Cast & Crew
When a gangster's moll falls for a reformed criminal, their passion incites an underworld rivalry that leads inexorably to treachery and tragedy.
Becker had been working his way up through the French film industry by the time he started directing shorts in the mid-1930s, including experience as an assistant to Jean Renoir. His modern, sometimes jagged style was a contrast to many of his postwar peers, finding favor after his passing with the French New Wave filmmakers who were rebelling against other directors like Henri-Georges Clouzot. "One can see why Becker was a hero for the New Wave directors," noted the Pacific Film Archive in its notes for a retrospective spotlighting this film. "It anticipates Shoot the Piano Player (1960) by a decade. With a fluidity that almost defies narrative plotting, Becker unfolds a tale of love doomed by its setting, the Paris demimonde at the turn of the century."
The title of Casque d'Or literally means "Helmet of Gold," a nickname given to Signoret's character, Marie. She's paired up here with Serge Reggiani, her memorable costar in their segment of Max Ophüls' classic anthology La Ronde (1950), for a tragic story of love in turn-of-the-century Paris based on a real-life crime in 1901 - by a woman also nicknamed "Casque d'or," Amélie Hélie. Signoret's performance is among her best, earning a British Film Academy award for her portrayal of a woman whose life is tied to the underworld while her heart yearns to break free.
The film was given a notable subtitled release in America from DisCina International, who also handled such prestige titles as Orpheus (1950) and Topaze (1951). In both England and the U.S., distributors tried to come up with a more Anglo-friendly title with various engagements under such titles as The Girl with the Golden Hair, Golden Helmet, Golden Marie, and Casque d'Or, the Story of a Blonde. However, it's the simple original moniker that's remained with it over the years, and it's hard now to imagine calling it anything else.
Ironically this film wasn't terribly well received when it first opened in France, but since then its reappraisal at home and its classic status in many other countries has been a major force in establishing Becker's name among the pantheon of great French filmmakers. In one tantalizing case of a cinematic "could have been," it even inspired writer Caroline Thompson to sign up to write a remake of the film in 2001 for Fox Searchlight, to be made back to back with Perfume: the Story of a Murderer for Ridley Scott and the biopic Johnny Eck, intended to star Leonardo DiCaprio. None of those saw the light of day (Perfume was later made by Tom Tykwer in 2006 far away from Fox), but one can only wonder how Becker's own view of Paris fifty years removed might have translated a full century away in another country altogether.
By Nathaniel Thompson
Jacques Becker's Casque D'Or on DVD
In the US, the French director Jacques Becker (1906-1960) never gained the recognition of his contemporaries Henri-Georges Clouzot or Marcel Carne, but his films display a finely honed sensibility that plays well to contemporary tastes. His masterpiece is undoubtedly Casque d'or (1952), a completely realized vision on all levels. Based on a real-life incident, the film works as a study of the manners and mores of the Parisian underworld during the Belle Epoque, as a tragic love story, and as a tale of friendship and loyalty. Thanks to sumptuous production design and cinematography, the film often recalls a Renoir painting or a Toulouse-Lautrec poster, though not in the usual sense of static, "painterly" images. On the contrary, Becker frequently likes to use camera movements and rapid cutting within scenes for dramatic emphasis. Everyone speaks in an amusing Parisian argot which adds to the sense that we're seeing not just another costume spectacle, but rather a privileged view into the past. The story flows so beautifully and there are so many details to admire that Becker's film never wears out its welcome, even after repeat viewings.
Although Casque d'Or was not a success during its initial release in France, it was received warmly in England and the US when it was released shortly thereafter under the title Golden Marie. It did, however, cement Simone Signoret's image as a star. Signoret subsequently gave many great performances - in Clouzot's Diabolique and Jack Clayton's A Room at the Top - but this is really her signature role. Unforgettable images of her in the film include when she sits on Leca's desk and eats a slice of cheese off his pocketknife with saucy insolence, her loving gaze over Manda while he sleeps by the riverbank, and her trudge up the stairs to witness Manda's pending execution, which seems to have aged her ten years overnight. While Signoret dominates the film as Marie, the other actors are also superb. Reggiani, who can elsewhere be seen as the prince's hunting companion in Visconti's The Leopard, brings an appealing frankness and dignity to the character of Manda. Claude Dauphin clearly relishes his turn as the vain and treacherous Leca, and the popular character actor Raymond Bussieres is likewise memorable as Manda's friend Raymond. There are too many other supporting roles to list here, but they all leave vivid impressions. Indeed, one of Becker's hallmarks as a director is his generosity towards even minor characters, how he gives them at least one moment in the film where they can express something significant about themselves.
I would venture to say that this is among the most beautifully photographed black-and-white French films I have seen. Criterion's new high-definition transfer is appropriately luminous, with a rich range of tones and sharply rendered detail. The disc includes the French soundtrack in clearly recorded mono, as well as the English-language version. Signoret, Reggiani and Dauphin all spoke English so their own voices were used on the English-language dub, but on that version much of the film's magic is lost because their line delivery is not nearly as sharp and confident as it is in French. Still, the dub was worth including as a curiosity.
Special features on the disc include: an audio commentary track by Peter Cowie, who speaks engagingly (as usual) about Becker as a director and the period in which the film is set; video interviews with Serge Reggiani and Simone Signoret; an episode from the French television series Cineastes de notre temps devoted to Becker; behind-the-scenes footage of the film in production; and a fine essay by Philip Kemp in the liner notes. Criterion's DVD edition of Casque d'Or is, simply put, indispensable.
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by James Steffen
Jacques Becker's Casque D'Or on DVD
Released in United States 1952
Released in United States 1952