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 Franco-noir masterpiece Touchez pas au grisbi. Criterion is making it impossible to lose interest in the cinematic riches of the past.
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 are inseparable.
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: