Robert Tanitch reviews the latest DVDs
In the history of French cinema, Jacques Becker (1906-1960), the versatile and eclectic French film director, comes between the traditional classic French film and the New Wave. He has been much underrated and the release of these four films, quite different in style, is timely.
Casque d’Or (StudioCanal). Jacques Becker’s 1952 masterpiece gives the whores, the pimps and the gangsters of the demi-monde during La Belle Epoque a pictorial authenticity which in turn gives the costume drama (based on a true story and a sensational memoir) a period reality. The opening sequences in boats and the cafe by the Marne pay tribute to Impressionist painter and his film director son, August and Jean Renoir. Simone Signoret and Serge Reggiani are the doomed lovers. Signoret, confident, independent, a radiant beauty, all-woman, is the driving force, a memorable performance. Casque d’Or refers to her “golden helmet” hair style.
Edward and Caroline (StudioCanal) is a 1950 boulevard comedy about class differences. A young impoverished pianist is married to a rich girl and they live in a tiny apartment on the South Bank. They have a childish spat just as he is about to play the piano for her uncle’s rich friends. (Their relationship is a mirror to Jacques Becker’s relationship with his scriptwriter and mistress, Annette Wademant.). The plot is thin and relies on the charm and expertise of Daniel Gélin and Anne Vernon as the lovers for its sparkle. The bourgeoisie (headed by Jean Galland) are wittily caricatured as vacuous, snobbish philistines.
Touchez Pas au Grisbi (StudioCanal) is French slang for Don’t Take The Loot. Jacques Becker’s 1954 film renewed the great Jean Gabin’s faltering career and considerably influenced the French gangster movie. Gabin, impeccably dressed, is cast as a gangster who has just committed the most fantastic robbery at Orly Airport (which happens off-screen before the film begins!) and is all set for retirement, when, his life-long friend (René Dary) as usual, messes things up and he, as usual, stays loyal to him and clears up the mess.
Le Trou (StudioCanal) Faced with the prospect of spending 20 years in Paris’s La Sante Prison, four inmates decide to escape by digging a hole through concrete. Jacques Becker’s last film, based on a true story and released in 1960 just before he died, is one of the great prison films, telling a story of fellowship, loyalty and betrayal. It is Becker’s meticulous attention to physical detail which gives the film its authenticity and tension. The climax is shattering. The criminals were played by non-professional actors so as to not detract from the documentary-like reality. They were so good many of them went on to have highly successful film careers.