“There are no theories in circulation about Jacques Becker,” François Truffaut wrote in Cahiers du Cinéma in the spring of 1954, “no scholarly analyses, no theses. Neither he nor his work encourages commentary, and so much the better for that.” Truffaut was reviewing Becker’s newest film, Touchez pas au grisbi, an adaptation of Albert Simonin’s novel of a heist gone bad. The film would enjoy great commercial success and launch the final phase of Jean Gabin’s career by casting him as a patriarchal gangster, but Truffaut was not concerned with that aspect of it. For him and many of his colleagues at Cahiers, Becker was one of a handful of French filmmakers—Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson, Jean Cocteau, and Jacques Tati were others—who could be taken as role models, as embodying a more personal approach than the self-consciously literary and often formulaic modes of the “tradition of quality” they disdained. Becker was not a purveyor of broadly telegraphed social messages or portentous psychologizing, and his films could not be mistaken for anyone else’s: “Every one of Jacques Becker’s films is a Jacques Becker film…. What happens to Becker’s characters is of less importance than the way it happens to them.”1
Becker had been a significant figure in French cinema since his early acquaintance with Renoir, who took a liking to the younger man—“he was twenty years old and had a natural elegance”—and relished their shared passion for films. Born in 1906 and raised in a bilingual household, the son of an industrialist who worked for the Fulmen battery company and an Irish-born fashion designer who maintained her own maison de couture in Paris, Becker had been a restlessly curious and playful adolescent and an indifferent student, an enthusiast of cinema and jazz bent on resisting his father’s efforts to dragoon him into the world of industrial engineering. Working for a time as a steward for a transatlantic steamship line, he got to know touring American musicians, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington among them, and met the director King Vidor, who offered him an acting job in Hollywood.
By the early 1930s Becker had formed a working relationship with Renoir that would continue throughout the decade, as he became an increasingly trusted assistant director, technical adviser (by virtue of his mechanical bent), and all-purpose consultant. He wrote and directed a portion of Renoir’s 1936 Communist-financed semi-documentary La vie est à nous and can be seen in bit roles in Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932) and La grande illusion (1937), films for which he served as a second-unit director. The friendship was intense, not always tranquil, and for Becker decisive: “Not even Jean Renoir knows how much his personality and his destiny have influenced mine.”2
When Renoir fled to…
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