Jacques Becker – Touchez Pas au Grisbi
There’s an anecdote Martin Scorsese often tells about his childhood that turns up in some variant or other in most of his gangster films. It concerns the future director walking around Little Italy with his mother, noticing that some people seemed to be wearing better clothes and driving better cars than the other families, and being told by his parents to keep his distance from them and not look them in the eye. If the gangster film has a magical element, it’s this – the growing awareness that there is a hidden universe behind modern society, one where the usual struggles for money and success take on a mythic, terrifying dimension.
Jacques Becker’s Touchez Pas au Grisbi, now on Blu-Ray as part of StudioCanal’s series of Becker reissues, begins with something approaching the prototype of this scene. A group of sharp-suited men are celebrating in a cafe, as the owner winds the shutters down for the night. They could be businessmen or bankers, but something about the atmosphere of the scene suggests otherwise. Before the cafe can close up, another group of men come in, but they are turned away. Becker cuts between two head-on shots of the two groups, emphasising that visually there’s not much to choose from between them. But the former are allowed to stay in after-hours, and the latter aren’t.
Having established that the first group are privileged, Becker then unpacks the reason why. In what might be the first example of the elliptical heist movie storytelling now most famously associated with Reservoir Dogs, they’ve pulled off a spectacular bullion heist before the film opens. It would have been their last job, were it not for a rival gangster played by Lino Ventura getting word of their triumph. He kidnaps one of the gang and demands the gold as his ransom, forcing the others into action.
And action is certainly what the last act delivers. There’s a lot about Touches Pas au Grisbi – the title loosely translates to “Hands off the loot” – that feels very contemporary, not least the tyre-skidding, bullet-spraying final third. If the storytelling looks forward to Tarantino the mood is very Michael Mann. It’s gangsters are not the cackling supervillains Hollywood had previously shown in White Heat and Little Caesar, but rather world-weary, fatalistic professionals. It’s not a whitewash – hard to imagine a British or American film released in 1954 being as utterly frank about the drug trade as Becker is here. At the same time, the film is comfortable enough with its characters’ humanity to show gang leader Max at home in his pyjamas. Jimmy Cagney never wore pyjamas.
Jean Gabin can get away with it, though. Touchez Pas au Grisbi was a big hit on its release and catapulted Gabin back to stardom after a patchy 1940s. Gabin did, admittedly, have a sterling excuse for not working much during that decade; he was fighting alongside Charles de Gaulle in the French resistance. The fact that he did manage to make a couple of films during World War II is absolutely extraordinary – might this combination of movie stardom and street fighting be the birth of radical chic? Whatever the case, it’s hard not to think that French audiences loved late-period Gabin because he was a man who’d lived this life. For another actor, Max might be an exercise in vanity – old, but still tough and feared, and with a younger girlfriend. For Gabin it’s a way of life.
That younger girlfriend, by the way, is played by Jeanne Moreau, the recently deceased icon of French cinema who went on to work with François Truffaut and Louis Malle. Malle was always amused by reviewers claiming he’d “discovered” Moreau, when in fact she was so famous that the funding for his debut film Lift to the Scaffold was dependent on him finding a role for her. Back then, her fame was based on her beauty; what Malle actually discovered was her talent. The part of Max’s unfaithful moll Josy isn’t a stretch for the woman Orson Welles would later hail as the greatest actress in the world, but there is a regal intelligence in her screen presence that points the way ahead. The interviews presented as extras include a cherishable archive interview with Moreau from 1957, just ahead of her breakthrough as a serious actress.