Jacques Becker was one of the few older French directors whom the French New Wave loved – Jean Renoir and Jean Vigo were two notable others. They had an insane disdain for Henri-Georges Clouzot, which is bizarre since his films are utter masterworks. They probably liked Becker not only because he was a great filmmaker, but because he was very much the French equivalent of the American directors they liked: Nicholas Ray, Howard Hawks and Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Like Becker, these directors had a singular vision but could move very freely from noir to western to melodrama, and so on.
Casque d’Or is perhaps Becker’s best-known film. It’s an archetypical doomed French romance, a genre that is always popular. It was made too late to be considered a poetic realist film, but it’s one of the films (along with Becker’s work on a whole) that bridges the gap between the old type of filmmaking and the new wave of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. It’s also a rare crossbreed between period drama and the gangster film, which I’m sre was very attractive to Jean-Luc Godard and especially François Truffaut, who also straddled more classical filmmaking and genre stories with the movement he helped birth.
Simone Signoret gives a performance for the ages as Maria, and you can understand why men would fight to the death over her. It’s a perfect example of a film you could make in Europe at the time that would be impossible to make in the US during the same era: Maria’s character is based on a real-life prostitute, a fact it doesn’t hold back from mentioning, and her pimp. The performance Simone gave had such an impression on a young singer called Eunice Waymon that she changed her name to Nina Simone.
The film, as one might expect, is richly photographed. Becker cut his teeth working for Jean Renoir in the ‘30s, and his masterfulness as a director certainly rubbed off on the young Becker. He used the cinematographer Robert Lefebvre on the film, but I would say that it’s safe to assume that Becker was utterly in control of the image, from the homage to Jean Renoir’s father, the famous impressionist painter Auguste Renoir, to the final waltz at the film’s climax. He and Lefebvre only worked once more together on the more commercial Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.
Becker remains one of the key directors of post-war French cinema and while his influence is certainly felt in the New Wave is has spread all over the world, especially with films like Casque d’Or and Le Trou. French cinema is full of doomed romances, but Casque d’Or is up there with Les Enfants Du Paradis and À Bout de Souffle.
The Blu-Ray looks great, and the disc has a selection of interviews to add extra context to the film.