jacques becker's GOUPI MAINS ROUGES
This on-going series takes a look at some of the most obscure works by cinema's acknowledged geniuses, the films that even fanatics have over-looked. For instance: if you love Luis Buñuel, you've seen The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, you've probably even seen Las Hurdes – but have you seen The River and Death? Focusing on films not readily available on VHS or DVD with English-language subtitles, it's an attempt to dig deep into the filmographies of cinema's greats and explore the rarest of rarities.
the genius: Jacques Becker
Le Trou, Touchez Pas au Grisbi and Casque D'Or: Jacques Becker's best-known films belong to the tradition of French thrillers that includes the work of Jean-Pierre Melville (Le Samourai) and Henri-Georges Clouzot (The Wages of Fear); they're characterized by a world-weary tone punctuated by nasty violence - crime and reticence orchestrated with stylistic elegance. All three filmmakers (and we can also throw in American ex-pat Jules Dassin who assimilated the style in French productions like Rififi) created slow-burning character studies disguised as pulpy tough guy crime flicks; it wouldn't be unreasonable to describe their films as philosophical and detached, save for the fact that when the trouble finally comes it's hard-edged, brutal and emotionally complex. Eschewing the melodrama and hard-boiled verbosity coursing through contemporaneous American crime films, these French thrillers feature long stretches of silence and a contemplation of tragedy that exists on a spectrum ranging from "smiling cynicism" to "ice cold."
While probably the most world-weary of the bunch, Becker's films are also, surprisingly, the most humanistic. If Melville's anti-heroes find their redemption in living by a strict code of behavior and Clouzot's scarcely find theirs at all, then what defines Becker's protagonists is the nobility they derive from their camaraderie. It might be fleeting or fatally misguided, but Becker's gangs find their best selves as brothers in arms. His characters are frequently unrepentant criminals, cads and repeat offenders: he has no use for the wrongfully accused or those tragically corrupted by society's injustices; more than that, he especially avoids the type of focused, Zen professionals in which Melville specialized. His best films feature characters for whom crime is a lifestyle, the lifestyle; men and women for whom going straight would leave crooked. Their highest quality is their ability to come together for a common purpose, to keep their word, to never snitch or rat, to pick up a gun and face down execution for their friends when the time comes.
His best known film and swan song, Le Trou (literally, The Hole), is the purest distillation of this theme: there's really nothing to the movie beyond the collective action of a group of criminals trying to dig their way out of prison. These men aren't innocent and the movie makes no effort to convince us they are deserving of their freedom; they're likable enough guys but there's no Andy Dufresne "the law is unfair" under-current to make us logically root for their escape. But when they come together with an improbable and grueling plan, they're impossible to resist – it's a character study where the characters reveal themselves (and win the audience over) exclusively through their roles in the execution of the escape. In that way, it's to the film's advantage that it's a classic men-on-a-mission movie: its relentless and effectively narrow focus strays little from digging tunnels and out-smarting guards, but that's the whole point.
Touchez Pas au Grisbi revolves around Jean Gabin's aging mobster, a notorious bad-ass edging slowly into his golden years – early in the film, he lies to his young burlesque dancer girlfriend about needing to leave a nightclub early so he can "go on a job;" he actually just wants to go home and sleep. The film mirrors Gabin's character: sleepy and hesitant, it suddenly jolts into extreme focus and clarity when the time comes. Gabin wants to pull off one final score and the idea goes predictably amiss: his best friend drags him into trouble, but he's obviously not going to cut ties. Their bedraggled friendship forms the core of the film; the story of two friends who have come this far with each other, it's certain that together they will face the inevitable. Their simple domestic interaction (they're like an old married couple) has a strangely powerful and fascinating quality despite being completely, pointedly mundane... but when the climatic showdown finally occurs, it's an unbelievable burst of machine guns, hand grenades and burning bodies.
Despite its fin-de-siècle France settings, Casque D'Or surprisingly ends up being significantly more gritty and raw than the pate-and-pajamas intensive Touchez Pas au Grisbi. Like the others films, the languid rhythms take precedence over plot machinations, the simple, shop-worn stories (a prison escape, a final score gone awry) mainly serve as a back-drop for quiet observation and an accumulation of small, insignificant details that eventually form a telling web. In this case, a Serge Reggiani makes the mistake of falling for a gangster's moll played by Simone Signoret. All three films wear a sensual fatalism on their sleeves, so it's no surprise when they wind their way to tragedy; but what makes them memorable is that the quiet incidental moments and the big brutal finishes are weighted equally. With Casque D'Or, an afternoon in a rural church means as much as fatal stabbing in a dingy alley; in Grisbi, putting on clean pajamas and brushing teeth in the safe house means as much a violent shootout on a dusty back-road; in Le Trou, joking in the jail cell means as much as a glimpse of freedom.
Becker directed only a handful of features, most of them receiving little note (especially in the U.S.) on their initial release. Time has been very kind to that genre of French thrillers and to Becker's three masterpieces in particular. They strike a balance between violence, cynicism, sensuality and "honor among thieves" that has aged very well – but other than an ok adaptation of Arsene Lupin and an ok Modigliani biopic, almost none of his dozen or so features have made any noise in the U.S. It's hard to imagine his version of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is any good – it's a bad match of material and director; he's never displayed any sense of spectacle or fantasy. He directed a couple of well-regarded romances earlier in his career, but they're not available on vhs or DVD with English-subtitles. Other than five or six films, Becker has a completely blank slate in the U.S.
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