Casque d’or (1952) Jacques Becker

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.

****

Room as the Top (1959) Jack Clayton

    The late 1950’s and early 1960’s were a golden time for British Cinema. Films like “The Ladykillers,” “The Smallest Show on Earth,” “I’m Alright, Jack,” and “The Mouse That Roared” were all comic gems. However, it was in drama where they really excelled during this same period. “The Angry Young Men” series of films that started with a number of British writers such as John Osborne and Alan Sillitoe became famous. Osborne wrote the classic play and later a film “Look Back in Anger.” Richard Burton starred as the angry protagonist in the film version. Other films influenced by these writers became part of Britain New Wave and includes “This Sporting Life,” “A Taste of Honey,” “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” and “Room at the Top.”

    In “Room at the Top,” Laurence Harvey stars as Joe Lampton, a working class Brit who leaves his bleak hometown of Dufton to get a job as an accountant in the Treasurer’s office in the town of Warnley. Joe is ambitious and does not plan to stay at the bottom rung of the ladder for long. He also has eyes for attractive young women and soon spots Susan Brown (Heather Sears), the daughter of the town’s leading industrialist. Warned that she is way out of this working class boy’s sphere, Joe is not deterred and resents anyone who thinks he is not good enough. He begins seeing Susan but her parents send her abroad in an attempt to separate them and during this period.  Joe meets Alice (Simone Signoret), an older lonely woman who he begins an affair with and who teaches him the social graces he lacked. Alice falls in love with Joe, however, while Joe like Alice and enjoys sex with her he is not in love with her. When Susan returns, Joe starts to see her again and they eventually make love resulting in Susan’s pregnancy. Mr. Brown attempts to buy Joe off and send him on his way but Joe rejects the offer.  Brown then encourages Joe to marry his marry daughter as soon as possible also giving him a job in his office. There’s only one catch. He has to give up Alice and never see her again. Joe accepts this but he does want to tell Alice that he is marrying Susan.. Depressed and heartbroken at this news, Alice gets drunk and is killed in a car crash. Joe, guilt ridden, vanishes eventually meeting up with a young girl in a bar. Drunk, he tells the girl’s date to get lost. Later on, the date and a couple of his friends beat Joe up real bad. Joe, still blaming himself for Alice’s death marries Susan.

    The film is dominated by the performances of Simone Signoret and Laurence Harvey. Signoret is a sophisticated woman full of sexuality that comes across the screen like lightening. A fantastic actress who I believe is incapable of giving a bad performance. Laurence Harvey is as equally great in the role of Joe Hampton, the ambitious working class hero. Joe. Like many people from the lower class is hostile when pandered and provoked by sarcastic and cutting remarks from the upper class.

   This was only Jack Clayton’s third film as a director and he is masterful. Just watch the final scene in car as the newly married couple drive off. 

  At the time of its release, the sexual content of this film was considered very daring. Premarital sex, out of wedlock pregnancy, daring bed scenes was trying for the censors of the period. The film was a critical and commercial success. Simone Signoret won the Academy Award for Best Actress; Laurence Harvey was nominated for Best Actor. The film was nominated for Best Picture and Director Jack Clayton was nominated.

Army of Shadows (1969) Jean-Pierre Melville

“Army of Shadows” is Jean Pierre Melville’s late career masterpiece. Released in 1969, the film never made it to the U.S. until 2006, some 37 years later!  At the time, Melville’s films were out of touch with the then popular French New Wave of Godard, Truffaut and company.  Now available on DVD, via Criterion, this is a must see for film lovers. Based on a book by Joseph Kessel, who also wrote the novel that was the basis for Luis Bunnel’s classic Belle de Jour.

      The film details the story of a group of French Resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation of France. This is not the usual romanticized version of daring resistance fighters gloriously facing the German occupiers. Nor is it an action war film. It is a fatalistic, devastatingly dark look at the difficult choices made by this small group of individuals in order to survive. Posing as plain citizens, they spy on the Germans and report back information gathered to the Allies.  The film was not popular with the French at the time since it portrayed some of the French as complacent or complicit in siding with the Germans.

       The film opens with what must have been a chilling scene to the French; the German Nazi Army marching down the Champs-Elysees.  The film goes on to detail a few months in the life of a small unit of French Resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation of France. The unit is lead by Gerbier, portrayed by Lino Ventura, as a brooding, single-minded and dedicated figure. Also, part of the group, are Jean Francois (Jean Pierre Cassel), Claude (Claude Mann) and Mathilde (Simone Signoret).

       Melville does not portray these people as heroic, refusing to show or give any empathy for what they do. They live in fear and feel ineffective. One of the more unsettling scenes shows the resistance fighters in an abandon house as they prepare to kill a terrified young traitor. These men are not professional killers; it’s the first time any of them have been in a position where they have to kill someone. They’re hesitant, unsure of what is the best way to proceed before deciding to strangle him. The scene is disturbing grabbing you and refusing to let go. In another tense scene the terrific Simone Signoret, disguised as a German nurse, along with two fellow resisters enters a German prison in an attempt to free one of their comrades who has been badly tortured. The man has been so badly beaten, they are told,  it is impossible for them to transport him. Without any argument Signoret accepts what is said and they leave. To do otherwise would invite suspicion.  These scenes contain no action, no music but are gripping and as tense as anything you will see.  The film is filled with strong powerful scenes like this including a shocking ending that demonstrates the disturbingly grim difficult decisions that have to be made in war.

      Melville’s use of muted colors dominate the entire film contributing to the unsettling, chilly and foreboding atmosphere.  There are great performances by Lino Ventura, Jean Pierre Cassel and most magnificently by Simone Signoret.