In the 72 hours during which Touchez Pas au Grisbi unfolds, we learn all we need to know about Max, the seemingly uncomplicated central figure of Jacques Becker's 1954 gangster thriller, which draws on the American cinema that came before it and unfurls a red carpet for Bob le Flambeur, Jean-Pierre Melville's more stylish and influential 1955 proto-New Wave drama.
Touchez Pas au Grisbi -- it means "don't touch the loot" -- opens with a panoramic black-and-white shot of Paris that stops overlooking the Pigalle, Paris' red-light district, with the Moulin Rouge in the center of the frame. Soon we meet Max (the great Jean Gabin), who's dining with his long-time partner in crime, Riton, and their chippies du jour: a blonde, Lola (Dora Doll), who's Max's convenient squeeze, and Josy (a ne plus ingénue Jeanne Moreau), with whom Riton has foolishly fallen in love.
Lola and Josy dance in skimpy outfits at a nightclub and turn tricks after the show. Max appreciates the fact that Lola supports herself. But he chides Riton for being a silly old man (they're in their 50s), and he drags his friend -- who's become a drag on his life -- out of the place to let the girls do business.
From there, a straightforward plot unfolds. Max and Riton have just pulled off a phenomenal gold bullion heist, and nobody knows it was them. But lovesick Riton has blabbed to Josy, who naturally has loose lips. So when a rival thug takes Riton hostage, the thoroughly unsentimental Max has to choose between his partner and his gold.
Touchez Pas is a character study as much as a thriller, and it's quite good on both counts: Becker stages an exciting climax, and Gabin's effortless performance as the cool-savvy Max is a comfort to watch (he slaps numerous people square on the face, and the impact never sounds like a special effect). Becker is a thorough director but not an innovative one, so we see no hints of the French cinema to come. The grisbi, though, does have its own theme song -- a thin, high strain of notes that creeps in when the gold shows its face. And Touchez Pas contains startling (for the time) flashes of nudity and bold hints of illicit sex, which probably means that only the most libertine Americans dared to see it the first time around.
At its heart, Touchez Pas is a lament for its aging lions. Max knows enough about life to risk one big retirement heist and then to romance a wealthy woman slightly closer to his age. Riton, the poor sap, does not. So one night Max tries to educate him, and Riton ends up crashing at Max's apartment, where he slips into a pair of stripped pajamas and, before lights out, examines his crow's feet and double chin. In French, with subtitles.