Casque d'Or - Criterion Collection (1952) (Version française)
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Jacques Becker lovingly evokes the Belle Èpoque Parisian demimonde in this classic tale of doomed romance. When gangster's moll Marie (Simone Signoret) falls for reformed criminal Manda (Serge Reggiani) their passion incites an underworld rivalry that leads inexorably to treachery and tragedy. With poignant, nuanced performances and sensuous black-and-white photography, Casque d'or is Becker at the height of his cinematic powersan achingly romantic masterpiece.
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Top Customer Reviews
underworld at the turn of the 20th century.
The complex, layered relationships, and subtle manipulations and
interplay between the characters show the hallmark of all Jacques
Becker's work, an interest in the subtle details of human behavior and
emotion, instead of grand, sweeping, complex plots.
Both romantic and cynical, and filmed without any attempt to create a
cliché 'period' look, this brings an air of reality and immediacy to a
story that in other hands seem familiar, maudlin, or trite.
The Criterion is an excellent transfer, and can usually be
had used here or on Amazon US
for a reasonable price. I might look to that first.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The moment of falling in love can be overwhelmingly passionate, as the affected could drift into oblivion with muffled thought and reasoning. This kind of love could be damaging to the person, even painful to those near and dear. Casque d'Or opens with such a spellbinding moment where the two main characters, Marie and Manda, gaze at one another unaware of their future predicaments. The title, Casque d'Or, refers to Marie (Simone Signoret) golden hair, which serves a symbolic meaning through the hypnotic effects it appears to have on men. Manda (Serge Reggiani) seems to be under its spell, as he passionately stares at Marie.
The carpenter Georges Manda's luck, or maybe more rightfully misfortune, began when he accidentally bumped into his old jail friend, Raymond. Through Raymond's acquaintances and criminal friends he meets Marie (Simone Signoret) who currently is together with Roland (William Sabatier). Bad omens surround the initial meeting between Marie and Manda, as Marie's jealous boyfriend is ready to turn to violence in order to end to Marie's infatuation.
Roland's boss, Felix Leca (Claude Dauphin), shows his interest in the love quarrel, as he openly expresses his concern for Roland, but internally has an alternative motive to why he wants to help Roland. Felix displays his own interest to Marie and requests that she respond to him later that evening after having thought about it. In the evening Manda appears to express his love for Marie while Roland's jealousy flares out as he suggests that they should go outside to solve their mutual problem. Felix lurks in the social shadow as the two men go out in the backyard to fight for Marie, and he appears the instant before the fight in order to put his dubious plans into action.
In the 1950's most films coming out of Hollywood were heavily influenced by guidelines of what was morally acceptable to depict. This is much due to the harm that the Catholic Legion of Decency accomplished in the 1930s, as the religious organization began to influence the creative process of filmmaking through their moral stipulations. Casque d'Or does not show these stipulations as the story dwells on the nitty-gritty of a love affair amidst criminal elements in Paris. Jacques Becker's story does not glorify or bottle up the darkness in human nature. He simply illustrates the actions of a group of characters in a specific social environment during the turn of the century. It does not turn into a period film, which he also tried to avoid. Instead Becker depicts a doomed couple hoping for a better time and place, as they are aware of their difficult situation.
In a historical perspective Casque d'Or is a masterpiece. François Truffaut and other directors thought it had a tremendous effect on the French New Wave some years later. This is amusing to ponder, as the film was at first received with very little praise in France while the Brits thought it was one of the best films of the year. Today an audience can still rejoice in the triumph that the film offers to its viewers from the beginning to the end, as the end offers something much darker than expected.
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.
What first appears to be a turn-of-the-century tale about gangsters and their women turns seamlessly and with foreboding into a hopeless and emotional love story. When we last see Marie I started to choke up. Does Casque d'Or, the story of Marie and Jo, reach the level of tragedy? Probably not, but it will do.
The Criterion DVD of Casque d'Or looks just fine. Among the extras is a commentary track that I didn't listen to and two interesting, short filmed interviews, the first with Signoret recorded in 1963 and the second with Reggiani recorded in 1995.
Jacques Becker, the director, didn't make many movies. He was 54 when he died. Criterion has released two. Both are excellent. Le Trou - Criterion Collection is a tough, nerve-wracking and ironic tale of several prisoners who attempt to dig their way to freedom. Touchez Pas au Grisbi - Criterion Collection is a gangster film, but even more a view of what middle age will do to us, even gangsters. You won't know whether to smile or just shake your head when Jean Gabin has to reach for his glasses to read a phone number.
It also is somehow pleasantly satisfying to recall Signoret and Reggiani four years earlier in the opening and closing sequences of La Ronde, she the prostitute who loses her heart and he the soldier who quickly forgets her.
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