REAL MEAN CRITTERS

TOUCHEZ PAS OU GRISBI (HANDS OFF THE LOOT)

FRANCE 1954

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It is about time someone compared the French institution Jean Gabin to Hollywood icon John Wayne. Neither was handsome but both men became something other than famous. They were also great actors. As well as being revered by their countrymen and women, they shared other characteristics. Wayne was important to American myths. He was big, tough and lived and fought according to a masculine moral code. The heroes John Wayne played were competent and uncorrupted by sophistication.   He represented superior self-sufficiency and an innocence that could not be patronised. This may be fantasy but it is, as Scott Fitzgerald realised in The Great Gatsby, American ambition at its best. Age and experience happened to Wayne, and he was obliged to perform lapsed characters. Ethan Edwards in The Searchers had become a racist, and Rooster Cogburn in True Grit was a dangerous but likeable anachronism.  But the mix of superior strength and innocence that Wayne embodied remained until the end, even persisted.

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Jean Gabin was nowhere near as big a man as John Wayne but he could be tough. He had a good face that looked as if it belonged to an ordinary man who had to earn his living through manual work. Like John Wayne, Gabin also had the ability to be convincing as a man who others respected and trusted. When he lost his temper, he looked as if he was taking control. He was not, though, an innocent. American audiences needed the supposed purity of a pioneer. The French like sophistication and knowledge. The detective Maigret is a classic French hero. Maigret may retreat to his Parisian flat for simple pleasures but he understands the world around him and the variation in human nature. The tough guys of Gabin were also sophisticated. They knew what was at stake and that there were no happy endings. Gabin always had an inbuilt sense of honour and he was important to the international success of La Bête Humaine, an adaptation of the famous novel by Emile Zola. This 1938 classic film has not lost any erotic and psychological authenticity. Gabin plays a lonely railway driver and a decent man who is reduced by sexual temptation. His mix of self-sufficiency and guilt becomes toxic. If he can be overwhelmed by sex then so can all of us.

Touchez Pas Ou Gribi was made in 1954. Before that the career of Gabin had slumped because of several box office failures.  The 1954 gangster film rescued his career and ensured he would make another 50 films. Touchez Pas Ou Gribi needs to be watched back to back with Bob Le Flambeur. Both films are concerned about what happens to criminals who are strong and superior but who have aged. Bob Le Flambeur was directed by unreconstructed existentialist Jean Pierre Melville, and the film is a favourite of Sam Peckinpah. Bob robs a casino. He wants to succeed at one last job, secure redemption and remember when he was worth something.  Bob Le Flambeur is about a robbery. Touchez Pas Ou Gribi begins after a robbery has been committed. Max has robbed gold bullion worth 50 million francs.   This is the kind of redemption that Bob wanted except Max soon discovers that it is not. Max has money, status, eats good food and possesses lungs that can chain-smoke French cigarettes. He seduces women half his age but is bored.

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The film mixes romance, cynicism, despair and escapism. Max affects women in a way that makes young men want to be rock stars. But if Max leads the life others covet, it is not glamorous.   Affluence without responsibility is empty ritual.   The apprenticeship that is important to any life is missing. The women in the life of Max are like everything else, beautiful but nothing more than comforts that can be claimed by the powerful.   Jeanne Moreau appears as a dancer. It was her fifth film. Moreau is one of the few women who appear to be beyond the seductive charms of Max. This makes sense. A young Moreau, sex and a jaded Max would have been less believable. Max flirts with an assortment of beauties and sleeps with Betty the girlfriend of his best pal Riton. This is very different from what happens in the Zola novel. In Touchez Pas Ou Gribi the characters are not inflicted with a desire that has to be satisfied, something that will justify deceiving a good friend. Max sleeps with Betty because she happens to be someone he knows and she is there. The women are not tempted by Max because he is handsome. They are powerless and indulge in something that promises a break from the routine. Seeking their own version of power they settle for casual sex with powerful men because that is the only option they have.

Max may want to relax and find meaningful experience but there are others who are still obsessed with money and status. Riton, the friend of Max, is kidnapped, and the deal is that Max has to exchange the gold that he robbed for his kidnapped mate. Some gangsters would be tempted to sacrifice the friend, especially if he spends afternoons in the sack with the girlfriend, but Max has a code of honour. The relationship between Max and Riton is complicated. Because of circumstances, one night they are obliged to share an apartment. They sleep in separate beds but everything else between the two men suggests domestic intimacy and routine. The lack of drama in their lives and the need for ordinary comfort is evident from how Max prepares the beds and food. They drink white wine and eat door-stopping lumps of pate and toast. Despite the white wine and being French the two men are not elegant. They chomp on the toast. They make as much noise as the gunfire at the end of the film. Neither of these men has a serious future. The irresponsible but heroic ambition that persuaded them to be criminals is undermined by old age and the limits of appetite.

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Much of the film is shot on location in the Montmartre district of Paris. Most directors would have been tempted to overuse the Sacré Coeur the distinctive Catholic Church.   Instead director Jacques Becker, who also helped to write the script, concentrates on the cafes and bars. The lives of Max and Riton are affluent but claustrophobic and disconnected from history and its revelations. The nightclub they visit and use has a low roof and a dance floor the size of a boxing ring. It resembles the nightclub used by Alain Delon in the 60s Melville gangster masterpiece Le Samourai. Both nightclubs reinforce the sense of claustrophobia and emphasise the limits of human existence and the futility of ambition. At the end of the film when Max orders his roast beef and sits down with his girlfriend, we are not convinced that the meal will be enjoyable. Admittedly, there are special circumstances but, for the rich, one expensive meal is much like another, and so are bored women willing to use meaningless diversions to enhance their self-esteem.  The final shot in the film is of a jukebox. The records go round in circles and are trapped inside the jukebox.

The notion of the polite and well-mannered gangster was exploited by Francis Ford Coppola in The Godfather but in that film the good gangsters did not sell drugs. Max does not share the same scruples. Pierrot owns the unimpressive nightclub, deals in drugs and is an ally of Max. This detail must have challenged audiences in 1954, and even today it denies us a simple-minded view of Max. When Max is obliged to slap an antagonist, we think he may be justified, but he then slaps everyone else in the room. Max may have a code but it is more concerned with the life of Max than those of others.

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The climax of the film features a machine gun shoot out between gangsters in two cars. Pierrot, Riton and Max do not look like heroes. They are old men utilising their memories to try and survive and defeat young pretenders. As the wife of Pierrot understands, they are risking their lives and future because they are too old to try anything else. Pierrot looks like the kind of man who has a sensible and domestic hobby. He is overweight and wears glasses and clothes that look like they should have been sold to a businessman.  When we watch Pierrot fire his weapon, we imagine what he would have been like before he put on weight, lost hair and needed glasses. Max looks less settled than Pierrot. He still chases young women. But elsewhere in the film a woman is surprised to discover that the cool hero wears glasses for reading. ‘It will happen to you one day,’ says Max. He understands that momentary triumphs delay nothing and only ensure temporary survival. Like the records in the jukebox, life goes round and the once fabulous tunes become dull.  And none of us get out of the jukebox.

Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including Horror Pickers a collection of film criticism. His latest novel Choke Bay is available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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