Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
An almost perfect movie, Casque d'or is a vehicle for French star
Simone Signoret, a tale of turn-of-the-century crime that doesn't fall
into any easy categories. Director Jacques Becker neither apes the style of his mentor Jean Renoir
nor that of conventional period films of any stripe. The hoods and Apaches and their tarts
represent nothing more then their fascinating selves, and for 100 minutes we're transported to
a different time and
place with its own sense of tempo and drama.
Criterion has soundly reawakened interest in the director Jacques Becker, who was just a name to
Savant before the fascinating film
Le trou came out on DVD. They've
finally followed it up with a pair of Becker's even more entertaining titles, this picture and the
Touchez pas au grisbi.
Criterion is making it impossible to lose interest in the cinematic riches of the past.
The end of the 19th century. Ex-convict and carpenter Georges Manda (Serge Reggiani) meets
his old cellmate Raymond (Raymond Bussières) by chance, and is introduced to the various dandies
and molls of the criminal gang of Felix Leca (Claude Dauphin). Manda is immediately attracted to
Marie (Simone Signoret), the present consort of dullard tough Roland (William Sabatier). Leca
has a strong interest in Marie as well and is delighted when the two men square off in a fight;
he even provides the knife. Marie and Manda think their path to happiness may be opening, but the
meddling Leca has other ideas, that include informing on his own men to get his way.
Casque d'or rolls forward at a leisurely pace but we're soon caught up in a peculiar kind of
underworld where the thugs dress up under orders from a boss who insists that they
wear hats and not caps. Yet they commit brutal killings; a waiter who simply calls the cops
when a deadly knife fight starts is found with his head bashed in. The group of
hoods are first seen rowing to a luncheon in the country and singing songs with their girls, and
only when some locals refer to them as tarts and knaves do we get the idea of their social position -
most of the reviews of the film identify Signoret's Marie character as a prostitute, but what we
see is a woman willing to change partners and deal with the rakes on their own level.
In Touchez pas au grisbi some normal civilians are cleverly ejected from a café that
caters to a
mob clientele; here in Casque d'or a group of swells crash one of the local dives in search
of cheap thrills and are treated to a police raid and the aftermath of some Apache violence. The
victim's body is seen through a window, as if we were peering in on the lost truth of a past age.
The film is nostalgic for the past but doesn't discrimate between the pleasant and the ugly.
Most Americans haven't seen Simone Signoret much before Room at the Top (1959) when she was already
playing women past their prime. She's radiant here, in period dress that doesn't try for a modern appeal.
Her pairing with the unlikely hero Serge Reggiani is better than successful, it's credible - we feel
the chemistry between them when they make eye contact. He's a lowly carpenter with a prison record but
an intact sense of pride. Although Marie doesn't know it yet, he's looking for something different than
the louses in Leca's gang.
At the end of the film's second act Manda and Marie have a carefree rest in the
country that might sum up the idylls represented in a hundred impressionist paintings. It's something
that American films couldn't touch - adults involved in a sexual relationship without shame or
wrongdoing by either party. There are some beautiful shallow-focus closeups of Signoret's warmly
loving face as they lay by a riverbank. The love and happiness they share are timeless.
The lovers are foiled not by some elaborate underworld plot but simple jealousy and envy. Racketeer
Leca wants Marie for his own and isn't above falsely accusing one man so another will be sent to
the guillotine. He uses the trusting camaraderie between Manda and his buddy Raymond (richly
played by Raymond Bussières) as a weapon against them. As in Becker's other crime films the
faithful pals never betray each other, yet the trap laid for them is too tricky to avoid. Leca
miscalculates as well, however, and finds out that Manda's desire for revenge is stronger than his
need for self preservation.
A plot rundown of Casque d'or reads like a miserable tragedy but its effect is
quite the opposite. Individuals may be defeated but the love and loyalty between them never is, and
although horrified, Marie can hold her head with pride. Among the Apaches, love and honor and death
Becker's supporting cast is impeccable. Claude Dauphin's faux-refinement is matched by a
suave calculation in his every move. His Leca supplies the knife that Marie uses to eat some cheese,
the same knife
that serves in the central fight to the death. He's a compulsive controller of violent props, like
the tell-tale personal effects that he purposely lets Raymond keep after the knife fight. Callous
betrayal is a given in all three of Becker's crime pictures, a crisis that the heroes may survive
but can never predict.
Criterion's DVD of Casque d'or once again presents a connoisseur-level movie in a form that
allows it to be enjoyed and appreciated as a great work of art. The transfer has a glowing B&W
sheen, especially in the sunny exterior scenes.
The secret again is in the prime-source key extras. Peter Cowie's excellent commentary (oh, to be
so articulate) walks us through the film on several critical levels and we also get interviews
with both of the stars and a segment on Jacques Becker from an old French television program.
Signoret's 1963 interview shows her to be an extremely sensitive and intelligent woman, and
Reggiani's 1995 interview gives us a thoughtful elderly actor we recognize by his huge, sad eyes. An
extra treat are some behind the scenes silent clips from the set of the film that show most of the
actors and the director setting up shots and rehearsing.
Philip Kemp provides a spot-on insert essay. The film comes in French but also has a dubbed English
soundtrack that Savant didn't sample. The American release title was Golden Marie; the original
French title means "Golden Helmet," in reference to Marie's blonde hair.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Casque d'or rates:
Supplements: Audio commentary by Peter Cowie, 1995 video interview with actor Serge
Reggiani, 1963 interview with actress Simone Signoret, Excerpt from an episode of the French
television series Cineastes de notre temps dedicated to Jacques Becker, silent
behind-the-scenes footage of Becker on the set with commentary by film scholar Philip Kemp.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 13, 2005
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2005 Glenn Erickson
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