Albert Simonin’s novel Touchez pas au grisbi is said to have had a revolutionary impact on French crime writing, and Jacques Becker’s film version had a similarly transformative effect on French crime films, yet film and novel bear little resemblance to each other. In fact Becker, with the help of Simonin, pretty much threw the book out the window. Told in the first person by the aging career criminal Max le Menteur (played in the film by Jean Gabin), Simonin’s novel is an exuberant exercise in argot for its own sake and even comes with a glossary to help the reader wade through its impasto of criminal discourse. Crowded with incident, casually violent, narrated with a sort of comic grandiosity, it works its effects entirely through the power of an unleashed dialect, and the effect is something like a Gallic marriage of Damon Runyon and Mickey Spillane.
Becker keeps the novel’s milieu and a good number of its characters—and changes just about everything else. The wise-guy, almost vaudevillian tone of the book gives way in the film to a clipped melancholy, unblinking and loaded with gravity. Exaggerated speech becomes a series of laconic exchanges, with the previously garrulous Max—Simonin’s endlessly talkative narrator—the tersest of all; carefree promiscuity gives way to a mood of aging desire; and violence is kept to a minimum, even though the threat of violence is everywhere. As for humor, it is everywhere and nowhere, a hard-bitten humor that seasons every conversation without ever suggesting anything like relaxed enjoyment. Plot, finally, which abounds in Simonin’s novel, here becomes—at least until the final violent explosion—a chain of suggestive pauses. 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: it’s a film where we learn how gangsters brush their teeth.
The heist on which the plot depends isn’t shown, isn’t even explained. The scenes of confrontation are treated as tedious interruptions—a matter of going to work—in what would otherwise be a comfortable life of leisure, whether passed in Madame Bouche’s restaurant (where the only problem is shooing away the squares who sometimes wander in) or in the bedroom of a bejeweled American who “really doesn’t know” who and what Max is. Grisbi unfolds as a series of tableaus so vivid we scarcely notice how insignificant the story is: each scene has its own reality, its own fascination. New characters emerge without explanation, and past entanglements are never clarified. When Variety reviewed the movie after its Paris opening, it had high praise for Becker’s “fine job” but was careful to note that the movie was “not of sufficient suspense and entertainment value for more general situations.... It lacks the U.S. counterpart of pacing, action, and movement.” They had it right: on repeated viewings, it becomes clear just how radical Touchez pas au grisbi is in its narrative fragmentation.
As in Becker’s final masterpiece, Le Trou, everything here is about time. There time is dictated by prison sentences and prison routine; here it’s ordered by the less obvious but equally inexorable pressures of another kind of prison, in which the inmates of the criminal “milieu” police each other even as they keep tabs on their own aging bodies. The actual police have virtually no role to play in Grisbi’s parallel order of reality: it’s the gangsters who inhabit a realm of constant mutual surveillance, the domain of permanent mistrust of which Max is master only because he’s two degrees smarter than anyone around him. The speed with which he has to act is weirdly accentuated by the deliberate slowness of Gabin’s movements, the almost tidal fashion in which he navigates his way through spaces—streets and nightclubs and backrooms and cellars—all to which he seems massively indifferent. He’d always rather be somewhere else. His expression returns again and again to the scowl of someone who is being disturbed yet again by the need to correct someone else’s mistake or get the jump on someone else’s duplicity.
In traditional gangster movies, the hero seeks power, attains power, overreaches, and goes down in flames. Gabin’s Max, by contrast, has already attained a power that he doesn’t really want or need anymore and wishes only to get away—get out of the movie we’re watching—so he can drink his champagne, make love to his beautiful American girlfriend, and listen to that harmonica tune he likes so much. In one of the film’s boldest moves, Becker gives us one brief scene of Max alone, uttering his regrets in voice-over; he takes us inside Max’s head for a moment of totally unexpected interiority. A moment is all that is needed to make us feel that we’ve taken the measure of his life as he experiences it and can now see the surrounding play of masks and shadows from his point of view as a nuisance, an intrusion, something to be cleared away while there’s still time.
Max has only one strong human tie we’re privy to, his friendship with Riton—the hapless fellow operator whose stupidity in allowing himself to be deceived by Jeanne Moreau’s Josy will cost him all the grisbi. It isn’t the most demonstrative of friendships; it has more the feel of a long marriage that can’t be renounced for all its grating regrets. Gabin looks at René Dary as if constantly and silently raging at the fate that has linked him to this doomed character. The bond between them is displayed through a series of gestures in Grisbi’s most memorable scene: the long sequence in Max’s hideaway apartment where the pouring of the wine, the spreading of paté, the laying out of pajamas for his friend are performed with the solemnity of ancient rituals, all the while Gabin’s face retaining its stone-graven impassiveness.
It is a face that has already resigned itself to the almost inevitable failure of all projects of escape or evasion. Everything that happens around him is like a movie or cabaret performance that Max is watching, a show he’s seen too many times. In Grisbi gangsters play at being gangsters, showgirls play at being showgirls. Even the annihilating violence of the last reel has a theatrical feel, as the opposing gang members stride toward each other with their machine guns as if going through the paces of a well-rehearsed musical number. Everybody knows the lines and moves required of them; only Max seems to possess the extra dimension of self-knowledge that enables him to take an ironic distance from the spectacle—for all the good it does him. He finally is only another player, accepting defeat with practiced grace. The magnificent jukebox playing his favorite tune—the image with which the film ends—is like a mute godlike presence presiding over that defeat with a mechanical semblance of joy.
Geoffrey O'Brien's writings on film can be found in The Phantom Empire and Castaways of the Image Plant: Movies, Show Business, Public Spectacle. His other books include Hardboiled America: Lurid Paperbacks and the Masters of Noir, Dream Time, and The Browser's Ecstasy.