Criterion resurrects a French master
“Beckeresque” is not a word but maybe it should be. Embedded in its definition would be French director Jacques Becker (1906-1960) at his best: subtle, visually elegant, and honestly observant of human behavior. Criterion Collection, that champion of haute world cinema, has released customarily handsome digital transfers of Becker’s Casque d’or (1952) and Touchez pas au grisbi (1954). Both reacquaint us with Becker’s neglected art while putting the man in historic context.
Casque d’or (Golden Cask), set during the clutter-filled Belle Epoque, is a gloriously tactile movie. Eyes substitute for skin as bread and cheese, a shiny black feather boa, decaying walls, and the sensual curves of a footboard become paradoxically tangible. They aren’t vital in themselves to the plot, but they accumulate in the mind to tell their own story of our sentient responses.
The synopsis sounds like a James Cain novel, filled as it is with gangsters, murder, betrayal, criminal justice, and one experienced dame who’s nobody’s fool. But quite apart from the American film noir tradition is Casque d’or‘s romanticism that was inspired not just by Becker’s mentor Jean Renoir but by the whole of French impressionism. Multiple scenes in Casque d’or look like Monet reimagined in mid-century black-and-white celluloid. Serene rural scenes of river boating, picnics, and blooming groves are contrasted to a street-lit assault, garbage-strewn cobblestones, and execution by guillotine. How Becker juggles images of pleasure and pain without stumbling is the stuff of film alchemy.
Becker paces Casque d’or deliberately, confidently straddling the line between slow and too slow. He captures u-turn moods, yet they never play as jarring. Simone Signoret’s intelligent, pleasingly porcine face is photographed with light-infused romanticism, but a knife fight in agonizing close-up smacks nearly of exploitation. It helps the proceedings tremendously to have Signoret and Serge Reggiani as volatile lovers, though Signoret twice anticipates a slap. Both deliver performances here that would fate them to couplehood in future movies.
As pointed out in the commentary by film historian Peter Cowie and in interview clips with Signoret and Reggiani, Casque d’or fizzled on its initial run. Becker’s audiences were used to contemporary stories, and a tale of the Belle Epoque simply didn’t appeal to many French cinephiles in 1952. When the Nouvelle Vague blew in with the force of a code 12 hurricane a few years later, the exacting aesthetics of Casque d’or were consigned to history. Becker died in 1960, and it would be years before he would be repositioned with Renoir as a master of classic French cinema.
Becker’s eclecticism is on vivid display when comparing Casque d’or to Touchez pas au grisbi (Hands off the Loot), his 1954 gangster drama. While they both concern themselves with the various struggles of criminals, their milieus are miles apart. The flights of romanticism in Casque d’or are gone in Touchez pas au grisbi, which more approximates the acrid bite of Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place or Jules Dassin’s Night and the City. It is Becker’s signature loving detail to people and place, and the absence of strict moral judgment, that clue us to his presence behind the camera.
Grisbi begins slowly, acquainting us well with its late-night locations. We get a picturesque collection of habitués – goons, dupes, molls, “squares,” morally suspect petit bourgeois, and gangster kingpins. Brightest of all is Max, that dapper world-weary denizen of the underworld played with elegant wisdom by Jean Gabin. Here is a gentleman thug who longs for deliverance from crime, not because he is stricken with conscience, but because he is tired. Dirty deeds among Max’s enemies and partner (a fellow burnout played finely by René Dary) suck him back into the vortex of kidnapping, torture, theft, and murder.
Touchez pas au grisbi, more than Casque d’or, reveals Becker’s preoccupation with the simple mundanities of life. Even gangsters have to brush their teeth and put on their jammies. Though Max has made a fortune, he feels no joy and we give him no envy. He is rather like a retirement-age James Bond, the vicissitudes of his rude trade forever pulling him away from champagne and beautiful women. In that regard, Becker is a true humanist, fascinated like Billy Wilder by what goes on between or after the watershed moments of a life.
The plot, thin as it is, avoids the adrenaline moments that Americans may expect from the gangster genre. But Grisbi‘s saving grace is the detail Becker brings to every moment, and his attention to character. Lino Ventura makes a smashing film debut as a ruthless mobster, and we’re even treated to a minxish young Jeanne Moreau as a chorus girl of avaricious self-interest. Anxiety is strengthened by threats, mounting uncertainty, and the promise of imminent danger. When explicit violence finally breaks out, it comes with a jolt not seen in an American movie over the 35-year interval between Scarface and Bonnie and Clyde. Indeed, Touchez pas au grisbi is an eye-opener for anyone unaccustomed to postwar French cinema. It steps well beyond the permitted boundaries of sex and violence imposed by the Production Code. Showgirls in pasties and four-letter expletives remind us that a ’50s crime drama need not be accompanied by creative solutions to Puritanism.
Casque d’or‘s DVD extras include audio commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie, interviews with actors Simone Signoret and Serge Reggiani, production footage during the making of Casque d’or, and an excerpt from the French TV series Cinéastes de notre temps dedicated to Jacques Becker. Touchez pas au grisbi‘s extras include an interview with actors Daniel Cauchy and Lino Ventura and composer Jean Wiener, the theatrical trailer, and an excerpt from Cinéastes de notre temps featuring screenwriter Maurice Griffe, Grisbi author Albert Simonin, and director François Truffaut.