French gangster film set a high standard


See tough-guy style of 1954's `Grisbi' in Silver Spring

October 17, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The most scintillating movie receiving its area debut this weekend (at the AFI Silver Spring) is the seminal 1954 French gangster picture Touchez Pas Aus Grisbi or, in English, "Don't touch the loot!"

Essential viewing for lovers of later Gallic heist films like Rififi, Grisbi is distinctive from the start for mixing macho stylishness and irony with intimations of mortality. Telling the story of two criminals pushing past their prime - a master thief named Max (Jean Gabin) and his unreliable right-hand-man, Riton (Rene Dary) - the director, Jacques Becker, set the mark high for his followers and anticipated all their innovations.

Perhaps because Becker was commenting on American crime-film models like The Asphalt Jungle, his picture plays, simultaneously, like a trailblazer and a revisionist milestone. For one thing, it starts after Max and Riton have pulled off their career-high score: 50 million francs worth of bullion filched from Orly Airport. Becker and his co-writers (Maurice Griffe and the author of the source novel, Albert Simonin), don't rush to confirm even that crucial fact.

FOR THE RECORD - A column in yesterday's Today section gave an incorrect title for a 1954 French gangster film. It is called Touchez Pas Au Grisbi.
The Sun regrets the error.

They give Max plenty of time to discuss what becomes a middle-aged gangster legend most, which does not include hanging out with showgirls like Riton's moll Lola (the freshly amoral young Jeanne Moreau). Max prefers swanker dames like an American named Betty - played by 1946's Miss America, Marilyn Buferd.

In the movie's merry, oddly poignant centerpiece, Max lays out a dream of cushy bachelor-based retirement as he serves white wine and foie gras to Riton. Living well would be their best revenge on gold diggers like Lola - if Lola had not already spilled the beans about the pals' airport coup to the ferocious drug dealer Angelo (played by the granitic Italian-born wrestler Lino Ventura, at the start of his solid 30-year acting career).

Touchez Pas Aus Grisbi is about the need for man-to-man loyalty - and the tensions triggered by women - in a fiercely heterosexual underworld. When gangland rivalry ignites into kidnap, torture and a cataclysmic car chase, the brutality never turns gratuitous. Becker and Gabin wield iron fists in velvet gloves.

Showtimes: Friday-Thursday (today through Oct. 28), 6:40 p.m. and 8:40 p.m.; weekend matinees 12:40 p.m., 2:40 p.m. and 4:40 p.m. (except for this Sunday, which is 4:40 p.m. only). Tickets: $8.50 general admission, $7.50 AFI members. Information: AFI Silver is at 8633 Colesville Road, Silver Spring.

`Samurai' at Charles

Akira Kurosawa's 1954 masterpiece, Seven Samurai, screening tomorrow afternoon and Thursday night in its full 3 1/2 -hour version at the Charles, remains the purest of all great adventure movies - which is why it cuts against the grain of contemporary moviemaking. The two unspoken rules today are that you must start pummeling the audience in the first five minutes - not messing around with quaint notions like back story - and that you must then "destroy geography," shredding and distorting realistic settings, so that any slash or gunshot or feint, no matter how outlandish, becomes for the moment plausible. The resulting emphasis on sensation over logic has helped relegate action movies to a subliterate audience.

Seven Samurai is still the adventure movie for action lovers of all ages because Kurosawa invests his Olympian craft and exuberance in developing the story of hungry samurai who protect a farmer's village from rampaging brigands. It's a true epic, not a small-minded movie on an epic scale. It's about a host of heroes who resolve their individual conflicts and band together to perform an improbable feat - in the process testing their own values and those of their caste or culture. When the samurai defend the village, Kurosawa shapes their every maneuver and tactic, and even the muddy chaos that ensues, into the film's meticulous overall strategy.

Showtimes noon tomorrow, 9 p.m. Thursday. Call 410-727-FILM or visit

Mummies at Walters

The Walters Art Museum and Maryland Film Festival continue their Eternal Egypt series with the camp extravaganza A Night of Magic - a 1944 British musical about a playboy, a sarcophagus and the 3,000-year-old Egyptian princess still sort-of living inside. Since this must be the only mummy movie to feature several ukulele numbers, series organizers have booked world-renowned ukulele virtuoso Carmaig DeForest to perform live for the Walters' audience. The Sun's Chris Kaltenbach will introduce the film and lead discussion afterward. Showtime: 7:30 p.m. Admission: $8 for Walters Arts Museum members and seniors, $10 for non-members.

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