Jacques Becker’s “Casque d’or” is a tale of a doomed romance between a criminal trying to go straight and a prostitute controlled by the underworld. The plot focuses on Georges Manda (Serge Regianni), an ex-con working as a carpenter who meets an old prison mate, Raymond (Raymond Bussieres) who introduces him to his gang and the beautiful Marie (Simone Signoret), a prostitute with a violent pimp boyfriend (Roland Dupius). Felix (Claude Dauphin), the gang’s boss has the two settle their “differences” with a knife fight in a back alley resulting in the pimp’s death. Later on when Georges finds out he has been framed by Felix, he escapes from the police and goes after Felix.
Becker recreates the turn of 20th century France with a beautifully delicate touch, filmed in a lush in black and white by cinematographer Robert Le Febvre. The opening scene with the underworld hoodlums and their women rowing down the river, fashionably well dressed seems right out of a Renoir impressionist painting. Then there is the superb camera placement along a cobblestone street when Georges and Danard are being taken to prison. The cafe scenes transport you back to an idyllic time and place, the morning after the lovers spend the night together evokes the work of the French photographer Brassai. Yet despite all of this the flip side of the coin is also a story of underworld characters, pimps and killers.
The emotions, the feelings are mainly expressed through the talented cast, indeed there is less dialogue in this film than most and unlike most films there is not one likable character, just some who you dislike less than others. Simone Signoret is exquisite as Marie known as casque d’or for her golden blonde hair. Outgoing, sexual, voluptuous and just magnificent in the role. But she is not alone, there are exceptional performances from Serge Regianni who is both tender and brutally violent as Georges and Claude Dauphin as Felix Leca, the gang leader and a former lover of Marie who still desires her. His is a measured performance filled with cruelty and deceit.
Based on a true life case, “Casque d’or” has an adult frankness to it that was missing in American films of the same period. The film was a financial flop in France at the time of its release though it has gained in reputation over the years and is now considered one of Becker’s best works.