Jacques Becker’s 1952 French melodrama Casque d’Or celebrates its 70th anniversary this week with a deserved rerelease. Often overlooked in discussions of genuinely groundbreaking French cinema – and perhaps understandably so – Becker’s well-shot and well-acted Belle Époque romance is nevertheless an enticing proposition, despite its slightly hackneyed ‘doomed lovers’ narrative.
Marie (Simone Signoret) and Georges (Serge Reggiani) are the would-be lovebirds in question, their blossoming relationship tragically splintered by circumstance and underworld interference. Coming together one fine day on the dance floor of a local bar, Georges and Marie fall head over heels in love with each other – despite the latter’s entanglement with a known mob member. After putting said hood on the floor during a minor altercation, Georges persists in his pursuit of Marie, which ultimately leads the reformed con to murder his love rival in a frantic knife fight. On the run from both the all-powerful mob boss Félix (the show-stealing Claude Dauphin) and threat of the guillotine, Georges and Marie seek shelter and solace in the picturesque French countryside.
Sharing much in common with the unquestionably superior work of Marcel Carné (the shadow of 1938 noir Le Quai des Brumes looms largest of all), Becker’s Casque d’Or does at least deserve some credit of its own for sculpting out a compelling tale of love and loss in a time of relative plenty – albeit one that most will have seen before. The two central leads are certainly engaging, with Reggiani’s wiry chancer hitting the right balance of charm and modesty (what else would you expect from a humble carpenter?), and Signoret’s hard-to-get belle radiant throughout. As previously mentioned, Dauphin is similarly commanding as gangland ringleader Félix, who transforms from honourable thief to principle antagonist in the blink of an eye.
Unfortunately, the advent of the Hollywood noir in the 1940s and artistically advanced work from the likes of Carné and Jean Renoir (with whom Becker worked as an assistant to director) on the continent may well have contributed to Casque d’Or’s slightly inferior status. Although based on true events, everything feels slightly too constrained and tailored for effect, with even several scenes of graphic violence and a suitably dramatic finale failing to really capture the imagination in quite the same way as its comparables. Becker is undeniably a director worthy of further investigation – though this may not be the best place to start.