“I wanted my actors to behave as though they were living at the time, not as if they were wearing costumes.”
French director Jacques Becker spent much of the early part of his film career as an assistant to Jean Renoir, but it was always his goal to direct films himself. He had some early opportunities in the mid-1930s, but it was during World War II that his directing career really began to take off. Beginning with 1942’s detective comedy Le Dernier Atout, Becker would direct 13 films over the next 18 years. His final film would be Le Trou in 1960. The latter was previously released on DVD by Criterion, and now the company has brought us two further Becker efforts from the early 1950s — Touchez Pas au Grisbi (1954) and Casque D’Or, the latter Becker’s favorite and his only film to receive a wide international audience.
* Casque D’Or
At an outdoor countryside café during “la Belle Epoque” — the turn of the 19th century — the members of Felix Leca’s gang relax. Marie (known as “Casque D’Or” because of her golden hair), the girlfriend of the rude and possessive Roland, finds herself attracted to Manda, a reformed gangster-turned-carpenter who has just finished some work at the café. Manda is a close friend of Raymond, one of the gang members, as a result of their time together in prison. Marie and Manda’s relationship causes dissention in the gang, thanks to Roland’s jealousy and, later, gang leader Leca’s own interest in Marie. Leca concocts a plot to implicate Manda’s good friend Raymond in a killing for which Manda was actually responsible, thus hoping to provoke Manda into an action that will doom any future for him and Marie. The results are not exactly what Leca had in mind, however.
* Touchez Pas au Grisbi (Hands Off the Loot)
Master criminal Max Le Menteur, along with his partner Riton, has just pulled off the heist of a lifetime, stealing a shipment of gold bars worth FF50 million from the airport. Max hopes to quietly hold the loot until the heat wears off, and then turn it into enough cash to retire. Riton, however, boasts about the successful job to his girlfriend Josy; rival gangster Angelo thereby gets wind of it. Angelo kidnaps Riton and demands that Max give up the gold bars in return for Riton’s life. Max agrees, but runs into an ambush when he attempts to exchange the bars for Riton’s release.
In these two films, Jacques Becker was at the top of his game. Only Le Trou approaches them in terms of Becker’s abilities to evoke a time and place and draw nuanced performances from his actors. Despite the different eras in which the films are set (about 1900 for Casque and the then-contemporaneous early 1950s for Grisbi), there are otherwise marked similarities in the films.
Both are set in Paris; both give a beautifully-detailed picture of the city’s back-streets and neighborhoods and their denizens. The locations are realistic-looking and not glorified in any sense. This extends to the criminal underworld that both explore. In Casque, the criminals are smaller-fry than in Grisbi, and more insular in their approach to matters, but equally ruthless in trying to achieve their goals. Despite the ruthless nature of the gang leaders, both films emphasize the humanity of their protagonists. Manda is a somewhat sad but determined individual whose future seems pre-ordained as soon as he comes in contact with Marie. Theirs is a sweet relationship, but one ultimately doomed by Manda’s personal code of honor when it comes to his friends. In Grisbi, crime is big business, and when its criminals get together, they have their own exclusive bistro in which to dine and exchange ideas — not the public café that Casque‘s criminals must share with all and sundry. Max is a true man of class, not the smooth but sneaky rat that Leca is. Yet one senses that in his relationship with Riton, Max is as much at risk as Manda was because of his friend. This certainly proves to be the case, but Max is much more street-wise, and lucky, than Manda. His actions prove to be far from successful in several senses, but they at least allow him to live with himself, and he seems somehow ennobled by the results. One can see Max moving from strength to strength, whereas Manda has only oblivion to face.
Both films also illustrate another characteristic of Becker’s best films — his interest in the minutiae of living, even to the seeming expense of plot. The best example in Grisbi occurs when Max brings his friend Riton to his secret apartment. There we are treated to the two friends having a brief meal of wine and cheese, and then getting ready for bed — putting on pajamas and brushing teeth. In Casque, we see some of the same approach in the scenes at the carpenter shop and in the gatherings of Leca’s gang members. One might expect such attention to minor detail to be boring and a drag on the films’ narratives, but Becker’s presentations are so real that they only add to the richness of the characters and enhance our identification with them.
Jean Gabin stars in Grisbi as the aging Max. He gives a very appealing performance, imbuing Max with honor and a sense of the romantic hero while projecting a world-weary cynicism. Gabin was continuously on the screen from 1928 until his death in 1976. Some of his earliest work is his most-renowned — Pepe Le Moko, La Grand Illusion, Le Quai des Brumes, Le Jour Se Leve — but in his later years he added class to most of the material in which he appeared, including several films based on Simenon’s Inspector Maigret. Grisbi offered him a perfect role, and gave some of the earliest evidence of Gabin settling in to be the eminence grise of the French cinema.
Also memorable in Grisbi as Max’s chief nemesis Angelo is Lino Ventura, a former wrestler who parlayed his role into a successful acting career encompassing more than 70 more films. Jeanne Moreau has a good early part as the unfaithful Josy. Paul Frankeur offers a juicy portrayal of one of Max’s old associates, Pierrot.
Simone Signoret’s portrayal of the title role of Marie in Casque provides that film’s most lasting memory. Her evocation of Marie is a complex mix of opposites — self-confidence and vulnerability, seductiveness and innocence, ebullience and serenity. Her effort was one of the finest of her career, and, if not recognized immediately in France (the film did not do well upon initial release), it did bring her an award from the British Film Academy. Matching her performance is Serge Reggiani as Manda, to whom he gives quiet strength despite the character’s outer self-effacing nature. Together the two actors exceed the sum of their two parts, confirming the chemistry evident between them in La Ronde two years earlier.
Casque also benefits from the superior work of Claude Dauphin as Leca, a man whom he portrays as somewhat affable on the surface, but deadly as a cobra underneath.
Both films are skillfully composed in black and white by Becker. The settings are affectionately evoked, as are the characters who inhabit them — fastidious in dress and each distinctive in mannerisms and voice so that all seem to be real people. One senses that this is how part of Paris really looked and was peopled in each of the two eras. It’s a sense that is heightened by Becker’s use of countryside settings as punctuation marks in both films.
In 1960, Jacques Becker died within days of completing his work on Le Trou. As with so many of his films, it was an effort to explore a different genre — an approach to film during the 1940s and 1950s that tended to ensure that Becker was overlooked when critics and historians discussed the great French directors. (Howard Hawks was similarly overlooked for his tendency to dabble in many genres during his prime Hollywood years.) With his death, however, and with the endorsement of the New Wave directors as being one of the few directors of the previous two decades that they admired, Becker’s reputation has strengthened considerably over the succeeding decades. Viewing Casque D’Or and Touchez Pas au Grisbi half a century after they first appeared illustrates why.
Criterion presents both films in their original aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The DVDs were created from high definition transfers using 35mm fine grain masters as source material and employing considerable digital cleaning to remove dirt, debris, and scratches. The results in both cases are excellent. Both transfers look luminous, with solid blacks, good contrast and very fine detail. There is some mild grain and still some stray defects, but the overall effect is very film-like.
The French mono tracks are in good shape, offering clear dialogue with minimal hiss. Grisbi has perhaps slightly more background noise than Casque. The English subtitling is good in both instances.
Both DVDs offer a reasonably thorough range of supplements. Casque provides a very detailed but somewhat stiff-sounding audio commentary by film scholar Peter Cowie; two exceptional excerpts (about 27 minutes in total) dealing with Becker himself and the film, taken from the television series “Cinéastes de notre temps”; short interviews with Simone Signoret (1963, 7 minutes) and Serge Reggiani (1995, 6 minutes); a very interesting 8-minute segment of behind-the-scenes footage of Becker on the outdoor café set of Casque (with useful commentary by film scholar Philip Kemp); and a disc insert essay on the film, also by Kemp. Grisbi lacks an audio commentary, but does provide two disc insert essays on both Becker and the film by film scholars Philip Kemp and Geoffrey O’Brien. It also offers a short excerpt (about 5 minutes) from the television series “Cinéastes de notre temps”; interviews with actors Daniel Cauchy (2002, 7 minutes) and Lino Ventura (1972, 9 minutes); a brief interview (1978, 2 minutes) with composer Jean Wiener; and the film’s theatrical trailer.
Casque D’Or and Touchez Pas au Grisbi are two beautifully composed and finely executed French gangster films that illustrate director Jacques Becker’s unique blend of evocation of time and attention to detail, tied together with just enough plot to drive events to inevitable conclusions. Criterion has done its usual fine job of showcasing the films and providing a varied range of supplementary materials to enhance the experiences. These are films with a sense of style and place that is seldom found on the screen nowadays. Highly recommended in both cases.