There is a large and growing generation of American cinephiles who only watch films that are available on Blu-ray or that are available through some other high quality means. It’s understandable — there is an abundance of riches and more than enough to occupy us. The sad thing is, though, this desire for high definition only has limited exposure to the amazing work of French actor Jean Gabin (among others). Gabin’s great roles in some of the great works of French poetic realism — Pépé le Moko, Grand Illusion, La bête humaine, Le jour se lève — have been released on DVD and are accessible, if not always readily available. But if you’re looking only in the Blu-ray section or only for something you can stream in HD, they won’t pop up that often, if ever. This is changing! This week Kino released two of Gabin’s films on Blu-ray: Port of Shadows, a film that escorts poetic realism to the world of film noir, and Touchez pas au grisbi, which is noir through and through. I couldn’t be more excited to share my thoughts. First up, Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi.
This film comes relatively late in Gabin’s career. After a string of fantastic films at the end of the 1930s, Gabin went to Hollywood at the outset of World War II (he did return to France and fought in North Africa). His star in the firmament dimmed considerably, and it looked like a career slump would turn out to be something altogether more permanent. He had a supporting role in Max Ophül’s Le plaisir in 1952, but he certainly wasn’t a major part of the draw of that film and might have been indicative of the work he’d get until his retirement was complete.
But then along came this film. After Touchez pas au grisbi, which again put Gabin in the driver’s seat, Gabin’s career was evergreen and respectable, even if he never quite reached the great heights he’d achieved in the late 1930s.
In this film, Gabin plays a Paris gangster named Max. He wasn’t the first actor offered the role, but it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing it nearly as well. Here he is, respectably, with command, reading the paper.
Max’s career in the criminal world has given him a lot of experience, power, and money. But he is getting older, and, to him, crime and its perks has started to feel as mundane and stressful as any job. At this point in his life, he is not interested in exercising the power he has amassed; he just wants to be allowed to retire and live with his riches. No more pesky phone calls!
This is easier said than done, though, since before the film begins Max has tried to secure his future by stealing 96 kilos of gold bars from the Orly Airport. It’s an astonishing crime; the criminal who pulled off the heist is given instant notoriety, even if no one knows who it was. Fascinatingly, Becker chooses to show us not one single frame of the heist. This film isn’t about that kind of thrill. It’s about a man trying to achieve some peace and quiet, a man who happens to feel that peace and quiet mostly through methodical planning and control. He didn’t commit the heist for the thrill of it. He didn’t commit it for the fame. His main goal now is to keep it as quiet as possible so that he doesn’t have to deal with the ramifications.
He has to trust some people, though. An old friend named Riton (played by Rene Dary) helped pull off the heist. Riton, though, is not as controlled as Max. He’s always enjoyed the thrills, and that includes the women, that come with the crime. His latest girlfriend is a dancer named Josy, played by Jeanne Moreau in one of her first roles). When Max walks in and sees Josy with a rival gangster, Angelo, played by Lino Ventura in his first role, he knows there is going to be trouble.
He’s right. He barely makes it home ahead of the coterie of thugs who want more information about the heist and who, we know, would love to handle the gold themselves.
Max’s methodical planning still might lead him to success. Later in the film, now that his home isn’t safe, he holes up in a secret apartment that is stocked with the bare essentials: crackers and pate, new toothbrushes and unopened toothpaste, fresh linen, silk pajamas. Everything is stowed away in its place, alongside additional stock. This is the side of the man Becker is examining.
But sometimes a plan calls for immediate action, and Max is capable of that as well. Even when that phone rings and causes him to grimace, he knows what to do and doesn’t hesitate to do it.
Gabin’s Max is an extremely compelling character that he plays to perfection. I’m glad the role welcomed him back to a vibrant career, and I’m glad it is now — hopefully — welcoming him to a new generation of cinephiles. I’m sure they’ll love him.