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