Thursday, October 11, 2007

One Last Time, With Feeling: 'Touchez pas au grisbi'

By Lars Trodson

Here is a movie, in French, in black and white, that glides across your emotions like an absolute dream.

Touchez pas au grisbi” translates loosely, I am led to believe, as “Hands Off The Loot.” This refers strictly to money. Everything else in the movie, whether its turf, loyalty, friendship, women or sex, is up for grabs. Maybe.

But watching this lovely little film, a film that so neatly keeps its mood, that captures tiny moments, that manages both crowd scenes and intimate moments with comparable ease, elicits not only admiration, but a question.

What has happened to filmmaking of this kind? Where has it gone? Everything one could hope for in a film is here: dialogue that is funny, menacing and revealing. The director, Jacques Becker, keeps a firm handle on the movie’s interior geography. The viewer never gets lost. Even the briefest performances capture moments of personality. The camera expertly reveals the story from multiple points of view, and it all draws to a finely satisfying conclusion that works precisely because it seems well thought out while at the same time not trying too hard. And we have violence that is still unsettling, moments of tenderness, character exploration, and questions about the mystery of friendship and how things can get all bollixed up without anyone even trying.

And you think, even in its day, it probably didn’t cost a lot of money. I think of “Evan Almighty”, a comedy that floated its way to box office disaster to the tune of $140 million. This is progress?

“Touchez pas au grisbi”, which was released in 1954, opens with a shot of Jean Gabin, with a lovely French torch song in the background, who plays Max, the aging thief, a guy who simply wants to retire. He’s weary of the nightlife, the anxiousness. He’s leery of getting old and staying in the game too long. Gabin, the great French actor, is still uncommonly handsome, plays Max not only as fearsome but also a little goofy. Max is handed a newspaper and we learn that $50 million in gold bullion has been stolen. That’s all we need to know, right off the bat, and that’s all we’re told. This is unfussy, and clear, filmmaking.

Max has a sidekick, Riton (Rene Dary), with whom he has run with for 20 years, and they are like a little couple – they even brush their teeth the same way because they’ve been together for so long. At one point Max looks at his slightly ridiculous friend and says, simply, “So, porcupine-head.” It’s just a small statement of affection.

Part of the fascination with a film like this, one that was shot outside the studio, as so much of post-war European filmmaking was, is that we get to see the sites. The Paris streets, the small cafes, the neon signs of small hotels, the nightclubs, the little apothecaries, the telephones, the cars, the glasses out of which people drank their liquor, the manner in which different classes of people dressed. It was also a much less democratic society than today. Rich people always know they have money, but back then when people were broke they knew it, and they didn’t bankrupt themselves upward.

This sly film centers on what we would call the double-cross. Who is flim-flamming who, and the fun is seeing who comes out of it all right. It’s a foregone conclusion our hearts are with the wily Max. Movie audiences are always put in the position of siding with the hero -- whether he’s on the right side of the law or not -- because he’s the guy directing the action. He’s the one in control. I think villains and criminals are so much fun to play for actors not so much because they are complex, but rather they tap into something that is, at least on the surface, fundamentally appealing: They can do what they want. They do not adhere to rules. They don’t pay taxes. They take and spend money with aplomb. They get the beautiful girl even if they don’t want her. The lives the rest of us lead, while of course defined by much less anxiety and danger, are infinitely more restricted and maybe just a tad dull. Would you rather be surrounded by beautiful women in a glittering nightclub or trimming the hedges? Maybe the answer is easy, in the short term. I might rather be at the club spending other people’s money, but I also know I don’t want to pay the heavy price for it down the line.

When we go to the movies we don’t have to bother ourselves with that kind of discomfort. Our heroes experience both the pleasure and the pain for us, and in “Touchez pas au Grisbi” we get quite a bit of both, as well as the all too human melancholy that sometimes accompanies even the most exciting lives.

It’s also always fascinating to see the difference between American and European films that were made in that era. A film made in America more or less at the same time, “The Moon Is Blue", (Otto Preminger, 1953), got into trouble because it used the word virgin. In “Touchez pas au Grisbi”, the character played by Jeanne Moreau, Josy, snorts cocaine in the car. Max grabs the breast of a woman and asks “Can I give you a hand carrying that around”, and all she does is gently slap his hand, but not until it has sat there for some time. When Max visits the owner of the Club Mystific”, Pierrot, the walls are decorated with pictures of naked women. The interest of this is not prurient, not now; it just gives us another opportunity to recognize how much free-er European cinema was.

Early on, at the club Mystific, where the girls dance with lonely men, Max settles a score between his old friend, Pierrot, and the thug who sells dope on the premises, Angelo (Lino Ventura). But Angelo has other things on his mind: he wants to rub Max out.

I use that last phrase on purpose. While I won’t pretend to have read the book by Albert Simonin (ever notice how film reviewers seem to be intimately familiar with every novel, no matter how obscure, that their film versions are based on?), the novel “Touchez pas au grisbi” apparently, as the title indicates, is comprised almost entirely of a kind of hard-boiled vernacular of the Raymond Chandler variety. The book caused a sensation, and while the film version is apparently much less heated, the players within all speak that kind of street talk: they’re all fed up, get tossed out, asked to tag along, or told to skip it; it’s all street talk. It gives the film an ease, a low level vibe that makes the proceedings immensely enjoyable.

When Max leaves the club Mystific, he’s tailed by an ambulance carrying a couple of Angelo’s henchmen who want to kidnap him, but he escapes with ease. He calls Riton, and Max then shows him the $50 million in gold that he’s holding in the trunk of a hidden car.

The rest of the film tracks the double-cross, and we watch as the rag-teams of rivals attempt to grab the cash. That’s it.

It isn’t much of a story, and as worn as it may have been in 1954, it’s even more familiar now, of course. But it is the playing and the relationships that hold our interest. Riton, you see, has told Josy about the loot, but she is also having an affair with Angelo. That’s why he wants to grab Max. Max, after he learns of Riton’s foolishness, and the fact that Riton has been roughed up by Angelo’s men and taken to the hospital, ruminates, in a voice over, about the nature of their friendship. He’s angry that Riton has put them both in a tough spot, but he’s also mixed up because he knows that he’ll miss the poor slob, too, if something happens to him: “That Riton! What a pain. He’s been a pain for years. Always lousing things up. Jesus, how dumb can you get? He thinks he’s a big shot because he’s got guts. He may have balls, but what a jerk. I never should have hooked up with a mug like him. The jobs I could’ve pulled off if I didn’t have him on my back. Well, it’s my own damn fault. I should have worked on my own. But I let feelings get in the way. That’ll teach me.”

That’s Max. You get the feeling, through Gabin’s tired eyes, and his heavy sense of resignation, that he really has loved the beautiful girls (and almost all the women in the movie are stunning) he’s left behind, that he wouldn’t have traded Riton for a more capable partner, that he enjoyed the heists, and feels comfortable living just outside the law. You get the sense that he felt it all, and that’s why he’s so tired. He didn’t live outside it. That’s why it’s time to get out; he’s simply worn down.

Gabin’s Max is the deep center of this artful gem, and the movie holds our imagination not only because of the richness of the surroundings, and the thoughtful manner in which the director Becker has placed all the characters, but because the story gives Max plenty of room to roam and to express his mournful plight. We feel delighted, in our own movie way, to have met him.

Depth of feeling is always the worst thing, and the best thing, to happen to guys in film noir.