Touchez pas au grisbi

Jeanne Moreau, Jean Gabin, Dora Doll, René Dary, and Vittorio Sanipoli (barely visible at right) in Touchez pas au grisbi (dir. Jacques Becker, 1954).

Marilyn Buferd.

René Dary.

The title means "hands off the loot," and that's a pretty accurate summary of the story: two aging gangsters attempt to protect the "grisbi" they've recently acquired in the climactic heist of their career from a rival criminal who kidnaps one of the pair of old friends. Like Dassin's Rififi or Melville's Bob le flambeur, it transfers the look of the American crime film (albeit with generally lower contrast and more gentle haloes everywhere) onto a narrative structure built more around character than action, though there are moments of violence and tension. These films are as fatalistic as Hollywood noir--maybe even more so--but they're more soft-boiled than hard-boiled.

There are guns and dames and tough talk in Touchez pas au grisbi, yes, but the prevailing mood is one of lilting reverie. The world of seedy thieves and swindlers it depicts verges on urban pastoral, with its heightening of mundane environments--cafes, laundromats, motor scooters, stylish but decadent domestic interiors--into a minor modern Olympus of trivial demigods.

Jean Gabin as Max, the aging kingpin, combines quiet dignity and amoral ennui so subtly you can't tell which is which, or if there's a difference (again, this is a quality he shares with Roger Duchesne's Bob in Bob le flambeur and Jean Servais's Tony le Stephanois in Rififi). His scenes with Marilyn Buferd (who was Miss America in 1946) as his girlfriend Betty are particularly evocative. There is something about their relationship that seems to get at the core conflicts of Max's persona, and his vexed position in the fragile kingdom he has constructed for himself, but nothing is spelled out. She doesn't even really do anything. Her presence simply peels away thin layers of his exterior, like the hot glow of a radium lamp.

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