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CASQUE D'OR

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Simone Signoret, Serge Reggiani, Claude Dauphin, Raymond Bussières, Gaston Modot, William Sabatier
Director: Jacques Becker
Audio: French mono, English dubbed
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, full-frame 1.33:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Commentary, video interviews, Cinéastes de notre temps excerpt, Behind-the-scenes footage, essay
Length: 98 minutes
Release Date: January 18, 2005

"Can carpenters dance?"

Film *** ½

Following the conclusion of World War II, the French film industry found itself in an awkward, transitional period.  Directors from the pre-war Golden Age, such as Claude Renoir, were being seen increasingly as out-dated, whereas those directors who had worked in Vichy France were viewed with some initial degree of suspicion from post-war French film critics.  Director Jacques Becker fell into the latter category.  In fact, Becker not only began his solo directorial career in 1942 after a year-long detention in a German prison-of-war camp, but prior to the war, he had also served as a first assistant on nearly all of Jean Renoir's films of the 1930's.  Renoir even cast Becker in some small roles in his films, including Grand Illusion.  Eventually, Becker would apply the lessons learned from by Renoir's meticulous craftsmanship and attention to details and characterization to his own films.

In truth, Becker had directed a few films in the 1930's but had either disavowed them or walked away from the production.  His official canon consists of thirteen films made from 1942 until his death in 1960, encompassing a transitional period between the Old Guard of French cinema and the New Wave of the late-1950's and 1960's.  Becker was, in fact, one of the few old-school directors warmly embraced by supporters of New Wave cinema.  His greatest period of filmmaking occurred in the 1950's with the release of Touchez pas au Grisbi (1954), Le Trou (1960), and Casque d'or (1952), this earlier film being proclaimed by the New Wave directors as Becker's finest achievement.

Casque d'or was a tale about a tragic love affair set in the romantic period of turn-of-the-century France.  The film was an atypical one for Becker, who had made his early mark with contemporary films that explored modern themes in post-war French society.  Casque d'or, however, was a period piece inspired in part by an actual criminal case from 1901.  Originally, the film was to have focused on the unusual friendship between a murderer and his eventual executioner.  The story was subsequently revised into a more intimate affair, chronicling the tragic love between a carpenter and the seductive gangster moll who captures his heart.

French movie goddess Simone Signoret, then-unknown, was to have played a minor role in the film as originally envisioned.  Years later, when the screenplay was revised, her part was expanded to accommodate Signoret's raising stature; Signoret's role would eventually become the dramatic focal point of the entire film.  In fact, Casque d'or was instrumental in establishing Signoret as the most glamorous French actress of the early 1950's.  Western audiences will be most familiar with her from Clouzet's masterpiece Les Diaboliques (1955) or perhaps from her Best Actress Oscar-winning performance in Room at the Top (1958).  However, Casque d'or placed Signoret in the role in which she specialized - the portrayal of lovelorn women or tragically flawed lovers.

For her strong performance in Casque d'or, Signoret earned a British Film Academy Best Actress Award.  This international acclaim for Casque d'or, initially not a success in its native France, helped the film to find an appreciative audience.  Indeed, the film had failed originally due to French audience expectations that it was to be a gangster film, rather than a romance.  While the film certainly contains a healthy share of criminal and underworld elements, its strength lies in the doomed romance between Signoret's character, Marie, and a lowly carpenter, Manda (Serge Reggiani), who aspires to love her.

The film's title is a reference to Marie's golden head of hair.  She may be just a prostitute and the moll of a crude gangster, Roland, but her beauty and alluring self-confidence draw all the men to her, often with tragic outcomes.  Marie may well be a quintessential non-film noir femme fatale.

Casque d'or starts with a lovely opening shot, an impressionistic scene not unlike one captured in a Claude Renoir painting.  A canvas of merrymakers, on a pleasure ride in their rowboats, arrives along the calm shores of a country stream to attend a luncheon at the local riverside café.  In attendance is Marie with her current lover, the boorish Roland (William Sabatier), and we soon learn that this band of carousers is comprised of members of a local crime gang and their girlfriends.

At the café are a couple of carpenters, among them Manda, setting up the music band's wooden stage.  When the music starts and while Roland forces the very-reluctant Marie to dance, Manda stands at a side, his steady and starstruck gaze capturing Marie's eyes.  It is the archetypal coup de foudre, as though a bolt of lightning had struck both Marie and Manda.  In the next tune, Manda asks to dance with Marie, whose quick acceptance instantly inspires a bout of insecure rage in Roland.  Jealousy and desire will thus set the tone for the rest of the film.

Roland soon beseeches his boss and leader of the local Apache (hooligans) gang, the smooth and suave Felix Leca (Dauphin), to intervene on his behalf.  Leca controls his men with steely discipline and is not above violence when it is required, smiling and greeting his associates affectionately even while plotting their demise.  He is a well-dressed godfather of this underworld gang, and underneath his facade of friendship and propriety, Leca begins to scheme for Marie's affections himself, coldly sacrificing even his own men to achieve his goal.  

Marie is soon caught amidst a trio of potential lovers - her violent and crude Roland, Leca the powerful and two-faced crime boss, and Manda, a lowly but sincere carpenter.  The ensuing drama, set along the streets, terraces, and narrow passageways of Parisian paraglamour, intertwines the constant threat of violence with a dreamy glow of young love, warm embraces, and longing exchanges of glances between Marie and Manda.  The ambiance of Belle Époque romance is thick in the air as the scenes alternate between crowded estaminets and idyllic riverbeds, where the ruffians of the underworld freely intermingle with the upper crust of higher society.

Although the film is in truth a love story, the level of violence in Casque d'or is surprisingly high but made palatable by its off-screen nature most of the time.  Notable exceptions are a vicious fisticuffs between Manda and Roland and the ultimately fateful encounter between Manda and Leca.  The suggestion that violence, and sometimes even death, justify an insatiable thirst for love, or perhaps in baser terms, possession, belies the dramatic undercurrent of inevitability in the film.  Marie, the object of desire, is seen frequently as someone to possess but never share.  When incompatible desires between suitors lead to clashes over her, the consequences cannot help but be dire in the end.

Casque d'or represents one of the best films in the final transitional years before the imminent rise of French New Wave cinema.  It is a rosy-colored toast to not only the yesteryears of impressionistic French society but also to a by-gone style of romantic filmmaking, as only a protégé of Jean Renoir could have done.  Jacques Becker, in Casque d'or, has recreated the essence of the Belle Époque, an era of absinthe, gaiety, and unencumbered romanticism.

Video ***

Casque d'or features a newly restored, high-definition digital transfer created from a 35mm fine-grain master positive.  This black & white film is presented in its original full-frame aspect ratio.  Other than a few minor defects and occasional density fluctuations in the emulsion, the picture quality itself is quite stellar and appears nearly pristine.  Images are extremely sharp with excellent contrast levels.

Audio ***

Casque d'or is available in either the original French 1.0 audio track or an English dubbed track.  As Signoret, Reggiani, and Claude Dauphin all spoke English, they have provided their own dubbing for the alternate track.  Both tracks are clean with little background hiss or noise.  Furthermore, Becker has inserted an abundance of natural sounds - birds chirping, streams flowing - to enhance the idyllic ambiance of his film.

Features ***

The highlight of the bonus features is the commentary track by film historian Peter Cowie.  He provides a biography of Jacques Becker and his film career, especially his association with Renoir, and he also discusses the authentic attention to details as captured on-film by Becker in Casque d'or.

Stars from the film are featured in interview clips available on the DVD, too.  Actor Serge Reggiani appears in a 1995 interview (6 min.) with the television program La France en Films.  The second interview, a 1963 excerpt (7 min.) with Simone Signoret from the French television program Cinépanorama, allows the actress to talk about her career in general terms, particularly over how her marriage to Yves Montand, a top-tier French actor, allowed her the luxury of choosing her roles sparingly and wisely.

Next is an excerpt from another French television program, Cinéastes de notre temps.  Divided into two portions, the first half of this program (14 min.) chronicles Jacques Becker's early days as an actor and a young director through the reminisces of actors and associates.  The second half of the episode (12 min.) features the surviving cast from Casque d'or recalling their experiences during the film's production.

Actual and rare behind-the-scene footage (7 min.) of Becker at work on Casque d'or is also provided on the DVD.  This footage is silent but does offer an optional commentary track from film scholar Philip Kemp.  The footage covers the important sequence at the outdoors café wherein Marie and Manda meet each other and dance for the first time.

Lastly, Kemp, a contributor to the noted British publication "Sight and Sound," also provides an essay about the film on the DVD's insert, discussing more about Becker's background and themes in the film.

Summary:

Casque d'or celebrates the Belle Époque in a passionate tale of doomed love.  Featuring a confident and star-making performance by Simone Signoret, this film is among director Jacques Becker's best efforts and serves as a fine example of pre-New Wave French cinema.

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