Writer: Jacques Becker, Maurice Griffe, Albert Simonin
DP: Pierre Montazel
Editor: Marguerite Renoir
Score: Jean Wiener
Producer: Robert Dorfmann
Starring: Jean Gabin, René Dary, Jeanne Moreau, Paul Frankeur, Lino Ventura
Distribution: The Criterion Collection
Length: 1 hr. 24 min.
Jacques Becker's Touchez Pas au Grisbi is a film in which things go wrong even though they didn't have to. In a way, it's a cautionary tale; we can see exactly where each character went wrong and the consequences are immediately obvious. It lays its claim to greatness by being exceptionally persuasive, which is owed to the charisma of its main character, Max le Menteur. This charisma is born from a combination of two things: The way Becker makes the film revolve around him cinematically, and the performance of Jean Gabin as Max.
Max is an aging gangster who moves about the city at night, accompanying old friends to nightclubs and occasionally offering his guidance to younger gangsters. He's almost always accompanied by Riton, another older gangster played by René Dary. Riton isn't quite the wise elder that Max is; he's effectively Max's sidekick, only accomplished because he did what Max told him to do. Prior to the events of the film, Max and Riton pulled off a heist that yielded them eight bars of gold worth 50 million francs. Max does his best to keep the loot a secret until he can fence the gold, hoping to make enough money to retire and take on a more ordinary lifestyle. Unfortunately, he is betrayed by a faction of younger gangsters who find out about the loot and intend to take it for themselves.
Like the way the femme fatale in American film noir embodied certain cultural anxieties, the reckless young gangsters and Riton's misguided attempts to deny his age might embody the concerns of an older generation of French citizens. The younger generations of gangsters in the film want to bring in people and enterprises that are unfamiliar to Max, and alien to a system that, from his point of view, is operating just fine without interference.
Jean Gabin certainly wasn't unfamiliar or alien; his popularity stretched back to the 1930s. He was 50 when Touchez Pas au Grisbi was released, and he plays Max with some attention to his age. In every gesture we see his experience; he moves slowly, but he always moves on time because he knows what's going to happen. Gabin had played gangsters in the past, and the fatherly control he wields over the other characters here builds on the persona he already had as an ideal masculine figure.
That persona plays into his relationship with Riton in an interesting way. We see him as a caring figure; after he extracts Riton from a potentially dangerous situation, he brings him to a safe place, feeds him, and puts him to bed. It would seem condescending if we didn't know just how close Riton had been to his ruin. In any case, it would seem at least somewhat parental; however, the film draws such definitive lines between different generations that Riton's age is as obvious as Max's, even if he's less mature, causing their homosocial relationship to border on homoerotic
Jean Gabin's performance never gives the impression that he's putting in a lot of effort. His movements and his voice strike us as completely natural despite how much of an archetype his character is. Max is an old gangster, exercising good judgment gained from experience, who fundamentally embodies the ideal of honor among thieves and the wisdom of elders. But with Gabin in control, we understand him as a human, as an aging man who's tired and no longer looking to an exciting lifestyle for contentment.
He's also the object of others' intrigue, be it admiration or intimidation. The film rarely employs point-of-view shots except ones that fit into two categoris: ones looking at Max and ones from Max's perspective. Max is all-knowing, all-seeing, and slow-moving, expecting everything before it happens. To everyone else, Max is an ineffable figure; his gestures are endlessly fascinating but the man himself is an enigma. And the mystery surrounding him isn't off-putting, but attractive. The characters watching him want to know him, or even to be him.
The film unfolds in such a way that if only every character had just listened to Max, nothing would have gone wrong and everyone would be better off in the end. Max himself is never deceived or outwitted; he deftly evades any direct attacks on him, and helps others to do the same. But nothing can help Max control the actions of the less capable Riton, and this ends up being the one way his enemies are able to get at him. Max is too responsible to let Riton die, even if Riton only ended up in that situation because he wouldn't listen to Max.
The question is "why don't they listen?" To the viewers, it's surprising that the characters in this movie can't see how much better things would be if they did. But the problem is generational friction; the younger gangsters have plans, innovations, and new people they want to bring into the fold, but Max won't give them his approval. The older generation is cautious and insists on taking things slow, and the younger doesn't admire or respect that. What can Max do about it? The answer is kind of disappointing: nothing.
What he can do is stay in control, always keeping one step ahead so the mistakes of younger gangsters never catch up to him. That's the very best he can do, and he has the means to do it. But only if the other gangsters from his generation can live up to the same standard. Some do; Fats, the nightclub owner played by Paul Frankeur, shares Max's maturity and is a reliable companion to him. But others, namely Riton, are too caught up with denying their age and trying to fit themselves in with the youth, and fail to live up to the standard Max needs them to uphold.
Jean Gabin is perfectly cast in the role of Max for reasons other than his unimpeachable ability to make his performance appear natural. There's also the fact that Gabin took influence from the novels of Georges Simenon, whose most famous creation was the character Detective Maigret. In Simenon's stories, Maigret attempted to understand people in a human capacity; as Max, Gabin must be able to embody this kind of understanding. Another, perhaps more important, reason is that Gabin's age defined the film; in the novel the film is based on, Max is of indeterminate age, but it's because of older Gabin's slow, heavy gestures that Becker realized he could make this into a story about generations.
I suppose you could take away two morals from this film, one for the older generation and one for younger. Respectively, these are: Act your age, and listen to your elders. However, neither is as engaging as Gabin's star power, or the question of who exactly this film is meant for. For all of Max's wisdom, we understand why some people didn't listen to him, and it doesn't seem like they could be expected to share his good judgment. The chaos that erupts despite Max's planning was probably not inevitable, but Becker doesn't portray it without human understanding. Maybe Max had that understanding too; after all, his ultimate goal was to get out of the game for good.