Wednesday, September 8, 2010


"Grisbi" sounds like the name of a character in an American film noir, but in French it means "loot." The title of Jacques Becker's movie is usually translated as "Hands off the loot!" but I've seen and heard the film referred to simply as Grisbi. One I made it known that I was a fan of French crime films, it was made known to me that I needed to see Grisbi some day. Since it happened to be the film debut of my favorite French crime genre actor, Lino Ventura, it was definitely on my to-do list.

The loot of the title is a load of gold bars stolen from an airport by a two-man gang, Max (Jean Gabin) and Riton (Rene Dary). Max is honored throughout the "milieu," the Parisian underworld; he's in demand as an arbiter of disputes among criminals. Riton isn't quite as well respected. Sometimes Max himself wonders if he's just been carrying his pal in recent years. Riton isn't quite as bright, either. He blabbed about a big score he'd made to his fickle girlfriend Josy (Jeanne Moreau), who blabbed about it to her boyfriend on her side, the drug dealer Angelo (Ventura). Angelo has just made a big show of his respect for Max, but he needs money and wants that loot. From this point the story is pretty simple. Riton eventually falls into Angelo's clutches. Angelo expects Max to give him the loot in return for Riton. Max thinks about letting Riton pay for his foibles, then thinks better of that. He has a plan to save Riton and the loot, but there's no guarantee that he'll get either, or that he'll survive himself....

Lino Ventura (left) meets Jean Gabin, a future frequent co-star; below, Ventura shows Jeanne Moreau the exit.

Grisbi is what modern audiences might call a "bromance." The film's focus is on the friendship between Max and Riton, which has a sort of Mice and Men quality, though Riton's not that dumb. The friendship isn't overstated or milked for excess pathos, nor need anything more than friendship be read into it. These guys just live in a masculine milieu where every girl, almost, is a showgirl or a prostitute, and their friendship is clearly the most meaningful relationship in either man's life. Max's big test comes when he tempts himself to abandon Riton to his fate, and he proves his nobility by doing the right thing, at whatever price that demands.

Gabin wreaks havoc.

I've seen Jean Gabin earlier and much later in his life, but Grisbi apparently set the pattern for the second half of his star career, when he often played masterful criminals or tough detectives. At age 50, he has a middle-aged gravitas that suits his character quite well. Max seems amiable enough, but this is clearly a dude no one should mess with. Rene Dary is a new face for me, so for now he is Riton, as believable in his role as Gabin in his. Ventura gets low billing as a beginner despite playing the villain of the piece. He's charismatically thuggish, though not so much so that he steals the picture, and he gets a spectacular and satisfactory exit.

Jacques Becker has not made a film noir or a thriller in the later style of Jean-Pierre Melville. Despite a tragic finish, there's no oppressive feeling of fatedness or doom, nor does Becker strive for the precisely calibrated tension that Melville cultivates. Grisbi has plenty of suspenseful moments and a nicely shot nighttime car chase, but it's essentially an old-school crime film of the sort Warner Bros. cranked out in the Thirties. From me, that's as much a compliment as comparing it to Melville or noir. I like Melville's best films better, but Touchez pas au Grisbi is a solid, atmospheric, and ultimately moving picture that I can recommend to any crime film fan.

Here's the trailer (with English subtitles) as uploaded to YouTube by jhhvideoteach:


John said...

I watched this film earlier this year, definitely a man's world here, a story of the bond that exists between men, camaraderie that lives where one man will sacrifice all for another. Women are in this world but they, are only peripherally.

maria said...

maybe the greatest noir ever, love the bit where he leaves that geezer in the middle of the countryside who asks what am i supposed to do now and gabin says
go pick mushrooms moron