Jacques Becker’s Casque d’Or perfectly illustrates why old-school Becker was held in such high regard by the tyros of France’s New Wave, who generally dismissed all French moviemakers before themselves as “vile” and “grotesque”. Becker was one of a very select band (including Jean Renoir and Jacques Tati) who escaped unscathed and with reputations intact, if not enhanced.
Made in 1952, the antediluvian era if you were Truffaut or Godard, Becker’s story concerns itself with Marie (Simone Signoret), a whore with a heart of gold, who winds up caught between two men – ex-con carpenter Georges Manda (Serge Reggiani) and local crime boss Félix Leca (Claude Dauphin), a threeway that will eventually end in tragedy for one of the men, and heartbreak for Marie.
Though it’s set in a beautifully evoked Belle Epoque, it’s easy to see why the Wavers liked it – these are real street people with everyday concerns, and in the stoically self-contained, implacable Georges Manda we have a hero of the sort it’s easy to imagine Belmondo (or Clint Eastwood) playing in decades to come.
It’s a beautifully stylish film, with every detail sweated over. Look at the clothes, look at Georges’s carpenter’s shop, or the outdoor bar where Georges and Marie first clap eyes on each other. Stylish but not over-elaborate, there’s also a swift sense of pace, of giving us just enough so we know what’s going on. Becker is not trying to drown us in authenticity.
Realism isn’t really the goal. Becker is after an understated theatrical simulacrum of it. The lighting, by Robert Lefebvre, looks as if he went out and gethered all the searchlights left over from the Second World War and directed them all at his cast and sets. This is an insanely brightly lit film, though one advantage of all that light is that it makes deep focus work, of which there’s plenty, much, much easier to pull off.
The three stars are excellent and give crisp, dynamic performances. Dauphin is the recognisable fastidious gang boss – tough but fair, but mostly tough. The moustachoied Reggiani an incredibly plausible scrapper who’d rather stay out of trouble, but if it comes looking for him, well… And Simone Signoret, only about 30 here but already with a dowager’s deportment (she’d be dead at 64 and was old long before), compensates with a “seen it all, dearie” swagger and a ready smile.
Becker had been Jean Renoir’s assistant in the 1930s and breaks into Renoir-esque moments of lyrical beauty here and there, which are not only gorgeous wallows but provide a stark contrast with the scenes (one in particular) of stiletto-like brutality later on.
If the pace, performances and look are all a standout, so is the legacy. It’s blindingly obvious that Scorsese’s gangster movies owe a debt to Casque d’Or (and Becker’s Touchez Pas au Grisbi), in the way that realism and a sort of movieworld make-believe find a way of existing in the same frame. Becker is the missing link between the Warner Bros gangster movies of the 1930s and Goodfellas, as well as between the old school directors of the well-made French film and the youthful iconoclasts of the New Wave.
I watched a high-def restored version, from a few years back (the Criterion one) and it is sensationally good, if hellishly bright. This might be just how Becker wanted it. The proof of this particular pudding will come in an upcoming new restoration, to 4K, and from the original negative (the previous one was done from positives) as part of StudioCanal’s Becker: The Essential Collection, a nice birthday present for any ardent cinephile. I’m linking to both the box set (which includes Falbalas, Edouard et Caroline, Touchez Pas au Grisbi and Le Trou as well as Casque d’Or) and the standalone single disc.
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