July 13, 1959 [Touchez pas au grisbi]

French filmmakers seem to love American movies as much as we do--maybe more, especially crime movies, re-imagining them and showing me things I otherwise might not have paid much attention to--like the abundance of older--or older-looking--actors as tough-guy leading men, whether as crooks or dicks--and the level of calm professionalism required of such figures, once you rise above the snarling Scarface/Mike Hammer types.

Jean Gabin is the king of this, and Touchez pas au grisbi becomes a precise experiment in cross-pollination, a new bloom with a too-cool gunpowder bouquet and blue steel petals. Grisbi feels like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Maltese Falcon in its brutal attention to failure, while ironically praising the virtues of friendship and loyalty. Gabin's Max, a ready-to-retire criminal, is forced to risk everything to save his longtime friend/partner in crime, whose urge to impress a showgirl makes him slip info about a stash of gold bars they'd heisted, Max's pension fund. The resultant kidnappings, beatings/torturings, and general mayhem, while exciting in themselves, are played out with a casual hipness that seems weirdly American--but particularly French.

The opening scene, in which the gamblers and crooks hang out in "their" restaurant--a party of outsiders is summarily sent across the street--shows us Max's gracious cool hard at work, keeping everyone happy, maintaining appearances, biding his time until the gold's cold enough to fence. His unflagging loyalty to his foolish friend is, of course, itself foolish, but to play it any other way would dismantle the point of all that cool: Not simply to gather the loot, but to hold it off, a means to a fuller end.

When other crooks want it for themselves, the code kicks in again: How could they touch it when Max himself won't? Max knows it is paid for in bloody loss, like the Mexican mountain of greed that overmastered Bogart and company, as well as the black bird, the "stuff that dreams are made of.” Again, Jacques Becker's movie knows the value of loot, and the price paid for loyalty. In the end, those gold bars are nothing to Max beside his friend. As Sam Spade says, "Don't be too sure I'm as crooked as I'm supposed to be." Almost two decades later--and an ocean away--Max tenders the same warning, and woe to any mug who gives it the drift.


Popular Posts