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Darkness in the City of Light

Jacques Becker's influential 1953 crime drama 'Touchez Pas au Grisbi' (Don't Touch the Loot) returns.

September 05, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

With its impenetrable title and unmatchable cast, the classic 1953 "Touchez Pas au Grisbi" (Don't Touch the Loot) is a wonderful treasure from the seemingly inexhaustible cornucopia of crackling French crime dramas.

A major work by the underappreciated Jacques Becker, "Grisbi" (the word is apparently criminal slang for ill-gotten gains) influenced everything from "Rififi" and "Bob le Flambeur" to Godard's "Breathless" and Truffaut's "Shoot the Piano Player." Quite a list and quite a film. It's getting a one-week re-release starting today at the Nuart Theatre.

Unbeatable as a gripping story of loyalty, betrayal and the price of friendship in the Parisian underworld, "Grisbi" not only marks the end of one cinematic era and the beginning of another, it also features memorable performances by two of France's movie icons, Jean Gabin and Jeanne Moreau.

As he'd proved in his masterpiece "Casque d'or" two years earlier, director and co-writer Becker, a disciple and friend of Jean Renoir, was a matchless storyteller with a matter-of-fact manner that managed to infuse great emotion into its laconic, unhurried style.

As Truffaut, a great admirer of Becker's work, wrote, "There are no theories in circulation about Jacques Becker, no scholarly analyses, no theses. Neither he nor his work encourages commentary, and so much the better for that."

What sets "Grisbi" apart is its emphasis on the middle-class aspects of French criminal life and its understanding that paying attention to those bourgeois realities would make its pulpier plot elements seem more true-to-life. So "Grisbi's" gangsters won't talk business until the pate is on the table and, in one of the film's most delightful moments, carefully brush their teeth before donning crisp striped PJs and going to bed.

What these habits mean as well is that these hard guys are men of a certain vintage, people old enough to have reading glasses and tough girlfriends who mean it when they say "at my age there are no second chances." As Truffaut immediately recognized, " 'Grisbi' is a film about reaching 50."

Star Gabin, in fact 50 when the film came out, couldn't be better as the world-weary Max, a giant among pygmies who is still quick on his feet but tired of having to be. A major flirt as well as a snappy dresser (a double-breasted pinstripe number is especially impressive), Max is a kind of Lew Wasserman of Paris crime, a respected elder statesman who can be dangerous if crossed.

Though he doesn't lack for eager girlfriends, the emotional anchor in Max's life is Riton (Rene Dary), a fellow hard guy and his pal for 20 years. As the word on the street about Max has it, "When he likes someone, he's a friend for life."

The grisbi of the title is 50 million francs in gold bars, lifted from the Orly airport before the film begins. This was going to be the old lions' retirement stake, but nothing goes as planned in the world of crime, and the involvement of drug dealer Angelo (Lino Ventura in his screen debut) leads to shifting loyalties, major complications and a pip of a climactic gun battle.

Gabin, who won Venice's best actor award for his performance, embodies effortless acting with his creation of Max. He radiates both the wariness and the sense of style of this indomitable albeit thick-around-the-middle gangster, and though he would remain active in film for another 20 years, he would always represent the glories of the prewar world that was no more.

Moreau, on the other hand, came to epitomize not only the coming French New Wave but the sophisticated future of international art cinema as well. Indelible as Josie, a chorus girl not especially to be trusted, she shares a number of scenes with Gabin, including one electric moment, a powerful slap that feels today like the passing of the torch from one generation to the next.

In addition to involving us in this story, Becker adds a number of surprise touches. The film's camera placements keep us alert, and Jean Wiener's celebrated harmonica theme, which reached this country before the film did, pops up in unexpected places.

What is no surprise is that one of the most involving characters in "Grisbi" is the city of Paris itself. As shot by Pierre Montazel, this noir world of nightclubs and gangsters is the celebrated Paris of shadows, where the poetry of crime is written in hard hearts, cold sidewalks and brittle neon.

What stays with you most, however, is the poetry of Gabin's face. He's an actor who actually looks like he's lived the life he plays on screen, and by the closing scenes there's so much of the past in his face -- regrets, memories, despair, even a kind of love -- that a glance from him is worth an entire performance from lesser actors.


'Touchez Pas au Grisbi'

Where: Landmark Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A.

When: Today, Monday through Thursday, 5, 7:30 and 10 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, noon, 2:30, 5, 7:30 and 10 p.m.

Contact: (310) 281-8223

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

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