For this month’s final review for Genre Grandeur – French Film Noir here’s a review of Grisbi (1954) by Howard Casner of Ranting and Ravings
In case you missed any of the reviews, here’s a recap:
- Panique (1946) – David
- Alphaville (1965) – Sally
- Alphaville (1965) – James
- Shoot the Pianist (1960) – David
- Rififi (1955) – Rob
- Rififi (1955) – James
- Daybreak (1939) – David
- Elevator to the Gallows (1958) – Debra
- Diabolique (1955) – David
- Grisbi (1954) – Howard
In addition, I watched and reviewed 9 movies for my companion series Genre Guesstimation. Unfortunately, only two of them will now be considered among my favorites of the genre.
- The Human Beast (1938)
- Two Men in Manhattan (1959)
- A Cop (1972)
- The Finger Man (1962)
- Daybreak (1939)
- *The Samurai (1967)
- *The Hole (1960)
- Bob the Gambler (1956)
- The Red Circle (1970)
Thanks again to Howard Casner of Ranting and Ravings for choosing this month’s genre.
Next month’s genre has been chosen by Patty of CaftanWoman.com and we will be reviewing our favorite Medical Dramas.
Please get me your submissions by the 25th of Aug by sending them to email@example.com
Try to think out of the box! Great choice Patty!
Let’s see what Howard thought of this movie:
Not long ago, The Criterion Channel, the god of all streaming channels, had a section devoted to the great French filmmaker Jean Pierre Melville, most noted for his crime dramas, especially, but not solely, of the heist variety. I had no choice. I simply had to watch them again. And some I even watched again following that. When one of my friends asked me what it is about Melville that so intrigued me, I said, and quite without thinking, I love his romantic nihilism.
And there you have it.
Many of Melville’s films fall into the category of French-noir, which is an hyphenate of Film Noir. Not everyone agrees as to the exact definition of Film Noir. Most agree it started with The Maltese Falcon in 1940 and ended sometime around 1958—a rather arbitrary finale, perhaps, but still, there it is. And for me, it must be American.
All else is a hyphenate. Anything before is pre-noir; anything after, post- or neo-noir. There’s Japanese-noir. Italian-noir. Color-noir (I’m of the school that Film Noir must be in black and white). Period-noir (ditto—for me, to be Film Noir, the story must take place at the time of the filming).
Then there is the sublime French-noir, my favorite hyphenate noir of all. And the reason, I believe, is what I said above: I love its romantic nihilism.
That is one of the major differences between Film Noir and French-Noir. Generally speaking, at the end of Film Noir, the central character, though perhaps not walking off into the sunset with a happy ending, is walking off into the sunset and to some degree, no worse off for the wear. He has restored order to the world. He is alive. He has won against the universe. Though often at a great sacrifice. There are exceptions, but this is generally the way of the Film Noir world.
But not in French noir.
And I think that is because of one major difference. In French-Noir, the central characters are not the good guys. They are not private detectives or police investigators or people who accidentally get sucked in over their head, accused of something they didn’t do. They are the criminals, the masterminds, the petty thieves, the murderers, the ones who live on the wrong side of the law.
I once put the question out to others on social media why French-Noir didn’t have any private detectives as their heroes. No one could really answer. No one knew.
But there was always something so romantic in the doomed characters in French-Noir. They had an existential connection to the universe. They knew that what they were doing was probably going to result ultimately in failure, their death, or imprisonment. But they also knew that this is who they are. And they are determined to fulfill their destiny no matter what that destiny might be.
One of the more unusual and even important French-Noirs is the classic Touchez Pas Au Grisbi (the title is untranslatable, but basically means, Hands off the Loot—my favorite translation is Honor Among Thieves), directed by Jacques Becker and written by Becker, Albert Simonin (who wrote the source novel) and Maurice Griffe.
It is unusual because it is a heist film in which the heist took place before the movie begins. Max (the great Jean Gabin) and Henri (Rene Dary) have stolen eight bars of gold. But Henri can’t quite keep his mouth shut and tells his mistress (an early, but important role for Jeanne Moreau) and the two find themselves having to deal with other gangsters who also want the spoils of the crime.
The story itself is a taut thriller as Max finds himself thrust deeper and deeper into a situation he can’t control. It’s filled with smokey cafes and sexy women with hearts of iron; world weary criminals and their molls; shadowy streets and bleak mornings. And with a pall of doom dominating everyone and everything, because Max is determined to not compromise his principles and sacrifices everything for his partner because that is what one does for a partner.
It is also an important film because of what it meant for Jean Gabin’s career. Before World War II, he was one of France’s greatest stars, the Gallic Humphrey Bogart but with Spencer Tracy’s face. When the war broke out he came to the US for a while, but then returned to fight with the underground. But after the war, he could no longer connect with the audience. One after another, his movies failed.
But then came Touchez…, a highlight of French-Noir, a movie that did so well, Gabin was back. And he once again became one of France’s leading actors as he embraced the bleak existential dread and nihilism of post war Paris.