Growing older is a balancing act between skills that have never
been better, and abilities that sometimes betray. At 50, Max the Liar has never
possessed more wisdom about his profession of burglary. But he no longer cares
to make the effort, and his dream is to salt away 96 kilos in gold bars that
have been stolen at Orly Airport. Then he will retire. Max is a solid,
well-groomed, impeccably dressed, flawlessly polite man whose code is so deeply
embedded that he never refers to it, even indirectly. During the course of
three days, he uses all of his wisdom and experience to make his dream come
true, and it is almost enough.
is played by Jean Gabin, named "the actor of the century" in a French
poll, in Jacques Becker's "Touchez Pas au Grisbi," a 1954 French
crime film that uncannily points the way toward Jean-Pierre Melville's great
"Bob Le Flambeur" the following year. The two films follow similar
story arcs and have similar heroes: middle-age men, well-liked, able to figure
the odds, familiar in their haunts of clubs and restaurants, vulnerable only
because of the passions of their hotheaded pals. Gabin plays a man of few
words, who displays warmth that is real but understated; a man who is always
thinking a step ahead, using brainwork instead of footwork or gunplay to
survive in the underworld.
His weakness is his friendship for Riton (Rene Dary), a sidekick who he calls
"Porcupine Head," and who he has essentially carried for years. Does
Max love Riton? Max seems to be the current or former lover of almost every
woman in the movie, and yet, yes, Riton is who he loves. There's a lovely scene
where Max outsmarts rival hoods who are trying to tail him, and takes Riton
with him to a safe house -- an apartment Riton never knew existed.
There he pours them a bottle of wine, makes a midnight meal of pate and
biscuits, and takes fresh pajamas, blankets and toothbrushes out of a cabinet
and hands them to his friend. Although Gabin's face reveals nothing, we sense
that Max enjoys this domestic interlude more than anything else that happens in
the movie; certainly he is bored in nightclubs and tired of crime, and although
he visits his elegant mistress Betty (Marilyn Buferd) for conjugal observances,
this involves more ritual than desire.
Max, like Bob and many other French gangsters, lives in Montmartre, a district
seen with particular detail in the film. "I believe above all in
Paris," Becker said, and his film shows an instinctive familiarity with
the way the city works. The film opens and closes with Max dining in the same
restaurant, and notice how quietly the point is made that ordinary civilians
are not welcome, no matter how many tables are empty, when Madame Bouche's
favorite gangsters are in the house. Max pays off a young friend's tab at the
end of the evening, and in a later visit, gives Madame some money to hold for
him; the restaurant is also his bank and club.
They all leave, that first night, to escort two showgirls to the strip club
where they work; they are Lola (Dora Doll) and Josy (Jeanne Moreau at 25), who
Riton regards as his mistress. At the club, we meet the drug dealer Angelo
(Lino Ventura) and the club owner Pierrot (Paul Frankeur), a k a
"Fats." Max and Angelo seem to be on good terms, but a little later
Max opens the door of a dressing room and sees Josy being embraced by Angelo.
This would come as particularly bad news to Riton, who fancies himself a
ladies' man and thinks Josy belongs to him, but look how elegantly Becker
resolves the situation. Instead of telling his pal that he's a cuckold, Max
advises Riton to give up Josy. He points out aging playboys steering hookers
around the dance floor, calls attention to the bags under Riton's eyes and
suggests they go home early. Riton suggests he stay for one more drink. No,
says Max, with that flat, calm Gabin delivery; he knows what one more drink
will lead to: A bottle of champagne with Angelo, and then having to take the
girls out for onion soup, and then having to have sex ... it's easier just to
The plot resolves itself as a race between Max's attempts to fence the gold
bars through his Uncle Oscar (another cadaverous relic with a young mistress),
and Angelo's attempts to kidnap Riton and find out where the loot is hidden.
Max senses something fishy is going on and warns Riton; that leads to their
midnight dinner. And as the two old friends turn out the lights, we realize
this opening sequence has occupied some 40 minutes with flawless storytelling
that has consisted almost entirely of small talk in the restaurant and the
club, and then a subdued chase as Max is tailed to his home.
What happens the next day, I will leave for you to discover, describing only an
extraordinary scene where Max learns Riton has been nabbed. Max knows this
means the gold bars will be required as ransom. But he's less concerned about
the gold than about his pal, and he has a wonderful soliloquy, an interior
monologue, which we hear in voice-over, as Max paces his apartment. He talks
about what a dope Riton is, and what a burden he has been for 20 years:
"There's not a tooth in his head that hasn't cost me a bundle." We
understand that Max, who is competent above all things, almost values Riton's
inability to live without his help. At the end of his soliloquy, instead of
growing angry as a conventional gangster might, Max opens a bottle of
champagne, plays a forlorn harmonica solo on his jukebox, sits in a comfortable
chair and lights a cigarette. He treasures his creature comforts, especially
when he might be about to lose them.
Jacques Becker (1906-1960) was not the flashiest of French filmmakers; he had a
way of dealing directly with his material. In this film there are no fancy
shots. Almost everything is seen at eye level, point of view is respected, and
the style shrinks from calling attention to itself. Becker's directness and
simplicity inspired the affection of younger directors like Francois Truffaut.
"He invented his own tempo," Truffaut wrote after he died. "He
loved fast cars and long meals; he shot two-hour films on subjects that really
needed only 15 minutes. ... He was scrupulous and reflective and infinitely
delicate. He loved to make detailed films about ordinary things..."
And in his review of "Touchez Pas au Grisbi" ("Don't Touch the
Loot"), Truffaut noticed: "He keeps only what is essential in the
dialogue, even theessentialpart of thesuperfluous." Surely the
monologue about Riton's teeth is an example of that; we hear it, but we never
see the heist at Orly, nor does Max ever talk about it. "The real subjects
of 'Grisbi'," Truffaut concludes, "are aging and friendship."
Consider the scene where Riton looks at the bags under his eyes in the mirror,
to see if they are as bad as Max said. Remember Max saying he doesn't want to
go to the nightclub because he fears he will get drowsy. And when he goes to
the club to enlist Fats in a probably dangerous mission, the club owner's wife
asks Max to take care of her husband, observing: "At my age, there's no
Gabin himself was almost 50 when he made the film. There's not a trace of
vanity in his performance. Having played the escaped prisoner in Renoir's
"Grand Illusion" and the dashing criminal in "Pepe Le
Moko," he grew up to play grown-ups. Becker probably met Gabin on one of
Renoir's sets; he was the assistant to the great filmmaker in the 1930s, on
"Grand Illusion," "Rules of the Game" and many other films.
His own work includes two titles often ranked with "Touchez Pas au Grisbi"
-- "Le Trou" (1960), about prisoners laboriously trying to escape,
and "Casque d'Or" (1952), with a star-making role for Simone Signoret
in a story of love and betrayal during the 1890s.
The world of French crime films is a particular place, informed by the French
love for Hollywood film noir, a genre they identified and named. But the great
French noirs of the 1950s are not copies of Hollywood; instead, they have a
particularly French flavor; in "Touchez Pas au Grisbi," the critic
Terence Rafferty writes, "real men eat pate," and this is "among
the very few French movies about the criminal class in which neither the
characters nor the filmmakers are afflicted by the delusion that they are
Americans." A few years later, in Godard's "Breathless" (1960),
Belmondo would be deliberately channeling Bogart, but here Gabin is channeling
only himself. He is the original, so there is no need to look for inspiration.
"Touchez Pas au Grisbi" opens Friday with a newly restored and
subtitled print at the Music Box, and is in limited release around the country.
Related reviews at Roger Ebert's Great Movies site(www.suntimes.com/ebert)include "Bob Le
Flambeur," "Breathless" and "Grand Illusion."