Images courtesy of The Criterion Collection

TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI 

CASQUE D'OR

(THE CRITERION COLLECTION)

There exists a far more significant link between TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI (1954) and CASQUE D'OR (1952) than the obvious fact that both were directed by the same prodigiously talented director, Jacques Becker. True, both feature denizens of the underworld and their dames as main characters, and both star two French legends (Jean Gabin and Simone Signoret) who each won numerous European awards for their respective efforts. But far more importantly, both of these masterpieces exhibit touching demonstrations of the importance of complete loyalty among male friends above all considerations, no matter what the cost, to the point that this becomes the dominant theme that makes it impossible to pigeonhole either film into a specific genre.

Indeed, to classify TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI as merely a well-made film about the French underworld is to do it an enormous injustice and miss the point completely, for not even Howard Hawks was able to so graphically illustrate integrity-laden male bonding in his films to this extent. 

From the very first moment it becomes clear that tough talk, breakneck speed and violent action, which were common ingredients in most gangster films up to that time, are being largely sacrificed here in order to create an uncommonly elegant and stately film that revels in its slow and deliberate pace, all the while enabling us to savor some of the richest characterizations ever seen in a film of this, or indeed any, type. 

But as unique in spirit and tone as this pervasively gripping film is, there's no question that an enormous amount of its power is due to a performance by the great Gabin that is nothing less than astounding in its ability to convey every conceivable aspect of his character through the smallest gesture or nuance. His delineation of a tired gangster who must delay his retirement in order to come to the aid of his friend of fifteen years is film acting at its very finest and most charismatic, which is not to disparage the contributions of a superb supporting cast that includes a very young Jeanne Moreau and Lino Ventura in his screen debut. 

TOUCHEZ PAS AU GRISBI,  like all great films, is so full of subtle yet revealing touches that repeated viewings only enhance its ability to mesmerize through its sublimely unhurried and microscopic attention to minute detail. 

On the surface CASQUE D'OR would appear to be a classic tale of a doomed romance at the turn of the Twentieth Century, but as with all Becker films, it gradually reveals so many layers and underpinnings that one might miss on its first viewing that it defies such easy and bland categorization. True, all the superficial elements that usually constitute a tragic period romance are present and accounted for, but they are mere icing on a complex cake that, like GRISBI , highlights a relationship between two gangsters (Serge Reggiani and Raymond Bussieres) whose friendship is of such a devoted nature that either is prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of the other. Reggiani's and Bussieres' performances veer seamlessly between toughness and tenderness and a young Simone Signoret imbues her character with a sensitivity, passion and intelligence that make her efforts poignant and unforgettable. As with all Becker films, even the smallest role is flawlessly portrayed, but special mention should go to Claude Dauphin who skillfully utilizes the affable Gallic charm that animated his previously benevolent characterizations to great effect in an uncommonly villainous role. 

As is always the case with virtually anything released by Criterion, both black-and-white full-screen transfers are a thing of flawless and unblemished beauty, augmented by excellent subtitles and strong and distortion-free monaural sound. 

Hint to Criterion: How about obtaining the rights to LE CHAT, the only film that teamed Gabin and Signoret? And since you have a deal with 20th Century Fox, may we humbly suggest THE SICILIAN CLAN, which reteamed Gabin and Ventura and was only released in the U.S. in a butchered and horribly dubbed form?

--DICK DINMAN

 

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