Jacques Becker (1906–1960), for those of you into kismet or astrology, was born on Jean Renoir’s 12th birthday, and their lives and careers were intertwined. They had met as youths through familial connections with Paul Cézanne, the Impressionist contemporary of Renoir’s father. Becker appeared in Jean’s silent Le Bled (1929) and assisted him (and played occasional roles) throughout Renoir’s great period in the 1930s. He was apparently meticulous—too much so for the producer of Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1935), which was originally intended as a directorial vehicle for Becker but wound up being another Renoir masterpiece. Becker’s big break didn’t really come until the Occupation (and after he spent time as a German POW), following Renoir’s departure for America. Dudley Andrew, the noted scholar of French cinema, finds Becker and his films hard to define, lacking perhaps the thematic or stylistic consistency of Renoir, Robert Bresson, Francois Truffaut, or Jean-Luc Godard. Becker wrote, “Only the characters, who become my characters, obsess me to the point where I can’t stop thinking about them…. This is my somewhat entomological side: whatever happens in France, I am French, I make films about French people, I look at French people, I am interested in French people.” Renoir, of course, remained in California, and his films after his work with Becker took on a kind of universality, but the two men remained emotionally close until to the end of Becker’s abridged life despite being a continent and an ocean apart.
Casque d’or, from its opening shot, has echoes of the Renoir/Becker-assisted A Day in the Country (1936), and its depiction of a criminal gang, replete with a climax on the guillotine, is the underside of Renoir’s Belle Epoque vision depicted in French Cancan (which we showed last fall). Andrew pegged Becker’s vision as “grim romanticism.” Becker, indeed, did focus on his characters, both the lovers (Simone Signoret and Serge Reggiani) and what one critic called “a vivid gallery of…individually depicted” friends and associates. Signoret and Reggiani were already on their way to several more decades of international stardom, although neither fit the stereotypical role of strikingly glamorous movie stars.
Two years later, Becker modernized his portrait of gangsterdom in Touchez pas au Grisbi, using Jean Gabin, playing off Gabin’s role as a father figure in French Cancan—in this case, to young gangsters and prostitutes. Like Paul Muni in Howard Hawks’s Scarface (1932), Gabin is always immaculately dressed, even when he’s smacking people around or using a machine gun. (Becker was well familiar with Gabin, having worked with him on the Renoir classics of 1930s). Gabin’s role also draws on Claude Dauphin’s in Casque d’or, as the leader of the gangsters. Like Casque d’or, the film is shot mostly in the shadowy black-and-white streets and bistros of Paris. Thus, it presages the French New Wave and, appropriately, it offers an extremely young Jeanne Moreau, with whom Renoir finally caught up for his final film. The long climactic shootout in Grisbi, shot on deserted country roads, looks like it could be from Renoir’s (Becker-assisted) Simenon adaptation of a generation earlier, La Nuit du carrefour, although it might equally be suggested that Gabin provided something of a role model for Jean-Paul Belmondo’s morosely independent gangster in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless (1960).
Sadly, Becker never lived to see Godard’s feature debut, dying early in 1960, his last years marked by tragedy and disappointment. After Grisbi, he made relatively mediocre versions of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (with the comedian Fernandel) and The Adventures of Arsene Lupin. Then, after the even-more-tragic death of the great Max Ophuls, he completed the master’s Montparnasse 19. That film recounted the even-younger death of Modigliani, played by Gerard Philipe (who, eerily, was in the process of dying of the same disease and at the same age  as the painter). Finally, Becker was barely able to complete his intense prison drama, Le Trou (The Night Watch), before he, too, died.