Jean Gabin Stylishly Embodies Montmartre Criminal Underworld
DIRECTED BY JACQUES BECKER/FRENCH/1954
STREET DATE: AUGUST 13TH, 2019/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
From the pages of Série Noire, the French postwar publisher of translated American crime novels and their hardboiled domestic counterparts, Albert Simonin’s 1953 thriller Touchez pas au grisbi brought the manicured, mannered, and miscreant denizens of Paris’s 18th Arrondisement to the screen in director Jacques Becker’s influential film adaptation. Variously Anglicized as Don’t Touch the Dough, Bury the Scratch, and Hands off the Loot!, the unrenderable argot of the Montmartre criminal class uniquely describes an underworld of afterhour cafés, swanky nightclubs, and sexy floorshows. Leisurely moving between these various haunts, aging gangster Max le Menteur glides with a leonine grace that is as unhurried as it is commanding.
Style and honor combine in the preternaturally poised presence of actor Jean Gabin, who at age 49 was himself poised to embark on a second French wave of dark-poetic policiers, linking the expressive realism of prewar highlights like Pépé le Moko (1936), Le Quai des Brumes (1938), and La Bête humaine (1938) with a hard-earned reserve of unflappable sangfroid weighed heavily by the historically eventful years that followed. Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) and Grisbi’s Montmartre-set counterpart in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur (1956) were equally trend-setting in their respective approach, ushering in an era of French crime thrillers whose visual echoes and unmistakable milieu would be seen and felt for several subsequent decades, but Jacques Becker’s canny casting of Gabin in the role of Max le Menteur certainly cemented the style and personality of the French Série Noire on-screen.
Max (Gabin) lives the high life both above and apart from the atmospheric nightlife of Right Bank Paris. With a revolving retinue of glamorous women on his right arm (Dora Doll, Marilyn Buferd), Max, always accompanied by his long-time partner Riton (René Dury), and often by Riton’s own showgirl paramour Josy (Jeanne Moreau), maintains the stylish standards of the Montmartre set in his double-breasted suits, sleek automobiles and three-fingered method of smoking cigarettes. Yet, within this world, at the height of his power and influence, Max le Menteur is part of a vanishing breed.
Outside forces in the squarish form of Italian gangster Angelo (Lino Ventura), plotting to betray nightclub owner Pierrot (Paul Frankeur) and Max through the foreign interloper’s seduction of Riton’s cheating — and chatting — girlfriend Josy, compromises Max’s recent gold bullion bars-heist of Orly International Airport, his “loot”, or grisbi, concealed in suitcases buried in the trunk of his Montmartre-omnipresent convertible. Soon, on a lonely stretch of highway in the dead of night, Max le Menteur must choose between steadfast loyalty to an old friend or monetary escape from a disappearing way of life he has long grown weary of.
Translated bluntly as “The Liar”, the actively deceptive nature of Max’s appellative is perhaps more directly emphasized in Simonin’s novel, whereas director Becker and Gabin himself more subtly weave the attractive glamor of off-Parisian thugdom throughout several filmed “moments” showing Le Menteur at his most charming. With his fridgeful of bottled champagne, easy way with a quip, and comfortable masculinity, evinced in either wearing monogrammed pajamas or strolling down a nighttime boulevard firing a Thompson sub-machine gun (the latter’s casual use of may remind some viewers of a similar set piece involving Albert Finney’s similar middle-aged gang boss in the Coen Brothers’ 1990 Miller’s Crossing), Max le Menteur upholds the unwritten laws of his outlaw society entirely within his apparently effortless, stylish bearing. Not so much a pose as a way of life, the criminal underbelly is well-fed with a steady diet of self-contained myth and lightly chilled attitude as continually perceived in Max’s protracted gestures and bottomless reserve of self-discipline.
Style is substance in Becker, Simonin, and Gabin’s Max le Menteur, who is as much a self-invention as he is the final, unfrayed thread of a three-piece suit soon to go (if not already gone) out of style. With this awareness, Touchez pas au grisbi plays like an elegy for the world apart it evokes, a last refuge for honorable men whose pretense wears a good deal deeper than the correct cut of vintage values or fashionable favor. Sitting in the same shuttered café that the film opened in, with a different dame on his arm but “his tune” still filling the jukebox air, Max mourns the loss of a lifelong friend the only way he can: by pouring another brandy, smiling pensively, and eternally enacting the role of le Menteur.
Worth the Blu-ray upgrade from Criterion’s eighteen-year-earlier, now-out-of-print DVD, Kino Lorber presents Touchez pas au grisbi in a striking high definition transfer that equally preserves both the moody visuals of Pierre Montazel’s peerless cinematography and the distinctive low-pitched growl of Jean Gabin’s surprisingly soft voice. A staged interview with Jeanne Moreau, poised between breakout roles in Louis Malle’s Ascendeur pour l’échafaud and Les amants (both 1958), offers a fascinating glimpse of a working actress on the verge of international stardom — speaking in 1957 of her friendly and respectful working relationship with the re-emerging Gabin — while interviews with Jean Becker, director Becker’s son and assistant on this film, and scholar Ginette Vincendeau give complementing views on both Jacques Becker’s personal life and the expression of his Max le Menteur-like personality through his films.
Critic Nick Pinkerton comes prepared with his feature-length opinions and observations on Touchez pas au grisbi, his commentary encompassing well-organized research, a multiplicity of biographical sketches, and a general deep-dive into the postwar Gallic interpretation of film noir (from the countrymen who originally coined the genre); all delivered in enviably accurate-sounding French pronunciation, to boot. Informative and engrossing, the latter comes highly recommended.
An early, important role for Jeanne Moreau, the first film appearance of Lino Ventura, the inaugural film of France’s Série Noire; Touchez pas au grisbi remains a touchstone film for many reasons, of which Gabin’s career resurgence became a wonderful yet entirely self-evident (and one hopes inevitable) side-effect. Its historical moment had passed before the film was even made, but the streetlights, neon signs, and flashing marquees of Max le Menteur’s Montmartre has shone and will always glow atmospherically under-bright whenever one chances to revisit.
The “hands off” warning of its title, one can attest is (self-)assuredly hands on.
Images used in this review are credited to DVDBeaver. Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a Blu-ray copy.