Written by Michael Clawson
Before there was The Irishman, there was Jacques Becker‘s Touchez Pas au Grisbi, an impeccably crafted crime film from 1954, in which French acting legend Jean Gabin plays a worn out gangster in the twilight moments of his career. After his long-time friend and partner is kidnapped by rivals who want his recently acquired loot, Gabin’s cool, collected, and finely dressed Max is forced to put off retirement just a little bit longer, and potentially choose between saving his pal and his nest egg.
Despite their differences in scope, the influence of Becker’s film on Scorcese’s latest crime saga is loud and clear. Though Gabin was twenty years or so younger than De Niro at the time of their respective performances, they share a similar weariness in how they carry and express themselves, and not only that, but their characters also obviously recall one another: Gabin’s Max and De Niro’s Frank are aging gangsters whose loyalty to a friend is tested, and whose looking back on their lives adds a strain of regret to their film’s emotional undercurrents. A sense of late life melancholy is perhaps clearest in the scene where prior to his kidnapping, Max’s friend Riton stays the night at Max’s apartment, and the two are shown in their pajamas getting ready for bed (which immediately recalls the scene in The Irishman where Hoffa and Sheeran spend a night at a hotel together). Riton, whose young lover (Jeanne Moreau in the femme fatale role) has just taken up with another man closer to her own age, examines himself in the bathroom mirror, and gently pushes at the sides of his eyes, as if he’s trying to remember the smoothness of his younger skin.
Connections aside, this film stands firmly on its own two feet. Becker makes the mundane as compelling as the crackling action in which the film crescendos, masterfully wielding silence and musical cues (Max’s song is a wistful harmonica melody) in tandem with the visual grammar of film noir. The climax is an airtight roadside face-off that ends in gunfire, grenades exploding, and a car chase, but nearly everything before it, from scenes of gangsters lounging at their exclusive restaurant hang-out to Max and Riton simply sharing wine and bread, are just as slick and satisfying.
Touchez Pas au Grisbi Trailer