Casque d'or: The Criterion Collection
When speaking of Jacques Becker's career, it's hard not to mention the influence of Jean Renoir. After all, Becker spent eight years providing support for the master humanist, working as the assistant director on some of Renoir's most famous films (including 1937's Grand Illusion). And though Becker's career is mired by obscurity stateside, even in his readily available "genre" work such as 1952's Casque d'or or 1960's Le Trou it's noticeable that all the characters, even the bad ones, have their reasons. Perhaps a bit of Renoir rubbed off; like him, Becker mixed a technical savvy with a deep and abiding interest in people. That's not to suggest he was a sycophant; Jacques Becker has a style all his own, and he was drawn more towards genre pieces than Renior, even though Becker's films rarely played like genre exercises. For instance: Casque d'or. From its plot description, one could read it as a noir (or at least a cousin to the wave of French romantic fatalism epitomized by something like Port of Shadows), since it involves a femme fatale, murder, and an inescapable fate due to smuggled time and forbidden love. And yet (perhaps because of the frisson created by its period setting) the picture feels wholly removed from genre spectacle. Casque d'or exists in a word all its own, though indebted to its influences, to become what is commonly referred to as Becker's zenith as a director.
Set during the Belle Époque, Marie (Simone Signoret), known for her blonde hair hence the title, which translates roughly into "blonde helmet" is a kept woman who's running with criminals. Picnicking with her friends, she runs across George Manda (Serge Reggiani), an ex-con turned carpenter, through their mutual friend Danard (Gaston Modot). George and Marie share a dance, which makes her boyfriend Roland (William Sabatier) jealous. Roland works with Danard under Felix Leca (Claude Dauphin), a dandy criminal boss who also fancies Marie and thinks himself a master manipulator. Though Manda's engaged to another woman, he and Marie have an undeniable attraction, and their ardor leads him into a fatal knife fight with Roland the consequences of which send George running out of town. He finds himself hiding out in the country with Marie, allowing them to behave as though married. But their bliss must come to an end as Danard asks Leca to leave George alone, to which Leca uses to set up Danard as the fall guy for Roland's murder. Put in a position of honor, George accepts his fate and goes to jail to take responsibility, only to learn the reason for his imprisonment was Leca's scheming, while Danard is also stuck in jail because he's considered a co-conspirator. After a prison break, George plans his revenge, but he also has to accept that Marie has been sleeping with Leca though not for the reasons George thinks.
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Like the film's turn of the century setting, Casque d'or was a movie out of its time. Upon its initial release, French cinema was in an existential crisis; with the influx of post-war American cinema it was readying itself for the new wave, and not sure what to make of its national directors, as many (including Becker) worked during the occupation. It should be of no surprise then that Becker's film was not met well by Andre Bazin and the Cahiers du Cinema set perhaps those who developed a fondness for America's quick cutting rhythms and the efficiency of its B-pictures couldn't appreciate this film's more subtle charms. And yet there is a marvelous sense of rhythm to all of Becker's work, and he's a master of subtle machinations: Danard warns Leca to stay away from George as George has always been loyal to him. But as Danrad makes his protest he fondles Roland's pocket watch, giving Leca all the pieces (knowing Danard has a dead's man timepiece, knowing George is a loyal and honorable man) he needs to ensnare George. It's marvelous scene that is able to convey so much with so little. Even within the genre tropes, it's the humanist energy that makes Casque d'or so appealing, especially in Simone Signoret's ravishing performance as Marie. Women in pictures like this are often idealized or demonized in either case they often feel one dimensional. But Marie is fully fleshed out; damaged, but still capable of love. Perhaps it's why Bazin later revisited the film and revised his opinion.
The Criterion Collection presents Casque d'or in its original aspect ratio (1.33:1) and in its original French monaural audio (DD 1.0) with optional English subtitles. Because Simone Signoret, Serge Reggiani, and Claude Dauphin all did their own English-language dubbing, the dubbed soundtrack also is included. Peter Cowie provides an insightful scene-specific audio commentary that covers the film's thematics and its initial reception, and he provides background on the major and minor players. Also contained is rare behind-the-scenes footage (8 min.) with optional commentary by film historian Phillip Kemp that shows the cast and crew filming the opening dancing sequence. In the "Interviews" section there's a 1963 interview with Simone Signoret (7 min.) and a 1995 interview with Serge Reggiani (6 min.), both of which focus on making the film and working with Becker. There are also two excerpts from the 1967 French television show "Cineastes de Notre Temps," which offers interviews with stars Signoret, Claude Dauphin, editor Marguerite Renoir, Becker aficionado François Truffaut, and others who worked with Becker. The first excerpt focuses on Becker's talent and legacy (14 min.) the second focuses more on Casque d'or(13 min.). Also included is an essay by Kemp. Keep-case.