TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI (Jacques Becker, 1953)

Jean Gabin (best actor, Venice) is superb as Max, an aging gangster in the Montmartre district of Paris, who has convinced himself, at least, that he wishes to retire, in Jacques Becker’s razor-sharp, electrifying, ultimately wistful film noir of gangland warfare, Touchez pas au grisbi (Hands Off the Loot!). Gabin’s final touch of secret gaiety in his complex role may owe something to the Mona Lisa-personality of Marlene Dietrich, with whom Gabin recently was involved romantically.
     Becker’s mise-en-scène dazzles with its intricate, dynamic activity. Contesting, moderating the film’s intense realism is a dimension of theatricality and artifice nudged in by the opening of doors and windows, including interior windows on interior activity, that transform scenes observed by characters in the film as though they were playlets, emphasizing the degree to which these characters live well-rehearsed lives founded in well-rehearsed rituals. Hallways with progressive arches perform a similar function.
     Max and pal Henri, nicknamed Riton, have made what they hoped would be their final heist: gold bars worth fifty million francs. But when the boss of another gang kidnaps Riton, will Max exchange the loot for Riton? Ultimately, no one gets the loot, and either Max or Riton loses his life. The fateful outcome follows something else that changes hands: Josy (Jeanne Moreau, strikingly young), once Riton’s property, now the possession of the rival gang boss, ironically named Angelo.
     The shoot-out between gangs on a road in the dark of night may be the most thrilling passage in Becker’s œuvre. The headlights of cars illuminate the determinism that these gangsters have interiorized; when the “good guys” subject a rival gang member to torture, the Resistance comes rushing back.
     These men battle phantoms of historic memory, and the soul of France hangs in the balance.


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