Directed by Jacques Becker
Written by Jacques Becker & Jacques Companeez
Set during the Belle Époque, Becker’s Casque d’or is a romance set within the confines of a gangster film. Manda (Serge Reggiani) is a reformed criminal who now works as a carpenter. While chatting with Raymond, an old friend from jail, Manda sees a gangster’s moll, the beautiful, blonde Marie (Simone Signoret) waltzing reluctantly with Roland, the man she belongs to. Marie catches his gaze and won’t let go of it even as Roland spins her around the dance floor. Raymond and Roland are members of Felix Leca’s gang. Leca sells wine as a front and is in good stead with the local authorities.
Willing to give up the new life he has established, Manda comes the next evening to take Marie away from Roland. They fight over her, resulting in Manda killing Roland. This complicates matters because not only does Manda have to skip town to avoid the police, but also he has no idea that Leca also wants Marie and to paraphrase the song, whatever Leca wants, Leca gets. Marie runs off to be with Manda, who after risking his life to be with her, isn’t going to give her up. While all the story’s participants might not enjoy the final outcome, the film resolves this clash of desires in a very satisfying way for the audience.
The movie is brilliantly crafted from on all fronts. The story is very well written with a plot that is surprising yet always believable in the choices that are made by the characters. Nothing ever seems to happen to force the story in a certain direction and there is never a question of the motivation behind someone’s actions. The characters, including the minor ones, appear as real people with lives that take place when they are off screen. The performances were very good, especially Claude Dauphin as Leca. He’s cool and calm most of the time as he tries to keep everything under his control. This made him very believable and likable. The black-and-white cinematography looks fantastic and the camerawork is very fluid, using a lot of dolly shots instead of cutting.
Film scholar Peter Cowie provides a thoroughly informative commentary track. He discusses earlier drafts of the story and tells you what scenes were cut or trimmed and what information they contained. He provides background information about the actors and director, discussing their lives and stature. He draws your attention to the details of a shot, of a character’s action, telling you what the film was showing you. As I listened to the commentary track, I noticed that the chapter titles had changed from describing the scene to the subject matter that Cowie was discussing. I don’t know if other commentary tracks do this, but I thought this was a stroke of genius.
The Criterion crew has done it again with some amazing finds of supplemental material. There are interview clips from Signoret in 1963 and Reggiani in 1995. She discusses her career choices, acting and Casque d’or. He discusses working with Signoret as well as his friendship with her. There are also excerpts from the French television program Cineastes de notre temps about Becker and this film. This segment is very interesting in the way it was edited. Interviews of a number of collaborators, such as Signoret, and admirers, such as Truffaut, were assembled together. As someone speaks to a subject, the film cuts away to other participants listening, creating the illusion that they are together having a conversation. The film has some silent, behind-the-scenes footage that was shot on the set during the rehearsals. It shows Becker and the crew at work. There’s an option to listen to film critic Philip Kemp, who wrote the liner notes for the DVD, providing commentary for the footage. I’m not sure why you would watch it without his informative comments, but that option is available.
Casque d’or is a very good French film noir for fans of the genre. While the theme of the film deals with giving in to your desires, I’m sure that Becker and his crew wouldn’t apply that lesson when it comes to purchasing this DVD. Appréciez, mon ami.