"Casque D'Or," ("Golden Helmet," or "Golden Marie,") (1952), is a classic black and white French gangster film/crime drama/romance/costume drama, set in Paris at about the turn of the 20th Century, the 1890's "Belle Epoque." In springtime, at an Impressionistic, riverside, open-air dance hall, the members of Leca's gang are relaxing with their women. One of them, the cheerful prostitute Marie, aka "Casque d'Or" (Golden Helmet) meets Georges Manda, an ex-con trying to go straight as a carpenter. The pair instantly has eyes only for each other, an instance of what the French call a "coup de foudre," literally a thunderbolt of madness. But the man who keeps Marie, Roland is jealous, and the boss Leca himself has his eye on her, giving us a story of the glory of love, illicit romance, death, friendship and jealousy during the Belle Epoque. The movie was written and directed by Jacques Becker and it was not successful upon its initial French release. However, after it received critical acclaim in New York, and Simone Signoret's nomination for a BAFTA (the British equivalent of an Oscar) for her performance as Marie, it began to be recognized for the masterpiece it is. It has now been painstakingly restored by the Criterion Collection.
Becker came by his filmic Impressionism naturally, as he studied with the great French director Jean Renoir (Grand Illusion - Criterion Collection), son of the widely beloved Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. "Casque" successfully recreates the ambiance of Paris at the turn of the century: it is bathed in dazzling golden light that frequently reflects off Signoret's golden hair. The exquisite black and white photography was by Robert Lefevbre, who had poetic ways to get the shots M. Becker wanted. The atmospheric music of Georges Van Parys will remind the viewer of the paintings and places of that era. Location shooting was done at Annet-sur-Marne, Seine-et-Marne, and Belleville, France: the latter then a small country town near Paris, now absorbed into the greater city. Sources say that Becker had wanted to make a gangland picture for years, but couldn't raise the financing, until he signed La Signoret, then at the height of her beauty, power, and sensuality - also at the height of her affair with Yves Montand (The Wages Of Fear - (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]), then simply a cabaret singer. But the director now needed a major part for Signoret, and so based his plot on actual police records of the time. The straight-forward, linear plot has almost the neatness of a De Maupassant short story. Despite it's being a gangland tale, there's little onscreen violence in the film, nor onscreen sex - but some of Manda's and Marie's fully-clothed scenes in this moody romance could scorch film. And despite the corsets and horse-drawn cabs, the film has more in common with the bleak, fatalistic films being released at the time it was made than it does with conventional costume pictures.
Georges Manda ( Serge Reggiani, La Ronde) also a cabaret singer and then a close friend of both Montand's and Signoret's) has been released from prison where he served five years for an undisclosed crime. He's a soft-looking, taciturn man with a handlebar moustache, becomes a hard working carpenter, determined to go straight. But when Raymond (Raymond Bussieres), a fellow gang member with whom he served time in prison, introduces him to Marie, the life he was trying to build begins to crumple. Manda kills the jealous Roland (William Sabatier) in a knife fight. The gang boss Leca (Claude Dauphin--Le Plaisir), to the world a successful wine merchant, actually a cunning and Machiavellian outlaw, now sees his opportunity to get Manda out of the picture and take Marie for himself; but he fails to realize Manda will insist on doing the right thing.
The acting of the three stars is superb; although the laconic Manda speaks fewer than twenty lines in the film, we understand him perfectly. And Signoret gives us a strong, unashamed prostitute, wholly in love, but still mindful of who and what she is. Like Zola's "Nana," Marie is neither villain nor victim: she's an elemental force of nature, a femme fatale who will be responsible for the deaths of several men. (Mind you, this is a part frequently almost laughingly overplayed, but this star and director have not fallen into that trap.) Signoret is simply monumental, as one of Picasso's women. The action takes place over the course of only a few days, but in France that's apparently long enough - if passion runs high enough -- to change, or end a life. The intensity of the characters' emotions and the suddenness of their violence might tear another picture apart, but Becker, and his stars, tells their story with reserve.
An IMDB reviewer calling himself Melvelvit1, from the NYC suburbs, has done some stunning research and tells us:
"The bands of roughnecks of Belleville were also a passionate lot, not like the cynical pimps of Montmartre and La Chapelle. Here a man took out a knife for a girl he really cared for. In 1902 the story of 'Casque d'Or' made the headlines throughout Paris, both east and west. Two enemy bands of Apaches Mohicans de Paris - sporting their customary insignia of caps, bell-bottom trousers and polka-dotted scarves, had taken to the streets that lay between Belleville and Charonne: 'Le Popincourt' headed by the Corsican Leca, 'Les Orteaux' by Manda, l'Homme! The object of their dispute was not territory but a girl called Amélie Hélie, nicknamed 'Casque d'Or', with a stunning, golden-reddish mane. The confrontation turned into a fullscale pitched battle on Rue des Haies, in which neither knife blades nor guns were spared. To the inquisitive public prosecutor Manda retorted during his trial: 'We fought each other, the Corsican and myself, because we love the same girl. We are crazy about her. Don't you know what it is to love a girl?'"
Jacques Becker must be considered both a luminous artist and a director. His legacy is a trilogy of masterpieces: "Casque d'Or", Touchez Pas au Grisbi - Criterion Collection, Le Trou - Criterion Collection. Signoret, who was later often typecast as a femme fatale, won the Best Actress in a Leading Role for Room at the Top, (1959), and was also Oscar-nominated for Best Actress for Ship of Fools (1965.) You've got star and director at the top of their games here: it's a must-see.