In the light of the impending nouvelle vague, reflection on any aspect of post-WWII French film threatens to become a referendum. So wide is the shadow cast on the country’s cinema by Truffaut, Godard and the ilk of Cahiers du Cinéma that even avowed masters of the medium like Jacques Becker, Agnès Varda and Louis Malle get blotted out retroactively by a culture industry which elevates the pyrotechnics of a À bout de souffle (1960) or a Jules et Jim (1962) over the staid intensity of a Le Trou (Becker, 1960) or a Cléo de 5 à 7 (Varda, 1962). Becker’s 1954 film Touchez pas au grisbi (1954), often translated into English as “Don’t Touch the Loot”, therefore appears as a loaded artistic statement by an ageing don who died shortly before younger radicals would, in the eyes of many critics and historians, render him obsolete.
Touchez pas au grisbi is the story of a gangster’s compulsion to commit one more heist before retiring to a life of bubbly and well-proportioned broads. Played by Jean Gabin, Max summarises his character’s frame-of-mind in no vague terms: “I was fed up with all our bullshit years ago. I want to retire,” he tells his right-hand man. “You see the bags under our eyes? Do you think we’re a pretty sight?” Whether paying-off a restaurateur who may be implicated in his criminal exploits, putting up an accomplice on the run for a night in his secret apartment, or torturing a younger buck for information, his unhurried expression rarely changes. As also enacted in films such as Carlito’s Way (Brian De Palma, 1993) and Belly (Hype Williams, 1998), the plot of the hardened outlaw committing his last caper is a trope of the crime genre. But the authorial hand behind what might’ve been a hoary cliché gives Touchez pas au grisbi a classic (and classicist) status it might not have enjoyed otherwise. Touchez pas au grisbi, perhaps more than any other of Becker’s works, serves as a meta-narrative about the director, a running commentary on the life and times of the man who made it.
Born in Paris on 15 September 1906, Becker’s ascension in the French film industry was gradual and deliberate, marked by stints as an assistant, as a beleaguered resident of Vichy France, a prisoner in a German POW camp, and eventually by the late 1940s as a fledgling director-in-chief. His first directorial efforts date back to a couple of shorts in the 1930s, though it wasn’t until the 1950s that his films attained widespread acclaim, perhaps because their elegance and nostalgia aligned perfectly with the conservative postwar mood of France. As the ’50s gave way to the ’60s, it was exactly this quality that Godard and Truffaut would later identify as hallmarks of an ancien regime of French film. Becker’s Le Trou was released the same year as Godard’s À bout de souffle, and was the director’s last, as he died in February of that year. One wonders whether his historical reputation as an “old-fashioned” (1) filmmaker owes anything to the fact that he didn’t have the chance to respond directly to the nouvelle vague.
As factory managers in an industrial age worked their ways up from the assembly lines to eventually inherent the reigns of the enterprises which once employed them, there’s a sense in which Becker’s career as a director really started with his tenure as an assistant to director Jean Renoir in the 1930s. Born on the same day 12 years apart, the older Renoir and the younger Becker shared more than a birthday: the canvas of the two directors was the landscape of a 20th century France wracked by class conflicts, a global depression, and the rupture of two total wars waged within the country’s borders. Becker – who hired Renoir’s wife Marguerite as an editor for Touchez pas au grisbi among other films – approached his apprenticeship with his elder as a kind of cinematic trade school, where he learned directorial techniques, garnered professional contacts and gained valuable experience.
The Renoir films for which Becker served as an assistant – Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932), La Grande illusion (1937), La Règle du jeu (1939), among others – were frequently preoccupied with the dynamic intermixture of the classes. But the mature Becker in Touchez pas au grisbi seems more concerned with the crippling effects of prolonged stasis: painted in noirish brushstrokes by cinematographer Pierre Montazel, the Parisian criminal underbelly is an ecosystem where the trough of wasted lives is replenished by scarred 20-somethings ready to step into the wingtips of jaded elders who took their lunch money just last year. When Max and his gang abuse a younger hustler – by squeezing his testicles, as if to put pressure on the next generation before it even arrives – we’re invited to imagine him in the youngster’s same shoes, 30 years earlier. The symbol of this dark and cyclical cosmos may well be the black phonograph Max cues unfailingly throughout the film: composed by Jean Wiener, the theme’s minor chord melody is a perfect backdrop to postwar Parisian despair, and recalls Louis Malle’s use of Miles Davis’ moodiness in Ascenseur pour l’échafaud (1958). The record spins, the bodies drop, the strong survive and the old retire if they’re lucky or smart enough to find a way out while there’s still a song to hear.
If placed in the same film, Max from Touchez pas au grisbi and Jean from À bout de souffle would clash as contemporary competitors split apart by the same divides of age and experience which separated Becker from Godard. Both Max and Jean are comfortable in milieus where violence is currency, but the way their directors trace their aggressions make cinematic worlds of difference. For Max in Touchez pas au grisbi, a vintage intimidation tactic is the slap – an intimately violent act whose crisp sound echoes throughout Becker’s filmography. As in the scene where a gang of prisoners thrash a pair of corrupt repairmen in Le Trou, or in the scene where an overlord manhandles an underling for filching money in Casque d’or (1952), the slap in Touchez pas au grisbi shows up as a supposedly ethical, regulatory force. Max slaps women who speak out of turn and men whom he suspects don’t speak the truth. The narrative framing of his abusive acts suggest that he’s a great guy whom circumstances compel to do awful things.
The structured social hierarchy in Touchez pas au grisbi – absent from À bout de souffle, which focuses on lone wolves scrambling for survival – lends a texture of romanticism to the film. In this world, there is chivalry: Max cops a feel by asking his female companion if she “needs help carrying all that” before clumsily clutching her breasts. There are customs: when Max grants his accomplice permission to break bread before he does, it reinforces the latent power dynamic. And there are ethical standards: an older taxi driver admonishes a young Jeanne Moreau for snorting cocaine, but has no such reprimand for Max, who sells it for a living. The debonair Max’s double-breasted pinstriped suit begs the question: is he merely a dope dealer, or a banker of sorts? Is the world depicted by Becker in Touchez pas au grisbi a bastardisation of buttoned-down business culture or a dirty mirror where truths about capitalism appear clearer by being exaggerated?
After a cataclysmic scramble for some coveted bars of gold, Max the lowlife emeritus is ready to bury his hatchets and his machine guns to seek a simpler life that presumably doesn’t involve trafficking narcotics. After Touchez pas au grisbi, Becker would go on to make four more feature films. 1958’s Les Amants de Montparnasse depicted the famous Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani in the last years of his life, a man in search of love and money. Le Trou – made in Becker’s own last year – places intergenerational conflict at the centre of the narrative, with a fraternité of older inmates begrudgingly accepting a younger prisoner despite the constant spectre of betrayal. But 1954’s Touchez pas au grisbi, as Truffaut said, remains one of the greatest stories ever told on film about “aging and friendship” (2). It remains a fascinating window into an intergenerational directorial career positioned just between the glory days of the Parisian studio system and the impending heyday of the ’60s cinematic Visigoths who eventually sacked the city.
1. François Truffaut in a 1967 episode of the French TV-documentary series Cinéastes de notre temps directed by Claude de Givray, and devoted to Becker.
2. Truffaut quoted by Roger Ebert, “Touchez pas au grisbi”, RogerEbert.com 1 February 2004: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-touchez-pas-au-grisbi-1954.
Touchez pas au grisbi (1954 France 94 mins)
Prod Co: Antara Produzione Cinematografia/Del Duca Films Prod: Robert Dorfmann Dir: Jacques Becker Scr: Jacques Becker, Maurice Griffe, Albert Simonin, based on Simonin’s novel Phot: Pierre Montazel Ed: Marguerite Renoir Art Dir: Jean d’Eaubonne Mus: Jean Wiener
Cast: Jean Gabin, René Dary, Dora Doll, Paul Frankeur, Lino Ventura, Jeanne Moreau