- The Washington Times - Friday, October 17, 2003

The French film star Jean Gabin (1904-76) shared solidly appealing physical and temperamental characteristics with the Hollywood star Spencer Tracy (1900-1967). Both excelled at underplaying for the camera, and by their late 40s, they were difficult to surpass as figures of middle-aged sagacity, resignation and authority.

Jacques Becker’s “Touchez pas au Grisbi,” being revived in a 50th-anniversary engagement for two weeks at the AFI Silver Theatre, added a memorably droll and disarming criminality to the Gabin screen persona by casting him as an esteemed Montmarte gangster named Max le Menteur. While not a family man in a conventional sense, Max has numerous mentoring responsibilities, so he echoes some of the paternal frustrations Mr. Tracy exemplified a few years earlier as the constantly importuned title character in “Father of the Bride.” It’s not unreasonable to think of Max as a Father of the Hoods.

Max also has a flock of dependents to subsidize, placate, admonish and sometimes rescue. These range from a bevy of active or potential consorts to an unwary sidekick named Riton (Rene Dary, a persuasive embodiment of colorless, overmatched shortcomings), who is abducted despite Max’s warnings and countermeasures. This climactic crisis forces an incendiary showdown in which the hostage must be exchanged for the “Grisbi” of the title, (which means “Don’t Touch the Loot”) — stolen gold bars worth 50 million francs.

Perhaps no other crime melodrama has improved on the incongruous note of humor that distinguishes “Grisbi,” which reveals that members of a seemingly phlegmatic group of men are still capable of being deadly adversaries. The film, impeccably designed and photographed in black and white, enhancing its value as a 50-year-old Parisian time capsule, resists overemphatic hints of the ominous or violent. If anything, Max seems to be readying himself for the old rocking chair.

Double-dating with Riton at favorite hangouts, a restaurant and a nightclub, Max points out the undignified aspects of their own association with a pair of chorines named Lola and Josy. Calling attention to some undeniably antique specimens of dirty old men on the dance floor, Max indicates that the time window may be closing on their own desirability as sugar daddies.

Later scenes demonstrate that he has been something of a hypocrite for urging prudence on Riton, but it’s part of Max’s vanity to conduct himself as a model of discretion and foresight, especially when conducting amorous campaigns or preparing to do battle with criminal rivals. Even with feet of clay exposed, he remains a role model among thieves and cutthroats.

The ironic, deadpan aplomb with which the filmmaker observes Max’s milieu can be appreciated as a stylistic counterpart of the protagonist’s approach to surviving and prospering. Jacques Becker (1906-1960) had achieved considerable prominence in the late 1930s as Jean Renoir’s assistant before beginning a directing career of his own in 1942. He probably is responsible for much that’s satisfying in the background environments created for such Renoir classics as “La Grande Illusion” and “The Rules of the Game.”

A far more dispassionate slumming excursion, “Grisbi” invests no emotional stake in Max’s liaisons. There is a raciness about the erotic elements that would have delighted art-house customers if an uncut import of “Grisbi” had been feasible in 1954. I doubt if it was, making this revival something of an event for people who may have needed to be in France to catch the scene where Mr. Gabin fondles a starlet’s bosom (clearly, this tradition did not begin with Arnold Schwarzenegger) or the point-blank shots of nightclub chorus girls with only pasties to conceal their breasts.

Riton’s favorite chorus cutie, Josy, was played by the young Jeanne Moreau, already specializing in troublemakers and suggesting a brash resemblance to the Bette Davis of 20 years earlier. Max’s aptitude for intimidation erupts in a kind of slapping medley when he’s grilling Josy, Lola and a cringing room clerk about the disappearance of Riton. Josy has been smacked once before, while openly snorting cocaine, which offends Riton during a drive to her nightclub. Not that the drug trade itself is an eyebrow-raiser in this circle.

“Grisbi” is perhaps too detached and clinical to be as much fun as the Henri-Georges Clouzot music-hall murder melodrama revived earlier this year, “Quai des Orfevres,” made in 1947, but I’m prepared to welcome all similar examples as long-lost French cousins. The French directors of that generation had a way of bringing savory stylization to unsavory yarns.


WHAT: “Touchez pas au Grisbi”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Made in 1953, years before the advent of the rating system; adult subject matter and treatment, with occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor; fleeting nudity during a nightclub floor show)

CREDITS: Directed by Jean Becker. Screenplay by Maurice Griffe, Albert Simonin and Mr. Becker, based on a novel by Mr. Simonin. Cinematography by Pierre Montazel. Production design by Jean d’Eaubonne. Editing by Marguerite Renoir. Music by Jean Wiener. In French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 94 minutesMAXIMUM RATING: Four stars

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