Released in 1952 and 1954 to little fanfare, Jacques Becker's idiosyncratic crime films Casque D'Or and Touchez Pas Au Grisbi are like a reverse image of the gritty hood melodramas made in Warner Brothers' heyday. Compared to the chest-puffing braggadocio in Warner films, Becker's gangsters are relatively genteel: Neither sadists nor thrill-seekers—though not pushovers by any means—they mainly just want to be left alone. They're capable of brutality when it's required, but Becker treats violence with a clipped crudity that's perhaps more true to life and certainly truer to his sensibility, which soaks in the more languid, sensual details between action beats. The lives of Becker's criminals are just as romantic and fatalistic as those of their Hollywood counterparts, but Becker captures them from a completely different angle. As critic Geoffrey O'Brien wryly observes in an essay included with the new Touchez DVD, "it's a film where we learn how gangsters brush their teeth."
Opening with a gorgeous riverside reverie that commentator Peter Cowie calls a French impressionist painting come to life, Casque D'Or evokes the Belle Époque, with all its attendant glamour and passion. Serge Reggiani plays a reformed tough who has graduated to the simple life of a carpenter after spending five years in the pen, but one look at the stunning Simone Signoret seals his fate. Bored moll to an oily henchman, Signoret aggressively pursues Reggiani after a turn on the dance floor, but their courtship leads to immediately dangerous consequences, especially when deceptively affable mob boss Claude Dauphin takes active notice.
Looking like an angel in Becker's gorgeous spotlighted monochrome, Signoret makes a memorable femme fatale, not because she's duplicitous, but because she can't help but inspire a tragic sequence of events. By pursuing her in spite of his best instincts, Reggiani commits the blunder of a thousand crime-movie heroes, but Becker allows the lovers a few glorious moments of respite in the country, where they temporarily escape the heat and can freely dream about a life together. When Signoret drags Reggiani into a church to spy on a wedding ceremony, he ruefully beckons her away, suggesting that he's not so willfully naïve that he doesn't know the road ahead.
Had they occupied the same milieu, it's easy to imagine Reggiani sharing a stiff drink with Touchez's Jean Gabin, another seasoned criminal who has trouble getting out of the life. A heist movie without the heist—or even the bloody aftermath of Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs—Becker's low-key masterpiece slowly reveals the price of misplaced loyalty. After pulling off the standard "last big score" by audaciously lifting eight solid blocks of gold bullion, Gabin looks forward to a quiet retirement with his beautiful American girlfriend. But like a bad marriage, his 20-year partnership with the hapless René Dary inexorably leads to ruin when Dary lets news of the loot slip to two-timing showgirl Jeanne Moreau.
Going against an action-driven genre, Becker demonstrates Gabin and Dary's friendship not through tough talk or criminal collaboration, but through a scene in which the two hole up together and go about a largely wordless routine that quietly suggests their intimacy. For someone who's been around the block as often as Gabin, there are no surprises left, just a resigned acceptance of the inevitable: In recruiting a young hood to ambush his enemies, Gabin warns, "We'll be dishing it out, but we'll be taking it, too."