French gangster films of the ’50s tend to be more doom-laden than kinetic, following an edgy trajectory wherein battles of wits and wills lead to a catastrophic outcome. Jacques Becker’s Touchez Pas au Grisbi (Don’t Touch The Loot) is squarely in this tradition, one of those moody macho melodramas where the message seems to be not so much that crime doesn’t pay as that life offers you a lot of rotten choices and you have to pick the one you can live with. Originally released in 1954 and now restored with a crisp black and white print and new subtitles, this prime example of hard-boiled existentialism has a familiar aura of tough-guy gloom but is worth seeing for its star performance by the great Jean Gabin.
Gabin plays Max, a 50-year-old professional thief who’s near the end of his game. He’s made one last big score and he’s ready to retire to gangster paradise, that endless seaside of cool drinks and hot babes.
Of course this just isn’t in the cards, and when a rival thug learns of his good fortune he kidnaps Max’s old pal Riton and offers to exchange him for the loot (grisbi). Max is a decent crook, which is to say loyal to his friends, and he knows he has to choose Riton over the grisbi but he’s not happy about it.
So it’s less a matter of ambition than rebellion against the tyranny of rotten choices when he decides to have it both ways and to recover his friend and keep his nest egg. By going against the cosmic order he’s tempting fate as well as setting the movie up for an explosive finale.
Becker was, for the most part, a pedestrian director who had the good fortune to occasionally handle some compelling material, but Gabin (1904-76), in his day, was as much of a film icon to the French as Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne was to us in the States. And like any such icon, every character he played was one where his past roles had coalesced into a familiar persona. In Gabin’s case this consisted of a taciturn but occasionally charming guy with a tough exterior, stoic when it came to taking care of business but able to enjoy life as well. Max may not be as memorable a character as those he played for director Jean Renoir in the ’30s, but he’s a compelling archetype: cool, calm and dangerous.
In French with English subtitles. Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit) Friday, Feb. 27-Sunday, Feb. 29. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].