It’s as subtle as a slap in the face (of which quite a few are administered in the course of events). And yet . . . Jacques Becker’s terse, down-to-earth 1952 thriller Casque d’or keeps threatening to be art as well as entertainment. It opens with a timeless bucolic setting on a French river, bringing to mind the river films of Becker’s master Jean Renoir, in particular Une partie de campagne. And the resemblance of the following scenes, at a riverside café, to Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s famous paintings of promenades and social gatherings (in particular Le Bal au Moulin de Galette) is surely not accidental. But the lowlife ethos of Becker’s film is a notch or two down from Renoir píÂ¨re’s respectable petite-bourgeoisie, let alone from the aristocratic leisureliness of Renoir fils (in La RíÂ¨gle du jeu even spouses call each other ‘vous’; in Casque d’or even strangers are ‘tu’). Painterly tableaux recur through the film, but neither the camera nor the characters linger. So fast is the exposition it is as if they are rushing to keep to a deadline. But at the crucial turns of the story the camera fixes unblinkingly on the characters’ faces. Simone Signoret is the insolently voluptuous moll Marie, treated as a chattel by the gangsters with whom she consorts – ‘Voici l’objet’, they say when they fetch her in to see the vain and sinister boss Felix (Claude Dauphin). Signoret won an award for this role, but the most gripping performance is by Serge Reggiani as Manda, the tough but sensitive ex-convict who is trying to keep to the straight and narrow path as a small-town carpenter. Will Manda and Marie escape this thuggish world?
In Touchez pas au grisbi, Max wants to quit too. They’re getting too old, as he tells his partner in crime Riton, grabbing his jowls. But they have to dispose of their grisbi first – 50 million francs in gold bars in the boot of Max’s flash car. Touchez pas au grisbi (‘Hands Off the Loot’) opens with a four-square shot of that great block of Gallic masculinity Jean Gabin. As Max he wades through an impressive tide of comely young women, half his age, in and out of some fancy frocks. Their effortless chic must have been an eye-opener for British audiences whose native visions of with-it youth didn’t yet go much beyond the tweedy heartiness of Genevieve. Equally striking must have been Grisbi’s casual sexual frankness, in word and deed. Max complacently takes himself to be on groping terms, at least, with most of the damsels he encounters. Riton, by contrast, is having a hard time with the defection of his girlfriend Josy (Jeanne Moreau) to a younger and meaner crook. Max can’t help him with this – ‘Je ne peux pas policer les fesses’ – he has his mind on more serious things. Gabin dominates the film, leading the camera with him as he smokes and drinks and snogs his way up and down ornate staircases and lift shafts, from cabaret to restaurant to boudoir. Despite killings and violence (again gifles are dispensed liberally, especially by Max), the tone is less sombre than in Casque d’or, more playful. But by the end of the film Max loses more than his grisbi, which becomes too hot to handle.
These two Becker films are now available on DVD, together with Le Trou (1960), a tense, stark, and compelling story starring non-professional actors and a strong candidate for the best ever escape film. Escape films – what a strange subgenre, now missing, presumed dead. The world must have changed in some way, but for a while in the middle of the last century the idea of escape from imprisonment was a potent stimulant of imagination, sympathy, and suspense.
PS: I wonder whether the French acting community would consider reviving the custom of single names for actors? It’s always a pleasure to see that some supporting role or other is played by ‘Barge’ or ‘Bouvette’.