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September 08, 2003

Moviegoing: "Touchez Pas Au Grisbi"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

As you know, I'm no longer the repertory-house-haunting film-history buff I once was. Hey, it occurs to me that a lovely thing about film history (by comparison to, say, music history or art history) is that it's finite; you can get it and then move on. I still do dip my toes in those waters from time to time, though. Last night, the Wife and I headed over to the Film Forum to catch up with the film-history crowd's latest find, Jacques Becker's Touchez Pas Au Grisbi, an early-'50s French gangster picture starring Jean Gabin. (The title means "don't touch the loot.")

Froggy-film bingo, at least for me -- it's a lovely picture, well worth the trouble of seeking out. (The Wife wasn't crazy about it; more about her reaction later.) Part of what I found fascinating about the film is that you can feel the "Quai des Brumes" poetic realism of the '30s in it, but you can also feel a couple of other things as well -- '50s existentialism of a stark sort, and the first stirrings of the New Wave as well. Interesting to learn that Truffaut loved Becker's movies; Becker was one of the few older French directors who got a pass from the Cahiers crowd.

The film has an interesting and somewhat unstable mixture of tones: dry and abstract at times, emotional and poetic at others. I loved it, but there were people in the audience who seemed to want the film to settle on one tone or another. In this way as well as others, the film kept making me think of Renoir; if Renoir had made a '50s gangster picture, it might have come out a little like this. (Remember how some people have trouble with the way Renoir mixes tones? Becker, by the way, was a buddy of Renoir's.)

Another distinctive thing about the movie is how French it is. When it comes to French gangster movies, it occurs to me that we're used to what's really a kind of Franco-American admixture -- American gangster themes and iconography filtered back through an intellectual/poetic French sensibility. "Touchez Pas" has nothing of that. It's based entirely in the French crime-fiction tradition; it's as pungent and foreign-seeming as Simenon's novels are. I watched the movie thinking, Wow, crime fiction means something entirely different to the French -- who by and large take it as a cross between poetry and philosophy -- than it generally means to us.

It's a distanced and formal "gangster exercise," in other words; and it's a "gangster parable" too -- a statement about life, or Life. The hero isn't a psychopathic striver in the American, Scarface tradition; he's a weary but still stylish bourgeois of the underworld who takes things, whenever possible, at his own pace. His suits, his friends, his pate, and his investments are all at least as important to him as his work, or even his impressive stable of young lovelies. He also cares -- and cares a lot -- about the arrangements he's made to retire. (Truffaut wrote perceptively that this is a movie about turning 50.) In terms of the revelation of character that the film drives towards, it's close to the recent Claude Berri movie "The Housekeeper," which I posted about here (and which in other respects it doesn't resemble at all).

Much of the film is presented in an uninflected way -- this happened, then that happened. Scenes are built out of little moments of observed behavior. Gabin ties a knot in his tie. He opens a door. He humors a mistress. On the macro level, the story (which, by the way, is about friendship, loyalty and betrayal) is told in the same, cooled-down way. Instead of being engineered for maximum suspense, it's laid out calmly for us as an accumulation of events.

For much of the time, you're watching the characters and their milieu as though you're watching an ant farm. There's a semi-famous scene when Gabin and the man who's his buddy and partner are discussing the fact that they're in dire danger. They're in a secret apartment Gabin maintains, and it's late at night. Yet they aren't sweaty and frenzied, and the score isn't building to a hysterical climax. We watch Gabin get out wine and foie gras. We watch the two of them prepare for bed: they organize the beds and the pyjamas. Gabin brushes his teeth. Then the other guy brushes his teeth. There's no lack of narrative drive underneath these details, but what Becker has us watching is how these creatures conduct their lives: these are the actions these people took, and this is the way that they (being French) performed them. Fabulous stuff.

But not deadened-out (or minimalist) stuff. The film also has bursts of '30s-style beauty, flourishes and emotion, where what's at stake breaks through to the surface. At one point, Gabin has dragooned another aging buddy into helping him with a dangerous chore. The gangster's wife pulls Gabin aside and says something like, Be careful with my husband, you understand that for me, at my age, there are no more second chances. It's a surprisingly strong moment. The lovely-but-aging woman is pleading but resigned; and the closeup itself is one of those misty, enraptured, I-love-actresses things that Renoir so often used. The moment has nothing to do with the movie's plot but everything to do with its theme -- and it's sweet, harsh, and heartbreaking. The film is full of such beautiful shocks. What we usually think of as mere "color" or "character touches" are in this movie made to convey an unusual gravitas -- they're like glimpses of other movies that might have been. People are making do, and people have to make tough choices; and, over and over, in small but powerful ways, we're made to see the price they're paying.

I loved the film's loose, experimental classicism -- the way it respects film language yet twists it, and sometimes even ruptures it. The film is a feast for lovers of what on this blog I often call Traditional Film Language.

What are some examples of this Film Language at work here? Watch the way Becker (and his cameraman and editor, of course) use an observant, 3rd-person camera, and notice the way the only time that point of view is broken is during the film's pivotal scene: Gabin pours himself wine, fusses around the apartment, turns on some music -- and the director gives us the Gabin character's thoughts in voice-over interior monologue. A nice way of turning the whole film around, non? Notice how Becker handles closeups. He's forever withholding the closeup you expect until it's carrying more emotional oomph than you anticipated; eventually the closeups themselves, so carefully doled out, come to feel like the film's pulse.

Watch Becker's deliberate interest in the landscape of faces, and in the variety of human physical behavior. Each character has his or her own specific way of moving; and the filmmakers return (uninsistently, but it's there) to the contrast between the battered-by-life paunchiness of Gabin's mug and the unmarked, flowerlike hopefulness of his young mistress' faces.

Watch the subtle way too that Becker makes the characters' eyes expressive. He builds our awareness of eyes slowly and repeatedly so that when, near the end of the film, Gabin, needing to dial a telephone and unable to see the dial clearly, puts on a pair of reading glasses, it's very moving. It's a simple and un-puffed-up moment, yet it has been made to carry a lot of weight; mundane as it is, it earns its position near the film's climax. (There's an essay to be written about the importance of viewpoints -- of doors and windows and eyes -- in this movie. Hey grad students, any takers?)

Watch too the choices Becker makes not to cut, something that can seem really radical these cutcutcut-besotted days. There's a shot, for instance, on a road at night when a gangster with a Tommygun is returning to his car. He backs up, then starts to run; then, remembering that he's a tough guy and tough guys don't run, he catches himself and returns to backing up again; and then the fear gets the better of him and he breaks back into a run ... Presenting these actions all in one shot gives the gangster's fear a different quality -- and to my mind gives the gangster himself (who we otherwise barely know) a greater reality -- than breaking them up into a million different shots would.

The film's soundtrack is striking too. It's quiet and attentive, full of silence that's interrrupted only by precisely-recorded and precisely-isolated sound events. Then along comes a blast of '30s-style romantic French music, then silence again -- the film's soundtrack is a composed and designed thing in a way we aren't used to from movies of this era.

Fussing over his suits, wearily attending to his profession, Gabin couldn't be better; he's the French Spencer Tracy, but (IMHO, of course) far juicier. This is apparently the performance that returned him to stardom after a run of flops, and that set his persona for the rest of his career. He's dragging himself wearily yet gallantly through the muck of life, and there's much that he isn't going to do or expose himself to any longer. Yet he has some hope left in him, as well as a few dreams -- helas. But that's life, and one has to be loyal to life.

Sorry, my film-pedant side got the better of me there for a few paragraphs. Anyhoo ...

As I say, the French sure love their fatalism and pessimism, as well as their charm, style and gallantry in the face of the pointlessness of existence. It's a pose, of course, and the philosophy behind it is something I don't have much time for. But sometimes the French present and sell this pose beautifully, and this film's an example of that. The Wife admired the movie but didn't love it; she prefers the French when they get weirder and more abstract. Jean-Pierre Melville, for instance -- she likes Frenchness when it's starker and harder than "Touchez Pas." Stylish poetic humanism, which I adore, isn't for her. I should report that it wasn't working for a handful of the other people in the audience either, who seemed to find the film mannered and pretentious.

A few other interesting facts about the movie. One of the supporting actors is a very young Jeanne Moreau. Interesting to see her before her face had become an icon of itself; it took me a few scenes to decide that the actress I suspected of being Jeanne Moreau was in fact Jeanne Moreau. Film-history-wise, "Touchez Pas" is generally seen as the immediate precursor of such better-known '50s French gangster pictures as "Bob le Flambeur" and "Rififi." Hmm, what else? I'm looking forward to catching up with Becker's work, which I don't know well. But there don't seem to be many Becker films on DVD. Criterion has published what's said to be a beautiful version of "Le Trou," but Becker's other films can apparently be hard to find.

Do you ever miss the film-history geek scene? Annoying as it can be, I confess that I felt a little nostalgia last night. We watched "Touchez Pas" with a typical Film Forum crowd: the old couple who love black and white movies and who talk to each other too loudly; the wormy film geeks with dubious hygiene, and whose thought processes have been deranged by ancient quarrels with Sight & Sound; the four girlfriends who've never been to a rep house before, who decided to do something different tonight, and who laugh at what's onscreen because, well, it's just so darned old, tee-hee. The rep-house-attending world is a much smaller one than it used to be, but otherwise it hardly seems to have changed. It's older, I suppose. I wonder how many kids are coming out of college these days as film-history junkies, with their minds addled by overexposure to old movies -- not many, I suspect.

Here's the Film Forum's page about the film. It has links to some good pieces about the film by Kenneth Turan and Terrence Rafferty. Here's the distrubutor's page on the film. I couldn't tell from their site when the film will be out on DVD. But since Criterion has brought out most of Rialto's films, I assume they'll bring this one out soon too.

"Touchez Pas au Grisbi" is at New York's Film Forum until Sep 18, and at L.A.'s Nuart until Sept. 11. After that it travels to San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Portland, Oregon.



posted by Michael at September 8, 2003


Sorry I don't live in New York; it'd be fun to do the arthouse movie thing with you and remember days gone by. Hmmm. According to your post, I've got two more days to see this at the Nuart. Let's see if I can haul my middle-aged self over there.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 10, 2003 12:22 AM

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