Before The Wave – Jacques Becker’s Casque d’Or

Jacques Becker is a long-time favourite of Hope Lies at 24 Frames Per Second, with the French filmmaker one of the key figures that laid the groundwork in the years running up to the Nouvelle Vague. In a career that ultimately resulted in the remarkable Le Trou, one of the finest prison dramas of all time, Becker made a name for him with some truly unique tales of the criminal underworld. While the likes of Touchez Pas au Grisbi may be amongst the French filmmakers better known works, no one film defines his unique approach to the the myth of the gangster as cinematic hero than 1952’s Casque d’Or.

Starring Simone Signoret, she of Les Diaboliques fame and one of the icons of the era of the cinéma du papa years of the Gallic silver screen, Becker’s film charts the criminal underworld from an inverted perspective, as the tale unfolds from the point of view of Signoret’s Marie, the titular ‘Casque d’Or’, beau of Roland, a mid-level hoodlum, who falls for one of his contemporaries in the badness business, Georges Manda (Serge Reggiani). From the humble beginnings of a tale of a loved long for stems an intricate tale that questions honour and justice in a theoretically bold manner. 

Incarceration, Becker’s great recurring theme too starts out as a small, yet important, detail that blossoms in to the overarching and defining element of the picture. While the circumstance of incarceration brings the two together it’s the reincarceration of Manda in the films second half which sees the film stray in to more familiar territory for the filmmaker. The films ultimate question mark, that straddles honour, vengeance and integrity makes for a thematically linked experience to the more ambitious Le Trou

Aesthetically Casque d’Or operates in a temporal space similar to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, or Jean Renoir’s Partie de campagne, in that it presents a historically placed work, yet skews it from the conventions of the time of the contemporary production. Incidentally, the recently reissued Park Row, from Sam Fuller, approached its own historical subject by utilising a similar framework. While the themes contained with Casque d’Or are essentially universal in scope (temporally), one cannot help but see the French culture of the early 1950’s in Becker’s handling of the material. It is the Belle Époque strained through a filter of two World Wars, and with it the major social upheavals that rocked France at the time, with the intonation of a work like La Règle du jeu clear and present (It’s important to note that Becker assisted Renoir in the 1930’s).

It’s notable to remember that in ‘Une certaine tendance du cinéma français’ (A Certain Tendency In French Cinema) Jacques Becker was one of the handful of filmmakers singled out by Francois Truffaut as being an exception to the general tone of French film industry in the years before the Cahiers du cinéma crowd took hold of their national cinema, while the esteemed founder of that publication, André Bazin too held up Becker as a bastion for the way forward. Bazin referred to Becker as the maker of some of the most artistically and technically substantial in French cinema, with the theorist’s writing on Becker available in the recent ‘From The Liberation To The New Wave’, a collection bringing together a significant amount of Bazin’s work from the period.

It’s a great time for Blu-ray releases of work from pre-Nouvelle Vague years of the French cinema, with important films from Renoir and Marcel Carné both having seen release in fantastic iterations, while Sacha Guitry’s La Poison is upcoming. Casque d’Or, in a worthy edition makes for one of the more surprising but wholly welcome additions to the burgeoning digital library charting the period, helping to build up a mainstream and accessible answer to the question of “What led to Godard and Truffaut?”.
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