Jean Gabin Ushers in Era of Dark French Gangster Films


The gangsters in Touchez Pas au Grisbi (Don’t Touch the Loot) skew toward the middle-aged and courtly—but is there ever really honor among thieves? Released in 1954, Jacques Becker’s humanistic evocation of a Montmartre criminal demimonde provided a new model for the French crime film. The movie’s success paved the way for Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur (1955), two recent successful Film Forum revivals.

In addition to its generic innovations, Touchez Pas au Grisbi marked Popular Front icon Jean Gabin’s post-World War II comeback. Suave and smart, his Max always has an extra, well-appointed lair and a spare doll stashed somewhere. Becker contrives to have everyone and the camera dote upon Gabin, a congenital loner whose bluff features radiate essence of solidarity—not to mention a tough guy who, as approvingly noted by François Truffaut in his 1954 Cahiers du Cinéma review, pads through one scene in his jammies. Touchez Pas‘s other attractions include a young, ponytail-switching Jeanne Moreau as a treacherous piece of grisbi, but Gabin’s Max is the resident objet d’art. Max provides his own atmosphere. Intermittently he feeds a Montmartre jukebox to play the movie’s harmonica-based theme. (In a neat bit of science-fictionism, there’s a modern record machine in his emergency pad that seemingly exists only to play that same tune.)

Max may be as fastidious as any petit bourgeois, but his plans for a last big score go awry when his dim-witted buddy is kidnapped by a sleazy drug lord (Gallic heavy Lino Ventura in his first film). Touchez Pas au Grisbi lacks Rififi‘s tension and Bob‘s cool. Still, the movie hits its stride in the last 40 minutes, when Max finally goes to war—old-school style. A natural for sixtyish male stars and would-be screenwriters, Touchez Pas begs to be touched up—which is to say, it’s long overdue for Hollywood remake.