The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Touchez Pas Au Grisbi

During the Great Depression when families had very little money, going to the movies provided a cheap alternative to more expensive field trips. And above all else, some genres appealed to audiences more, especially gangster flicks with stars like James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson among fan favorites. Their popularity waned, but the damage – in a good way – was done. A generation of young directors were influenced heavily by these films, and then grew up to make their own personal gangster films.

This influence was especially noticeable in French films, more specifically French New Wave, starting in the late 1940s and continuing on into the 50s and 60s. These were usually darker stories heavy on style that tended to live in the underworld of crooks, criminals, and gangsters. Of course, these weren’t low level thugs who looked one step above a homeless person. These gangsters were well to do, wearing a suit and a fedora, dropping huge amounts of cash wherever they went with a woman always on their arms, and a cool jazz soundtrack playing as a soundtrack.

What is so surprising with so many of these movies is that the gangsters – typically villains in most American movies – end up being the sympathetic figure amidst all the violence and chaos. They’re on the wrong side of law, but somehow it’s easy to look past their profession. In Jacques Becker’s 1954 gangster flick Touchez Pas au Grisbi, Jean Gabin is Max, a slightly past his prime gangster looking to get out of the business. That’s a storyline that is as old as movies itself, but Becker’s movie is an underrated and forgotten classic.

A respected and well-liked gangster, Max is hoping to get out of the business as he sees all the young men taking over. With his long-time partner in crime, Riton (Rene Dary), Max has pulled off one last heist that netted the duo $50 million in gold bars. But in trying to impress his younger girlfriend, Josy (Jeanne Moreau), Riton spills their secret, and it’s not long before Josy tells her new boyfriend, a ruthless mobster, Angelo (Lino Ventura), who quickly forms a plan to get his hands on the gold. Now instead of looking to put his criminal past behind him, Max is forced to fend off Angelo’s deadly attacks if he wants to hang on to his gold.

These French gangster movies are heavy on style but never at the expense of the story. That’s not to say the stories are overly complicated (‘Touchez’ is based on a French novel), but there also aren’t twists and turns in the plot around every corner. Becker films in black and white, giving the Parisian night both eerie and intimidating while also creating an incredibly visual experience. There’s something appealing about the simplicity of the story. Of course, it is a product of the times, and these French New Wave gangster movies aren’t exactly known for their happy endings. This isn’t as downbeat as say Le Samourai or Breathless, but its close.

Stepping into that anti-hero role that is so familiar to the crime genre – and many others for that matter, like westerns – Gabin delivers an amazingly understated but still powerfully effective performance as Max. He’s a veteran of the underworld, and there’s little he hasn’t seen. Max is loyal to his friend and partner Riton, even when it would be more logical to cut him loose and work on his own. Everyone seems to like Max who is devoutly loyal to his friends, even rival Angelo who goes after his gold only because it’s a business, not because he’s got anything against him. I haven’t seen Gabin in other movies, but this was quite an introduction. It’s also an obvious influence on Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai with Alain Delon playing a similar character in tone and demeanor.

Max is a pretty even-keeled guy unless you push him too far. Watching Angelo’s deception provides some tense moments as Max figures things out, and when Riton is kidnapped, Max decides things have gone too far. Working with a local high-ranking gangster (Paul Frankeur) and an up and coming youngster (Michel Jourdan), Max arranges a pick-up, a trade straight up with the gold and Riton. It’s a great sequence, and the one scene with some heavy-duty action. The scene unfolds in the dead of night on a country road with a startling finish that has its fair share of irony with the idea that crime don’t pay. It’s a good kicker to the story that is heavy on style with some strong acting. Don’t be scared by the subtitles, the Frenchies know how to make a gangster movie like nobody’s business.

Touchez Pas au Grisbi <----trailer (1954): *** 1/2 /****

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