Where to begin with Jacques Becker

A beginner’s path through the post-war classics of French master Jacques Becker.

21 February 2017

By David Parkinson

Touchez pas au grisbi (1954)

Why this might not seem so easy

Casque d’or (1952) poster

Jacques Becker is an easy director to like, but a more difficult one to get a handle on. Each of his 13 features is eminently watchable, with three being undisputed classics. Yet, despite being installed in the pantheon by the influential iconoclasts of the French journal Cahiers du cinéma, Becker was largely ignored during his lifetime, and several critics continue to question whether he merits a place among the front rank of French filmmakers. The naysayers insist that he never emerged from the shadow of his mentor, Jean Renoir, and failed to achieve a distinguishing signature in flitting between genres and settings. Moreover, they reckon that the jobbing assignments Becker undertook in the mid-1950s disqualify him from auteur status.

It may not be easy to make a case for a director whose ambition was to make a film “with no beginning, no end, and virtually no story” in order to prove that “life is stronger than everything else”. Even as fervent an admirer as François Truffaut admitted that Becker was “anxious, distressed, elegant, lyrical, British, nervous [and] tormented”. Yet, despite accusations that he had merely appropriated from Renoir (whom he had assisted on eight pictures between 1932 and 1938) trademark traits like a sound sense of place, a lyrical approach to realism and a generosity towards his characters and casts, Becker undoubtedly had a style of his own.

His camerawork might be unassuming, but it retained an elusive objectivity as it lingered on key details within the scene to reveal the personality of characters who “go on living off-screen”. As a lover of jazz, his editing had a graceful precision and rhythmic fluency. In fact, he saw himself as “something of an entomologist”, whose patient observation of the ‘temps mort’ or ‘time out’ between key plot points enabled him to examine the effect of environment and interaction on the behaviour and emotions of his characters.

No wonder, then, that he preferred slender plots and small themes, which afforded him the space and time to develop character and reflect upon his own ideas and preoccupations.

The best place to start – Touchez pas au grisbi

Touchez pas au grisbi (1954)

Opinion is divided over Becker’s finest film. But, even though Casque d’or (1952) has been commemorated on a postage stamp and Le Trou (1960) currently has a trendy cachet, they are edged out by Touchez pas au grisbi (1954), which topped a Positif poll of the best French crime films. Despite Becker reducing the pivotal Orly bullion raid to a MacGuffin, this study of gangsters laying low until the heat is off proved a significant influence on subsequent French crime classics such as Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le flambeur (1956).

Yet, while Albert Simonin’s source novel has its share of treachery, femme fatality, kidnappings and shootouts, Becker fragments the narrative so that the fascination centres on the world-weary responses of lynchpin Max (Jean Gabin). Max’s existential fatalism as he deals with fences, careless confederates, mistresses and envious rivals evokes memories of the poetic realist noirs of the 1930s in which he had embodied the pre-war mood of a doomed nation.

Gabin’s Max may slap showgirl Jeanne Moreau, seduce haute bourgeois Marilyn Buferd, torture lookout Daniel Cauchy and turn a machine-gun on adversary Lino Ventura, but Becker is more interested in how he orders meals at Denise Clair’s restaurant, selects jukebox songs at Paul Frankeur’s nightclub or extends his hospitality to old friend René Dary, after they seek sanctuary in the luxurious secret hideaway that Gabin keeps well stocked with bread, paté and chilled wine. Indeed, toothpaste and pyjamas provide a greater insight into the ageing Gabin’s psyche (and his yearning for a quiet life in an increasingly alien world) than the gold, girls, guns and grenades on which lesser directors would have fixated.

What to watch next

Casque d’or (1952)

Another intimate meal – a post-coital breakfast prepared at a remote farmhouse by hoodlum’s moll Simone Signoret for reformed crook Serge Reggiani – proves crucial to Casque d’or. Renoir considered this “one of the masterpieces of the screen”, and it remained Becker’s personal favourite of his own films. Set during the Belle Époque, its reflections on love, loyalty and liberty would also prove an influence on Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1962), as would Jean d’Eaubonne’s Impressionist-inspired sets and Robert Lefebvre’s lustrous monochrome photography.

Small details abound, with the contrast between the romantic riverside guinguette and the pitiless Parisian backstreets being as authentic as the performances. Becker instructed the actors “to behave as though they were living at the time, not as if they were wearing costumes”.

Fastidious attention is also paid to the clothing of the cellmates in jailbreak drama Le Trou, as they brush off any telltale dust after another night seeking a way out of La Santé prison. Invariably compared with Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped (1956), this docu-realist recreation of José Giovanni’s account of his own failed escape bid (in which non-professional lead Jean Keraudy also took part) was completed by Becker’s son Jean after he died at the age of 53.

Le Trou (1960)

Reviewing this study of “dignity, courage, brotherhood, intelligence, nobility, respect and shame”, Jean-Pierre Melville proclaimed it “the greatest French film ever made”, while critic Serge Daney claimed it encapsulated “the very idea of freedom” with its use of tight angles to convey the sense of cramped claustrophobia and long takes to implicate the viewer in the project’s audacity, exertion and risk. Tragically, the distributor cut some 20 minutes after the film underperformed at the box office, and they have since disappeared.

Where not to start

As so few subtitled Becker pictures are available in the UK, this section is infuriatingly longer than it should be. Even jobs for hire like Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1954) and The Adventures of Arsène Lupin (1957) have a wit and polish that sets them apart, while Becker’s debut feature, Dernier Atout (1942) – a South America-set policier made after he was released from a PoW camp – is a passable pastiche of a Hollywood B movie.

Goupi mains rouge (1943)

Far superior is Goupi mains rouge (1943), an adaptation of a Pierre Véry novel about a peasant clan closing ranks after a murder that some rate as the best film about the Gallic countryside. While this was popular in its day, Falbalas (1945) and Rue de l’Estrapade (1953) required reappraisal. Each centring on a delusionally self-destructive womaniser, the former was set in a Parisian atelier and introduced a grittier realism to French drama. This quality was also evident in Antoine et Antoinette (1947), in which a working-class couple’s hopes of escaping the drab routines of postwar austerity depend on them finding a missing lottery ticket.

Becker’s reputation was bolstered by Rendez-vous de juillet (1949) and Édouard et Caroline (1951), assured comedies of manners, mishaps and misunderstandings that critic Tom Milne claimed had a slow-motion Preston Sturges feel. While the latter satirised the fashionable elite, the former showcased the Left Bank jazz scene. It captured youth with a subversive energy that proved pivotal to the evolution of the French New Wave. Jean-Luc Godard also stood up for Montparnasse 19 (1958), the ill-fated Modigliani biopic that Becker inherited from the late Max Ophüls, which he claimed as a masterpiece about the terrors of filmmaking.

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