Often relegated to the shadow of his friend and mentor Jean Renoir, and never attributed with the same influence as Truffaut, Godard and the other Nouvelle Vague critics-turned-directors, Jacques Becker remains a largely hidden, or at least underappreciated, gem of French cinema.
StudioCanal’s stellar four-disc selection shines a welcome light on the versatile, humanist, character-driven filmmaker. He demonstrated “a desire to represent ordinary people in their environment.” So says Kings College London professor, Ginette Vincendeau, in one of several interviews that feature among a wealth of extras that accompany Edward and Caroline, Casque d’Or, Touchez Pas au Grisbi and Le Trou. The French film historian’s measured contextualisation of Becker’s life and work place him between the pre-WWII ‘tradition of quality’ so despised by the Cahiers du Cinema and their own brand of cinema, informed as it was by auteurism.
An elusive, diverse director who, in Vincendeau’s words “refused to be pigeonholed,” the four films selected for this set progress chronologically from a playful comedy, through a tragic romance, to a smooth gangster thriller, and culminate with a nail-biting prison drama. An eclectic array of genres, then, but a shared continuity of character taking precedence over plot, conflicts that arise between the sexes and a particular focus on the common man, fighting the injustices of class and the establishment.
These characteristics could well have been gleaned during Becker’s apprenticeship with Renoir – he was assistant director on La Grande Illusion and was indeed the creative force behind Le Crime de Monsieur Lange – and they are immediately apparent in Edward and Caroline, a tale of a married couple on a night that could make or break their future together. Edward (Daniel Gélin), a gifted but troubled pianist from a low-class background, has a long-standing chip on both shoulders about the entitlement of his wife’s (Anne Vernon) upper-class family.
Feisty, free-spirited and a real delight, Caroline loves Edward as he is and the course of true love seems to be running smoothly in the run up to an all-important soiree given by her uncle (Jean Galland) where Parisian high society will finally here the maestro’s sublime talent, catapulting him to fame and fortune. However, some notable alterations made to the dress Caroline intends to wear appalls Edward and an ensuing altercation proves to be the catalyst for great tension upon separate arrivals at the party. All is light-hearted and droll but there is a shallow bitterness to the assembled guests’ vacuous, hollow natures.
There are echoes of Renoir’s The Rules of the Game here; outward appearance and trivial concerns preside over integrity, honesty and humility, with judgements and prejudices flying at every turn. The sadness of a marriage slowly coming apart at the seams goes largely unnoticed but is touching thanks to the lead performances and if, as Vincendeau correctly notes, Edward and Caroline remains thin on plot but affecting for its character development, Casque d’Or sees Becker develop the former element to quietly devastating effect.
Based on a true story, the doomed Belle Epoque romance between Manda (Serge Reggiani), a carpenter’s apprentice not long out of a stint in prison, and Marie (Simone Signoret), a beautiful woman of supposedly low morals, demonstrates the director’s ability to handle far grittier material. Marie’s stunning golden hair gives the film its name and Signoret’s performance is the shining centrepoint of this quite tremendous drama. Abused, both verbally and physically, by her initial beau and under the thumb of a gang of ne’er-do-wells, she is the centrifugal focus of men who simultaneously mistreat and desire her while fighting between themselves for her affections.
In what is a surprisingly brutal feature, there is backstabbing – both literal and figurative – but it is the principled Manda’s humble sincerity, and light-footed waltzing skills, that set him apart from the crowd and cross these ill-fated lovers. Again working with cinematographer Robert Lefebvre, the alternately beautiful and barren mise-en-scene and striking depth of field used in Casque d’Or add a visual richness to a profoundly affecting story. Obligation, jealousy, deceit and particularly the loyalty between two old friends are most significant thematic threads in Casque d’Or, and they carry forward to Touchez Pas au Grisbi. Ostensibly a gangster flick, one of the first of its kind in France, it was Becker’s most commercially successful film – thanks in no small part to the heavyweight star at its heart, Jean Gabin.
In its opening moments, regular punters looking for a meal are turned away from ‘Chez Madame Bouche’ but we are invited into the epicentre of this closed, close-knit community of gentlemen gangsters, of which Max (Gabin) is the chef. Respected, well-liked and feared by those sensible enough to do so, he is an ageing mobster in a film that is as much about conflicting generations as it is warring factions of the Paris underworld. He and old pal Riton (René Dary) have been in the game far too long and, having pulled off their ‘one last job’ before the film begins, want to hang up their guns for comfy slippers and reading glasses.
Lamenting old age and unable to still chase girls, Riton’s weakness for the fairer sex scuppers retirement plans but what becomes as much a buddy movie as crime thriller sees friendship conquer monetary gain; again character interrelation favoured over plot. Chiaroscuro lighting paints stark visual contrasts in a milieu which is anything but black and white and the slow build of tension moves at the composed, unruffled, sedate pace of its experienced lead to the breathtaking roadside showdown. Whether saving Le Trou until the end is a case for leaving the best till last is an entirely subjective one, but it is hard to find any fault in Becker’s nail-biting, razor-sharp prison drama.
The goal is clear: five inmates in a cell and the titular hole that they must dig to reach freedom. There is an instant affinity with a group of men accused of unspoken crimes, Becker seeking to humanise the villainised. We route for them every inch of the way; for every piece of rock that falls away we cheer for them and decry the establishment which demonises these human beings. It is poised, precise and pressured and the simplicity of narrative once again belies the emotional, psychological complexity of Becker’s engrossing final feature. It is the crowning achievement of his life’s work and this tremendous collection.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens