Gallic gangster movies are like opera libretti; there are certain characteristics common to each succeeding story. These essential ingredients are, in random order: the daring under-world leader, known to one and all as a "real friend," his faithful but careless partner who consorts with loose-tongued women, a rival gang that never plays fair, an array of luscious showgirls, half-naked or otherwise, a huge bundle of stolen money that both sides are after, and various lesser mobsters that are always either being tortured or getting killed. This formula is slightly varied for each production, but the denouement is always the same; almost everyone dies violently, and no one gets the money. Grisbi follows this excellent tradition, except it isn't very good.
Perhaps the main difficulty with Grisbi is that it clings so tenaciously to the usual pattern that there is little room left for originality or for that special ironic humor that is so often found in its more exemplary cousins. It is an altogether tired movie about weary criminals who have pulled their last job and want to retire.
Writer-director Jacques Becker seems in this case to have fallen asleep over both the screenplay and his camera. His story is routine, and so long in unfolding that one waits with impatience for the first shot to be fired. And further, M. Becker's idea of "artistic" direction is to shoot innumerable scenes through the front window of a lazily cruising automobile.
In this melange of cliches, however, there is one stereotype that is always' delightful: Jean Gabin. After the initial shock of seeing him without grey hair and enormous bags under his eyes (in this condition he bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Spencer Tracy) one quickly realizes that the head hood is unchanging. Gabin emerges from his cores with his usual aplomb and his gloriously rumpled deadpan intact. He is the only criminal around who can slap everybody in sight, including two lovely ladies, without ever appearing to be anything more than a pompous but lovable businessman a little out of sorts.
But Grisbi is too much even for Gabin. And the rest of the cast plods through this meandering script with about as much determination as a group of students heading for a nine o'clock class. Even the machine-gun fire moves slowly.
Also on the program, and by way of contrast, is a lengthy short directed by Francois Truffaut, who was responsible for the extraordinary 400 Blows. Entitled Les Mistons, this film again deals with young children in a most charming manner. A group of young boys, stimulated by a neighborhood girl who has suddenly matured and fallen in love, are awakened to their own latent sexuality. Not knowing quite how to handle these new sensations, the youngsters follow the lovers around, shouting obscenities and generally heckling them.
Although marred my extremely pretentious narration, Les Mistons is sensitively and sympathetically directed, and performed in an almost improvisatory manner. Brisk and entirely entrancing, it is everything Grisbi is not.