Thursday 17 August 2017

On Blu-ray - David Hare reports on a new edition of Jacques Becker's TOUCHEZ-PAS AU GRISBI (France, 1954)

Screens below are from Jacques Becker's Touchez pas au Grisbi released in 1954 and now reissued by Studio Canal on a spanking new super glossy Blu-ray. The movie comes around half way through Becker's too brief career. His first feature, Dernier âtout came out in 1943 during the Occupation and his last film, Le Trou (The Hole) was released in 1960. Becker remains one of the unsung heroes of French cinema, an artist who began his career as Assistant Director with Renoir in the thirties until La Marseillaise in 1938 when Becker appears to have had some kind of rupture with Renoir. He went on to start his own career as a writer and director during wartime after a year spent in a German Occupation Prisoner of war camp. 

Becker's 13 or so feature films, beginning in 1943 run through the post war, pre-Nouvelle Vague era to his death in 1960, shortly after that movement began. Becker was one of a handful of "old school" directors, like Ophuls, Melville, Cocteau, Bresson and Renoir himself who remained in favor with the New Wave, unlike their detested "Tradition de Qualité" colleagues. Indeed Becker's 1949 romantic comedy, Rendezvous à Juillet contains a virtual compendium of Left Bank iconics which would set the tone for future Vague-ists - rebellious middle class youth, sixth Arrondissement jazz dives, existentialism and a subdued but audible critique of the Gaullist establishment.

My personal pick of Becker’s movies is Touchez-pas au Grisbi (Don't Touch the Loot, 1954) a gangster picture in the style and mould of other post Noir French gangster movies from the period like Dassin's Du Rififi Chez les Hommes (1956), and Henri Decoin's hugely entertaining Razzia sur la Chnouf (1955) which also stars Gabin and Lino Ventura in similar parts to Grisbi. The screens above show, alternately Max (Gabin) and his trophy butch "protege" Marco (Michel Jourdan) at the bar of their niteclub home away from home, bathed in the gorgeous super luxe white lighting style of DP Pierre Montazel who photographs all the studio interiors with comparable flooding of whites, creams and erased shadow in classic "Tradition de Qualité" luxury style. In the second screen Gabin, now cast into blackness and in the same frame of moral implication as Marco and the drug syndicate kingpin Pierrot (Paul Frankeur) torturing "Fifi" the gay snitch (Daniel Cauchy) in one of the movies shock jolts into high contrast deep shadow Noir lighting and layering. 

Thus the film itself parlays its thematic movement back and forth from old to new in light and shade as the screenplay shows the old gang unravelling, and with it potentially the deep pact of honor between Max and Riton (Rene Dary) over the totemic “Grisbi”. The movie is as much a meditation on the passing of batons from old to new, and also the passing of honor and morality, like some other genre pictures in a sense farewelling their own generic style, and stars, like Miinnelli's masterpiece, The Band Wagon with Astaire, and the Ranown westerns of Boetticher and Randolph Scott.

Becker's movie to me ranks as the premier mid-fifties part for Gabin, along with his producer role in Renoir's sublime French Can Can, and perhaps even the more complex role. Grisbi's denouement involves a brilliant night time heist sequence with Max's ultimate loyalty to Riton put to the test. It would not be too much of a spoiler to reveal that Max behaves with honor. The movie is breathtakingly paced and structured and displays a remarkable manipulation of dual visual stylization. Indeed if only for the studio production design and photography Grisbi represents one of the high points of 50s Tradition de Qualité "look" with low contrast, highly lit glossy surfaces and textures, blended depth and minimal layering. Ophuls and his DP Christian Matras would employ a similar look in two of his black and white films before the Eastmancolor and Scope Lola Montès. But like Ophuls, Becker takes his material way, way past the superficial glamour of the Tradition of Quality ambience.

The movie has been restored and released (next week) on Blu-ray from Studio Canal, along with new releases of Le Trou which by word of mouth is a superior new encode to the two-year old Japanese JVC Blu-ray, and a second new Blu of Casque d'Or (1952) which may or may not be the same encode as the original Canal Blu disc from circa 2010. All titles are Region B fixed.

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