants out. Unfortunately Josy later discloses this fact to a rival gangster Angelo (Lino Ventura) who kidnaps Riton. The stakes are high as Max needs to retrieve his loot and his partner before horrific consequences ensue…
Guns. Girls. Gangsters. Gold. Grief. The taut, tense criminal thriller Touchez Pas au Grisbi has all these elements and more. The intense plotting and character relationships are constantly evolving in unexpected ways as shoot outs, torture and deceptions prevail between a multitude of factions, all of whom seek the bullion, importantly stolen before the film’s opening, so that we never see the actual heist, only its aftermath. As such, the film’s rating from X to 15 is distinctly appropriate following relaxations in censorship in the time since it was made, but the sexuality and brutality are notable for a film that is over sixty years old. This is a film that engages with its characterisation and plot revelations as well as its set pieces, of which there are a multitude on show. The strange modernity behind Becker’s wonderful modernistic and engaging POV cinematography is, like much of his oeuvre, centred on cinematic realism to show the wider context of the film’s underworld setting. Although Max is depicted in such a way that he is the main focus for audience identification – he is generous and absolutely loyal to his friends – the gangsters are thoroughly ruthless.
Extras on the DVD include analysis, history and personal reflections from Ginette Vincendeau, Jean Becker and Jeanne Moreau. The latter interview is from 1957 when she recalls that “Becker in particular was only interested in the size of my hands,” whilst her recollection of Jean Gabin was that “he was frozen and I was scared stiff.” A definitive and influential movie that is tightly made and thoroughly engaging in its examination of criminal culture and relationships, its depiction of seedy clubs, drugs, torture, kidnapping and treachery marking it as way ahead of its time.