There are so many films being remade, re-imagined, revisited etc. no idea seems original or at the very least no one seems to be using familiar ideas and doing something original with them. What happened to influence and inspiration? At least that’s how cinematic projects were approached at one point in time right? Directors would find inspiration from watching other filmmakers work and felt the urge to make something similar or in the same vein. Not just rehash the same story and make slight little changes here and there to differ from the original. Feels like one could play spot the difference with all the sequels and remakes being thrown at us at these days. Studios and filmmakers seem to be playing hide and seek with good films. One has to prepare to travel to non-local cinemas to watch the new film everyone is raving on about because the huge ‘BLOW UP EVERYTHING LOUDLY ASK QUESTIONS LATER’ sequel of some drivel takes up every single screen of even the local arthouse cinema. Not all releases of this type of bad, I raved about Mad Max as much as the actual film I discussed in the last chapter of Lost and Found, a balance between Fury Road and other types of films would be nice though. Sure piracy, streams and several other factors have an effect on the way the audience digest films today but like a good friend of mine once said, ‘if you make bad art but will eat it up because that’s all that is being fed to them, the same applies to good art too though’. There are several film gems out today yet so many of the others have a stale, manufactured conveyor belt feel. That means only one thing. Going back...wayyyy back.
It’s time for Lost and Found to head towards the fifties into the rich and nostalgic world of old black and white French crime thrillers. The year is year 1954. The film is Touchez Pas au Grisbi (‘Don’t Touch the Loot’). We are dealing with age, loyalty, honour and because it’s a French film noir made in the fifties, existentialism. If you are one of those people easily bored by old films and get tired at the very thought of reading subtitles, read one of the other Lost and Found chapters that focuses on more modern films. If not, then be prepared to watch a film that has it all and not in the way that one would expect.
Film: Touchez Pas au Grisbi
Cast: Jean Gabin, René Dary, Dora Doll, Jeanne Moreau and Lino Ventura
Director: Jacques Becker
Writers: Albert Simonin, Jacques Becker, and Maurice Griffe
Max dit Max le Menteur, Max for short, (Jean Gabin) is an aging, cynical former gangster retiring after stealing gold bars worth around fifty-million francs with his partner in crime and best friend Riton (René Dary). However, Riton’s girlfriend Josy (Jeanne Moreau) grows tired of Riton and his old fashion ways and informs her new boyfriend Angelo (Lino Ventura), who also happens to be Max and Riton’s rivals, of the fortune. Angelo kidnaps Riton in exchange for the gold. Max has to find a way to keep the gold and rescue his friend.
Touchez Pas au Grisbi is a flawless masterpiece. Not entirely unknown to everyone, the film is not mentioned enough when discussing classic French film noirs made around the same time including Rififi and Bob La Flambeur. Played perfectly by a world-weary and alert Gabin, Max is a sort of archetype for the sceptical aging gangster that cannot get used to the modern way people live their lives and proves to be right when he has to use his own experience and wisdom in life and death situations, all done with a unique smoothness and undeniable charisma.
Director Jacques Becker has a masterful way of displaying his skills in both the action and developing the character, the viewer cannot blink for a second because they may miss anything from a subtle mannerism to a chaotic shift in the narrative which turns everything upside down. The beauty is not so much in what Becker’s camera is doing but rather in what the camera is capturing. Max is humble with his knowledge, to the point where it’s plausible to believe his calculated approach to tricky situations reassures his casual persona of tackling the most terrifying situations. The epitome of cool. Two mysterious men follow him home, he doesn’t panic but outsmarts them instantly by working out they must be planning to murder him. He calmly confronts them mid-assassination, sending back on their way with warning shots from his pocket pistol. His rivals and enemies think they are one step ahead but Max already knows what’s coming, they are all actually playing by his rules.
Max simply does not predict, he determines. Max does not watch anything, he observes. Sure he can be vulnerable at times, but even the vulnerabilities he allows to be on display seem to be for specific reasons to hide other aspects of his character. For example many would describe him as a real ladies man, except where most would fall victim to femme fatales in film noirs, Max keeps all women at a distance and doesn’t trust any of them seeing it as a flaw and possibly jeopardising any potential decisions he may make. Max almost appears to be sleepwalking through life and what it has to offer him which is nothing challenging. That is until the film hits its peak existential moments and Max is in his element when he feels the pressure of the rival gangsters and having to fight for what his rightfully his. Something of a menacing contrast, Max has one of the most overtly silent codes even seen in cinema.
The Max character is a film in itself but there is thankfully much more to be desired in this delightful film noir. Most if it takes place at night, characters fill the screen with their cigarette smoke and sharp dress sense. Everything looks like a glamorous business meeting. Shadows appear on stark walls, symbolising the shady characters dark pasts and even darker fate. These aesthetic choices are partially influenced by Hollywood film noir which goes back to the first point on films being rehashes today. The French film noirs were paying homage to the films that they desired not aping them like so many do today. They merely did not copy but put their own French spin on the genre. Nostalgia can sometimes romanticise the past but that is not the case with Touchez Pas au Grisbi, they simply don’t make them like they use to.
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