Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Simone Signoret, Serge Reggiani, Claude Dauphin, Raymond Bussières, Gaston Modot, Paul Barge
Written by: Jacques Becker, Jacques Companeez and Annette Wademant (uncredited)
Directed by: Jacques Becker
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 98
Date: 03/13/1952
IMDB

Casque d'or (1952)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Waltz Time

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director Jacques Becker's trademark was his lack ofsensation. He generally filmed in a straightforward manner, focused on detailsand momentary concerns and ignored the big "money" shots and payoffscenes.

One of the central moments in his masterpiece Casque d'or is a murder. In the back alley of a bistro, two men fight over a girl. One has a knife and the other doesn't. Rather than a choreographed smackdown, the two men grunt, struggle, push and roll around. Becker doesn't even give them any dramatic music. When the fight finally ends, it's with a sad sigh and a moment of reflection.

Yet the very thing that made Becker great has also kept him under the radar. Until 2005, only one of his films had been released on DVD. Now the Criterion Collection adds two more, Touchez pas au grisbi (1954) and Casque d'or. Becker (1906-60) led a short life and only completed some dozen films, not counting the work he did as an assistant director for Jean Renoir. Some of Renoir's relaxed humanity can be glimpsed in Becker's films, but Becker eventually developed a style of his own.

Casque d'or was a job for hire that several other directors had turned down. It's Becker's only period piece, and yet it slips effortlessly into the rest of his filmography. Simone Signoret became a star with her role as Marie, a gangster's moll whose cascading golden hair inspires the title.

While out with the gang of thugs, she meets an ex-con gone straight, a small, mustachioed carpenter, Manda (Serge Reggiani). I can't describe the two lovers any better than Francois Truffaut did in his 1965 essay on the film: "a little man and a large woman -- the little alley cat who is made of nothing but nerves, and the gorgeous carnivorous plant who doesn't turn her nose up at any morsel." Becker had seen the two leads together in Max Ophuls' La Ronde and was impressed by their odd chemistry.

Of course, their story is a doomed one. Manda can only rescue Marie from the gang by killing Marie's boyfriend. Then the wrong man is blamed for the crime: a former cellmate of Manda's and a trusted friend. Manda must decide whether to sacrifice himself to save his friend, or to stay with his new love.

Before tragedy strikes, Becker allows his lovers to have one wonderful day together. He shows them waking up late in the morning on rumpled sheets. It's a beautiful morning and Manda brings hot coffee to his sleepy lover through a big open window. The scene just makes you breathe easy, while tingling with fresh excitement.

Most movies would ramp up the adrenaline to show the suspense-oriented ending, but Becker would rather emphasize the feelings behind these events. He shows Marie's face for long, potent moments, and that's all the drama he needs.

DVD Details: The black-and-white transfer on this Criterion Collection DVD is absolutely supreme, with only a few flaws here and there. Not only does it present a clean, crisp looking film, but also the cleanliness seems to reach all the way to the back of the frame. Since Becker died in 1960, not many extras exist on him, but this disc contains a remarkable little item: a 7-minute home movie of Becker on the set of Casque d'or. Unfortunately, it has no sound, but critic Philip Kemp provides comments. (Kemp also wrote the liner notes essay.) As he has on so many other Criterion discs, film scholar Peter Cowie contributes the commentary track, and it's another yawner. Otherwise, we get a 7-minute interview with Simone Signoret from 1963 and a 6-minute interview with Serge Reggiani from 1995, as well as two excerpts from the 1967 television show "Cin´┐Żastes de notre temps," discussing Becker and his work. One of Becker's chief defenders, Francois Truffaut, is among those interviewed.