In 1955, French critics Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton offered the earliest book-length exploration of what a “serié noir” or “dark series” of films in Panorama du Film Noir Américain. They used Nino Frank’s concept of “dark film” (film noir) to elucidate the traits of a “new type” of American film to which the French public was exposed in 1946. These films shared “a strange and violent tone, tinged with a unique kind of eroticism” and included The Maltese Falcon, Laura, Murder, My Sweet, Double Indemnity, and The Woman in the Window. Whether what we call such films part of a series, a style, a genre, or some combination of the three, we have the French to thank for the term “film noir” and its “unmistakable character” (Borde and Chaumeton).
This background helps to contextualize the film I explore in this post, Touchez pas au grisbi (meaning “Don’t touch my loot” and released as Grisbi in the US), my contribution to Serendipitous Anachronism’s France on Film blogathon.
Released a year before Borde and Chaumeton’s book, Grisbi is the tale of an aging mob boss who simply wants to enjoy his later years in peace. The protagonist, Max, is played by Jean Gabin, whom the #BNoirDetour gang may remember as the lead in 1942’s Moontide opposite a young Ida Lupino. Gabin had fallen from fame in the years after WWII, and Grisbi returned him to success. The film is in many ways a study in character and mood, and Gabin holds the viewer’s attention with practiced ease. The Criterion Collection synopsis describes Gabin’s performance “wearily romantic,” and so it is. Despite or perhaps because of his ruthlessness, cynicism, and a sexism that includes his taking for granted three lovers, we cannot look away from this aging antihero.
Dialogue has little to do with his attraction, for director Jacques Becker is not interested in gangster lingo and wisecracks. Moreover, the film does not rest on its action either. As critic Geoffrey O’Brien opines, “Becker’s genius in Touchez pas au grisbi is to focus resolutely on what comes before or after or falls in between the decisive actions […].” For this reason, Grisbi is most effectively defined as a film of style not content. Between this and its focus on the perspective of a criminal, I conclude that it may be a “crime film,” but it is also a film noir.
[Spoilers ahead] The plot, such as it is, concerns Max’s desire to liquidate his latest haul, which has been turned into gold bricks, so he can retire happily. His closest and perhaps only friend, Riton (René Dary), makes this difficult, for he tells his two-timing young lover Josy (Jeanne Moreau) about the gold and she immediately tells her secret paramour, rival gangster Angelo (Lino Ventura). The rest of the film involves growing tension, crosses, and double-crosses. Multiple characters are killed by gunfire or tossed grenades, and the gold must be abandoned in Angelo’s exploding car. Max ends the film without the gold, without the foolish and now dead Riton, back in the café in which the mobsters hang out, where the film began. He is now showing off his formerly secret American girlfriend, but all else is the same.
I love this film for Gabin’s performance, for its elegant cinematography and mise en scène (from settings to costuming), and for its focus on the “in between.” In keeping with this emphasis, music also plays a strong role in the film. Max has a favorite (harmonica) tune, which plays both on a jukebox and also during his internal monologues. Although danger and violence lurk throughout the 94-minute running time, little actually transpires. A torture scene ends before any real harm is done, and what we see during the climactic confrontation among rival gangs is more ritualistic than graphic. Far more interesting is the attention paid to small moments, character interactions, and daily life. So, it is not surprising that the film ends where it began, in Max’s café, with his tune playing on the Wurlitzer. Just another day for our weary kingpin.