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The Criterion Collection presents
Touchez pas au grisbi (1954)

"I wanted to wait, but you had to be a wise guy."
- Max (Jean Gabin)

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: January 24, 2005

Stars: Jean Gabin, René Dary, Lino Ventura, Jeanne Moreau, Paul Frankeur
Director: Jacques Becker

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:36m:42s
Release Date: January 18, 2005
UPC: 037429203125
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A B+AB+ B-

DVD Review

French filmmakers who came of age in the 1930s and 1940s don't always get their due; they're sandwiched between the old masters (Renoir, Carné) and the nouvelle vague (Truffaut, Godard), and their style may not be as flashy or groundbreaking as either the generation that preceded them or the one that rebelled against them. Jacques Becker could almost be a poster boy for this age of French cinema, but perhaps this Criterion release, in concert with another of his films, Casque d'or, will return some of the rightfully earned luster to his reputation.

Touchez pas au grisbi (which translates, roughly, to "Don't touch the loot"), is a languorous, character-driver gangster picture; it doesn't have the percussiveness and explosiveness of the Cagney pictures of the period (cf., White Heat), but the conventions of the genre are very much in place, and put to good use. Based on a novel by Albert Simonin, the film focuses on Max, the aging gangster who is world weary, and though in many respects this is a typical piece about the proverbial final big score, Becker and the picture are much more interested in Max as a character than as a professional man. Played by Jean Gabin, one of the grand dashing figures of French cinema, Max is a memorable, almost touching figure; those eyes have seen much more over the years than his tight-lipped conversational style might at first lead you to believe, and he adheres fiercely to the codes of loyalty and silence. It's the first that's causing all the trouble: Max has been involved in a job at Orly, and gold bars worth millions of francs are stashed in the trunk of his Chrysler; but there's trouble because his partner and friend, Riton (René Dary) has blabbed to his showgirl inamorata, Josy, played by a very young and lovely Jeanne Moreau. How Max tries to hold on to his stash while keeping his friend from harm is the principal tension of the plot.

But the plot is sort of secondary, really, to the moody, noirish world of gangster and showgirls, bistros and slang. Gabin may not have been an actor of great range, but he's got a terrifically charismatic screen presence, and he's the hub of the wheel here; how everyone relates to him and the amount of respect they are shown by him are the most reliable indicators of their standing in this tightly knit little subculture. The narrative accelerates in the second half of the movie, when Max is forced into action; it becomes almost a detective picture, and more of Max's character is revealed to us as he's on the go. He's a criminal, often angry, occasionally violent, but our empathy for him never wanes, because he's neither a worshipped antihero nor a cartoon villain, but a finely and fully etched character. (As Geoffrey O'Brien observes in a smart accompanying essay, "It's a film where we learn how gangsters brush their teeth.")

The photography in the film is especially noteworthy; it's got an almost Expressionistic quality, which lends to the emotional richness of a movie made in a genre in which, usually, the story is all. And the new English-language subtitle substitute American vernacular for the French, without being overly obtrusive; still, it's kind of discordant to see Gabin, who might as well have a map of France printed on his face, with his words translated into stuff like "Daddy-o."

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: A strong, impressive effort from Criterion on this one, with solid, rich blacks, and just the right amount of grain. Some of the material in the extras package features clips from the film before restoration, and you can see just how spectacularly it's been shined up.

Image Transfer Grade: A


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: A pretty clean track, though there's still some hiss and crackle; that's probably to be expected from a film of this vintage, though.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 15 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
4 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet with essays by Geoffrey O'Brien and Philip Kemp
  2. color bars
Extras Review: Not a full boat of extras, but some good stuff here. A 1972 French television interview (09m:10s) with Lino Ventura is a career overview of the actor's work; of particular interest here is his transition from being a wrestler to making his screen debut in Becker's gangster movie. Excerpted from a 1978 tribute to Gabin is a discussion (01m:52s) with the film's composer, Jean Wiener; more recent is a 2002 interview (07m:26s) with Daniel Cauchy, who plays a young hood, and reflects here on the early days of his career. In 1967, Cinéastes de notre temps, a French television show, produced a tribute to Becker, seven years after his death; what you'll find here is the portion (05m:40s) relevant to Touchez pas au grisbi. Highly recommended, too, are the accompanying essays; Geoffrey O'Brien's, mentioned above, is about this film particularly, while Philip Kemp's gives a broader look at Becker's career.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

A gangster picture more driven by character than plot, this is a finely acted, moody, and beautifully photographed film. The extras aren't overwhelming but are certainly informative; this DVD should help director Jacques Becker get some of the recognition his so rightly deserves.


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