In the middle of being buried with Closely Watched Trains, Rear Window and The Third Man, I snuck in another movie (well, two in fact – we went to see Nosferatu at the AFI with a live accompaniment). This will be quick, and for that, I apologize, because this film deserves more.
Touchez pas au grisbi can be placed alongside Rififi, Bob le Flambeur, Shoot the Piano Player and (maybe) Breathless as great French noir (I haven’t seen Pepe le Moko but am moving it to the top of my queue). More is going on in Breathless than that (the neo-realism just takes it to a different level). But these films about crime and criminals are incredibly seductive. The protagonists are assured and well-dressed, astute and experienced. The cinematography is both pared down and lush at the same time. And you cannot escape the time period.
I didn’t know anything about this film before seeing it, so when Jean Gabin came on, I was all like “Hey! It’s the guy from Grand Illusion!” I apparently have not seen enough Jean Gabin in my life and need to remedy that (moving Port of Shadows up and omg he’s in Renoir’s The Lower Depths?!). He’s older in this film (17 years older than he was in GI). The movie centers on Max, yet another criminal looking to get out of crime. Even though he is known as Max “the Liar,” everyone he comes in contact with seems to have a respect, if not an affinity, for Max. For a criminal to command that type of respect is curious. We as an audience trust him right away, based on his treatment of and by other characters.
But, he’s tired of the racket. He’s just plain tired. In the beginning of the film, we see him wanting to duck a night on the town by breaking the evening down: if we go out, we’re going to have to go drinking and dancing, then the girls will want to have sex, and I’m tired now, so let’s forget it. His constant companion is Riton. The two have been together pulling jobs for something like a quarter of a century. Unfortunately, Riton seems a bit on the slow side, and we get the feeling that Max has had to save his friend on more than one occasion.
Ok, most of the things I’ve posted on this blog assume the reader has seen the film. I haven’t had a spoiler alert – I just go. I’m doing one this time. If you haven’t seen this movie, stop reading and watch it and come back. The blog isn’t going anywhere.
What is amazing about this film is the carefully constructed scene where Max takes Riton to his secret hideout. We’ve had pieces of information fed to us, but don’t have a context. We know someone stole some gold. But that seems to be mentioned in passing. We then see two thugs try to kill Max, and later Max calls Riton just as Angelo and another thug are trying to enlist Riton’s help for an evening job. Max has Riton get rid of Angelo and come along to his place with some complicated instructions to follow. When Riton gets there, we see that Max has the gold bars in little suitcases in a car locked away behind a screen in a garage, and Riton sees Max’s secret hideout. We see Max trusting Riton to an enormous degree. But we then see that Riton has supremely screwed up in a way that could have (if the plan had gone right) ended them both. Riton, also getting older, is having trouble holding on to his young stripper girlfriend Josey, who now has eyes for the young Angelo. In order to whet her appetite, Riton alludes to the big score he just made. Josey tells Angelo, and Angelo plans to wipe out Max and Riton after he finds the grisbi (and I love how the “loot” is “grisbi” – sounds like frisbee). Max works all this out and lays it on Riton, who realizes how stupid he was and how he has put both himself and his friend in danger. But the way this scene comes together makes unconnected lines in the plot connect in an instant that had me exhaling “OH!” They sit, eating paté and crackers and drinking wine, and their entire world caves in on us. Max then gives his friend a set of pajamas and a toothbrush, because tomorrow Max has to go make things right.
Unfortunately for Max, Riton tries to remedy the situation himself and gets caught, and in another brilliant scene, Max (in voice over) thinks about maybe Riton has stepped in it one too many times. He’s got the gold. He’s got transportation. He can blow town with both shares of the loot and live like a king the rest of his life. And when you do the math at the end of the movie (young Oscar, Angelo’s gang, Riton himself and all that gold), the amount that is lost on attempting to get Riton back is appalling. But there is a sense of loyalty Max has that will not allow him to leave Riton behind, which may account for why so many people in the movie (even Angelo) have nothing but good things to say about Max. The very end, once he returns to the table after the phone call learning of Riton’s death, his face is so pained and masked at the same time, it’s truly heartbreaking.
And unfortunately for me, while this is an adaptation, the original work is in French with no English translation. But perhaps that isn’t a bad thing after all.