Wednesday, June 22, 2005

On "Touchez Pas au Grisbi"

You haven't lived until you've seen Touchez Pas au Grisbi *, Jacques Becker's transcendental 1954 underworld melodrama. It's perfect.



(* The title translates literally as "Touch Not the Dough," but as French slang it settles out as "Hands Off the Loot!")

This is a quote from Terrence Rafferty's August 31, 2003 New York Times piece on the film:

Francois Truffaut, in fact, felt compelled to begin his laudatory Cahiers du Cinema review of "Grisbi" with a string of negatives. "There are no theories in circulation about Jacques Becker," he wrote, "no scholarly analyses, no theses. Neither he nor his work encourages commentary, and so much the better for that. The truth is that Becker has no intention of mystifying or demystifying anyone; his films are neither statements nor indictments."

Truffaut understood instinctively. Grisbi pulls no punches, nor does it make an issue of its elegant restraint. It's an ideally modulated work, an ode to honor and a poem of decay.
Jean Gabin revived his flagging career with the role of Max le Menteur (prior to World War II he'd starred in international hits Pepe Le Moko, La Grande Illusion, and Le Jour Se Leve); in Grisbi he is rectitude personified, albeit in ruthless, immaculate guise.

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The cast is remarkable throughout, consistently abetting the narrative with quiet, nuanced performances. Jeanne Moreau makes one of her early film appearances in Grisbi; there's a fantastic scene in which her character, a showgirl named Josy, snorts a bump of coke off her hand en route to a nightclub.

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Her middle-aged boyfriend, Riton, a gangster chum of Max's, backhands her shortly after. It sets a distinctively violent, yet oddly principled tone.

From Philip Kemp's short essay on Jacques Becker and Grisbi, "A Neglected Master":

If Becker has received less than his due as a filmmaker, it may be partly because, like Franju, Melville, Clouzot, and Gremillon, he belongs to that intermediate, less celebrated generation of French directors who flourished in the years between the Golden Age of the 1930s and the rise of the Nouvelle Vague in the late 1950s. But it may also be because Becker is one of the great underactors among directors, with no interest in flashy technical devices or show-off camera moves: his dexterity, the unstressed elegance of his images, the wit and fluency of his narrative style have led some critics to write him off as a lightweight, lacking in seriousness. Also, Becker loved to explore fresh territory and different genres—no way to build a reputation as a respected auteur.

What sets Becker’s films apart above all is his highly personal approach to narrative. He was fascinated by what he liked to call temps mort—literally “dead time”—what goes on before, after, and around the necessary plot moves. Scenes that other directors would emphasize Becker compresses into a minimum or even skips entirely; scenes that advance the plot scarcely if at all he will linger over. Note how in Grisbi, when Max takes his partner in crime, Riton, to his secret apartment, Becker is just as concerned with the domestic routines of serving food and wine, of the donning of pajamas and the cleaning of teeth, as he is in the intrigues of the two gangsters planning their next moves. What he’s doing is inviting us, quietly but incisively, to watch his characters getting on with the business of living. His ambition, he once said—only partly tongue-in-cheek—was to make a film “with no beginning, no end, and virtually no story.”

(In the film, Gabin says "Try picking snails, Daddy-o." The trailer uses camera angles and dialogue not included in Becker's cut.)

Touchez Pas au Grisbi never wavers. To reveal more might spoil something for someone, so...

TS