Seen today, Touchez Pas Au Grisbi seems like Jean Gabin's last great role, but in 1954 it was seen as his comeback after a slew of disappointing post-war films that were generally fairly average on their own merits even when not compared to his remarkable run of pre-war classics. Certainly he was the right actor at the right time when his career, like the old-school thief he plays, was beginning to look like it was over. The old Gabin is still recognisable but the rot has set in, and it's that combination of a class act that has outlived his time that makes his perfect casting performance so remarkable. He's a bit of a moaner and feels his age: constantly weary, he's got to that time in his life when he wants to go to bed early because if he stays up after midnight he feels like he's working overtime. Far from the doomed romantics he specialised in during his Thirties prime, he's a faded man edging into the shadows - in one remarkable shot even a lit match casts no light on his face - in a film that takes a lot of the glamour off both its star and its genre. He and his longtime, not too smart partner have pulled their last job before the film even starts, and the inevitable violence and tragedy come from his attempts to keep his newly acquired `pension' - the grisbi (loot) of the title - from rival crooks.
There's no romance or honour among thieves here. From the clubs where the `dancers' do little more than walk across the stage to the restaurants that shun the slumming socialite crowd, it's a mediocre, artificial world they inhabit, where packs of criminals aren't loyal unless it suits them, where almost everyone either expresses disappointment or hides behind insincere clichéd expressions of admiration and loyalty. For director Jacques Becker how his low lives go about the everyday business of living is as important as the plot, and strangely it's surprisingly compelling too despite what is happening often being so mundane. You can feel the cold of the rarely used apartment he and René Dary's Riton eat their crackers and pate in before breaking out their pajamas, brushing their teeth and going to bed early just as vividly as you can feel the crisp night air of a roadside hostage exchange that goes disastrously wrong.
If that sounds perhaps too grim and austere, the film is anything but. Beautifully directed by Becker, whose reputation has sadly faded over the years - indeed, for a long time this, perhaps his most famous film, was out of circulation in English speaking territories - and featuring Lino Ventura in his first role and an early appearance by Jeanne Moreau, it's one of the best French thrillers ever made and it's easy to see why it's been such a huge influence on the crime genre. The UK DVD is a good presentation, but not unexpectedly, Criterion's Region 1 NTSC DVD outdoes it as far as supplements go: a lengthy extract from French TV series Cinéastes de Notre Temps, an entertaining and insightful 2002 interview with supporting player Daniel Cauchy, who reveals why his character really didn't make it to the film's finale, a 1972 interview with Lino Ventura, a 1978 interview with composer Jean Wiener, the original French theatrical trailer and detailed liner notes.