Jean Gabin stars in this classic polar. It’s unusual because there are no police involved in what is purely a gangland tale. Gabin plays Max, a well-respected but ageing gangster who dresses elegantly and is well organised. He has performed what he hopes is his last job and has the haul stashed away. But someone has talked and the new guy on the block, played by Lino Ventura in his first role at the advanced age of 34 (he was a professional wrestler at the time) is alert to the possibilities. Jacque Becker’s film is still a cracking crime film today but it looks odd in the era of #MeToo since it features a club that is a front for a crime boss and which features dancers and a miniature version of the Folies Bergère with the women wearing ‘pasties’ but otherwise bare-breasted. The dancers include Jeanne Moreau (not bare-breasted!) in a relatively early role. She was a well-known stage actor at the time but her film roles were not that substantial. Her film breakthrough would come with Lift to the Scaffold (1958) when, ironically, Lino Ventura would have a secondary role.
As well as the young female dancers, the gangsters are also accompanied/assisted at various points by older women, in particular by Madame Bouche (Denise Clair), whose restaurant is the regular haunt of Max and his friends. The film is adapted from a novel by Albert Simonin and the screenplay is by Becker and Simonin. Simonin went on to write several more films and the character of Max was used in two further narratives, both from Simonin novels but co-scripted by Michel Audiard. Jean Gabin appeared in the second film but not the third, which became two one hour TV episodes, I think. These two later appearances of Max seemed to have been more aligned to crime comedies. Comedy is touched on lightly in Grisbi which is primarily a violent gangster feature. However, one central sequence has become fondly remembered and may have been influential on later filmmakers such as François Truffaut.
Max’s friend and the one person he appears to trust, at least in terms of loyalty, is ‘Riton’ whose real name is Henri Ducros (and played is by René Dary). Riton is loyal but not very bright. When Max wants to disappear for a night he takes Riton to a hideout apartment that he has secretly rented. Everything necessary for a comfortable night is already in the apartment and the two ageing gangsters sit down to a meal of paté and crispbreads washed down by by regional white wine sent by a friend. Max provides bedding and pressed pyjamas as well as a toothbrush for Riton. It could be a sit-com about two old men and when I re-watched the film it was the section of the film that I remembered most clearly – and thoroughly enjoyed.
I don’t want to spoil the plot for anyone who hasn’t seen the film. All I’ll note is that at the end of the film, the narrative returns to Madame Bouche’s restaurant and the final exchanges are in some ways poignant rather than triumphant or defiant. In fact they are almost comic. The narrative treads a fine line between these moments and the violence of treachery and double-crossing. I’ve noted the sexism in terms of the relative lack of agency that the women in the film have. It is striking though that there are several very beautiful young women in the film, all presented in quite provocative costumes. They include the American Marilyn Buferd, the German Dora Doll and the Italian Delia Scala, all active in French cinema around this time. It’s worth mentioning that the presence of young women like these three was a feature of French cinema which helped the films get a release in the UK and US where domestic films were hampered by censorship. It’s odd now to watch the film and see Gabin ogling these young women but resisting the charms of Jeanne Moreau.
In his magisterial ‘Journey Through French Cinema’, the late Bertrand Tavernier argues that Grisbi was twenty years ahead of its time with its depiction of Gabin as Max, an ‘anti-hero’. I think he’s right. He also suggests that Jean Becker had ‘assimilated’ American cinema in his approach but didn’t simply reproduce an American style. I’ve been musing on the American stars who could dominate genre films such as the gangster or more general crime film in the same way as Gabin. Who could be elegant, brutal, strong but capable of lightness etc.? Edward G. Robinson or Humphrey Bogart are possibles perhaps? The star most often mentioned is James Cagney and I can understand why, but I still find Gabin to be in a class of his own. The comparison with American cinema is important because the polar has been seen as a vehicle for developing a dialogue with American culture, with ‘modernity’ and big American cars. The trophy young women for the gangsters are also to some extent imported. In terms of French cinema, Becker’s film would become an inspiration for both Jean-Pierre Melville (Bob, le flambeur, 1956) and François Truffaut (Tirez sur le pianiste, 1960). Tavernier pointed out another aspect of Grisbi, that showed Becker was ‘ahead’ of Hollywood – the use of a harmonica theme for Max. (Tavernier thought French productions made more interesting choices of music.)
Jacques Becker was in a sense the link between the early crime melodramas of Jean Renoir some of which he worked on in the 1930s in various capacities and the harsher post-war crime films. His last film, Le trou (1960), a prison-based drama, appeared around the same time as the early New Wave films. Because of his Renoir connections and the quality of his 1950s films, when Becker died comparatively young in 1960, aged 53, his reputation didn’t suffer the dismissal by the younger directors that was meted out to some of his contemporaries. He directed a range of films, not just crime films and I aim to eventually cover the others that are still available.