“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 America in 1940, Becker remained behind, having been called up at the outbreak of the war. Taken prisoner in 1940, he spent a year or so in a German detention camp in Pomerania before being repatriated for health reasons after successfully faking an epileptic fit. Under the Occupation he made his first feature, the highly entertaining parodic crime film Dernier atout (1942), and went on to the more substantial Goupi mains rouges (1943), a crime story, set deep in a rural backwater teeming with mania and suspicion, that already shows him in full mastery of his art. His approach from the start involved multiple takes and complex continuity editing, experimenting with variant possibilities to be resolved in the cutting room, and he would work on all but one of his films with Marguerite Renoir—Renoir’s editor as well as his companion for most of the 1930s (she took his name although they were unmarried).
She would speak later of the demands of Becker’s way of working, stitching together bits of one take, bits of another, finding places to splice in incidental details he had captured, and creating fluid scenes out of the multitude of shots.3 Brigitte Auber, one of the stars of Rendez-vous de juillet (1949), described watching Becker and Renoir at work:
Marguerite Renoir…was on the set often: he wanted her to feel the rhythm of the acting and the music, to be aware of the energy breathed into each scene. During the shooting the two of them worked as one, discussing the editing to come while the filming was still in progress. I was able to see them at work in the cutting room…. Our scenes were cut into little pieces and they did what they wanted with them.4
That subtle work of breaking scenes into fragments and establishing a new emotional continuity out of them underlies the rich texture he imparted even to seemingly simple situations, the sense that as in life many things are happening at once, as each person on screen moves along a separate trajectory of feeling.
After the war Becker was recognized as an important emerging director, with Falbalas (1945), an obsessive melodrama making full use of what he knew about the world of fashion, Antoine et Antoinette (1947), a romantic comedy about a working-class couple, Rendez-vous de juillet, a collective portrait of postwar youth seeking careers in jazz or theater or ethnology, and Édouard et Caroline (1951), another couple movie, this time engaging, or more precisely colliding, with the moneyed class. That Becker was perceived as a generational voice chronicling contemporary mores may account for the initially tepid reception of his unsurpassed masterpiece, the radiant tragedy Casque d’or (1952), with its evocation of the Parisian underworld of the turn of the century; its follow-up, Rue de l’Estrapade (1953), was seen mostly as a paler variation on his earlier comedies. When his social analyses seemed ambiguous in their class consciousness or his realism was tempered by a clear affection for popular genres, he came in for some criticism. In the ideological minefield of postwar France, Becker, despite earlier ties to the left and to the wartime Resistance, betrayed a reluctance to be neatly situated on the political spectrum. Nonetheless, with the success of Grisbi, his stature in French cinema seemed incontestable.
Yet within a few years Becker’s reputation was considerably diminished. In the pages of Cahiers, in a 1957 roundtable discussion on French filmmaking, Jacques Rivette dismissed him as an academic and a sell-out.5 His projects after Grisbi—the Fernandel vehicle Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (1954), a lavish Arabian Nights escapade filmed in Morocco, and The Adventures of Arsène Lupin (1957), a loose adaptation of Maurice Leblanc’s Belle Époque tales of the gentleman thief—were approved grudgingly, if at all, by earlier admirers. Truffaut suggested that Arsène Lupin could hardly be seen as important in the light of Max Ophüls’s Lola Montès, Bresson’s A Man Escaped, and Alain Resnais’s Night and Fog: “Arsène Lupin is an agreeable film with which you can pass an agreeable evening, but the question that imposes itself is what there is beyond this agreeableness.”
Montparnasse 19 (1958; also known as Les amants de Montparnasse), a heavily fictionalized biopic with Gérard Philipe as Modigliani, was not a success, although it elicited characteristically paradoxical praise from Jean-Luc Godard (“Everything rings true in this totally false film…. He who leaps into the void owes nothing to those who watch”). It is a death-haunted film—the project had been planned for Ophüls, whom Becker replaced after his sudden death, and Philipe did not live to see the opening—and its single-minded attention to the artist’s brutal decline and squalid passing sounds a uniquely despairing note in Becker’s work, complete with its dispiriting final image of Modigliani’s best-known works being looted by an unscrupulous art dealer, incisively played by Lino Ventura.
Becker himself was by then already ill. He died of lung cancer just after completing the last of his thirteen features, Le trou (1960), the account of a failed escape attempt from La Santé prison in 1947, based on the novel by José Giovanni, who was a participant in it. (Giovanni, the film’s co-scenarist and technical adviser, was an influential figure in French crime fiction and cinema who served a long prison term and was for a time under sentence of death; he remains the object of many questions regarding his criminal past and activities during the Occupation.) Le trou was immediately recognized as an extraordinary accomplishment. Many thought it was Becker’s best film, and previous qualifications gave way to acknowledgments of its incontestable power, with Jean-Pierre Melville’s probably the most effusive: “How many pages would be needed to enumerate the marvels of this masterpiece, of this film that I consider—and I weigh my words carefully—the greatest French film of all time.”6
Yet despite Le trou, and despite Touchez pas au grisbi, and despite Casque d’or, Becker somehow slipped away, especially outside of France, where his identity as an artist had never been firmly defined in the first place. Look him up in the books and he figures as a talent only partially realized, a director serious and superbly gifted but obscurely disappointing, not conveniently categorizable, a disciple of Renoir who could never equal his master, dangerously tempted by commercialism, his career diminished by unworthy projects and cut off too soon. For the British film historian Roy Armes, “he lacked the genuine creative impulse,”7 while for David Thomson “he never properly discovered either a style or a subject matter in which he could immerse himself…more often exploring and searching than actually discovering truths.”8
In the Anglo-American world, at least, most of his films were simply unavailable for viewing. Le trou did not open in New York until four years after its original release, under the title The Night Watch. Although Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it “a ‘big house’ cliff-hanger that throbs with excitement and suspense,” I do not recall that it made a very marked impression in a season when New York screens were featuring Dr. Strangelove, The Pink Panther, Seven Days in May, Becket, and Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. I do remember that at the time, and knowing Becker only as a name, The Night Watch affected me like nothing I had watched before, and that for years I was haunted by the memory of a film that had become very hard to see.
When I finally managed to catch up with it again, it was with renewed astonishment. It was indeed like nothing else: so formally perfect as to seem abstract, and at the same time—with the unexaggerated demeanor of its nonprofessional cast and the oppressiveness of actual prison locations—real enough to break down the separation between spectator and screen with the same force as the convict Roland striking a metal bar against a concrete wall. In long scenes with little or no dialogue, we share what feels like an archaic level of human activity. Even after the end it is impossible to separate yourself from this cell and the company of these prisoners, whose eyes you have been looking into and whose breaths you have shared. Becker was aware that he was dying while making it; he barely survived the completion of the editing. A sustained urgency informs every moment.
My search for a reunion with Le trou became a search for the rest of Becker’s films, an ambition only partly realized through decades of scattered screenings. It was thus gratifying that New York’s Film Forum, after closing for several months to renovate and expand its screening facilities, chose to reopen this past August with a complete Becker retrospective, with the further advantage that many of the films were given a number of repeat screenings. I can only envy those who, coming to Becker for the first time, were able to experience them in this generous fashion.
The splendors of Le trou and Casque d’or and Touchez pas au grisbi were confirmed without relegating the rest of the work to minor status. Two underseen films in particular were revelations. Édouard et Caroline makes a great deal out of very little, restricting itself to two apartments and a single night, and hinging its highest drama on a lost waistcoat and a difference of opinion about a dress. It reaches comic peaks worthy of My Man Godfrey or The Palm Beach Story, while remaining anchored to a sense of the real, starting with the material reality of the cramped apartment where Édouard and Caroline live. The limitations of the space they inhabit, crowded with all the objects stuffed into it—piano, books, radio, artworks—make the setting itself a character, or rather an extension of their uneasily harmonized characters. The way they move through the apartment, navigating its narrow pathways and getting around its obstacles, says more than dialogue could.
An even rarer event was the screening of Arsène Lupin. Some of the initial resistance to it appears to have been in reaction to Becker’s interpretation of the Maurice Leblanc hero, a mythological figure for generations of young French readers. Becker moderates the darker associations of Lupin’s persona, in a film that reconstructs the Belle Époque with a delicate, candy-colored palette. As one episode of disguise and larceny flows into another, a pure pleasure is distilled from the methodical demonstration of technique, Lupin’s and Becker’s alike. Period films of this sort almost always err on the side of exaggerated comedy; Arsène Lupin is genuinely witty while carefully playing everything straight. In the process, and in the most undemonstrative way, it extracts the sense of a lost paradise of impossible freedom—the freedom of the master thief who eludes all restraints—restored at last.
Becker has sometimes been accused (as by David Thomson) of not having an identifiable central theme or subject. Yet to take in all his films at Film Forum was to appreciate the full resonance of Truffaut’s remark that “every one of Jacques Becker’s films is a Jacques Becker film”—along with his later observation that the reception of Becker’s movies had suffered because of his deliberate avoidance of the sensational. Seen together, they release a powerful sense of intimacy, of personal presence. They were not made to dominate an audience with an aggressive spectacle but to provide points of entry into fully observed, thoroughly meditated worlds. In each of these films the absolute engagement with every gesture, every glance, every bit of physical action is palpable. Even Ali Baba, which Becker deprecated because he contributed nothing to the screenplay, turns out to be a fascinating and contradictory brew, mixing the observed realities of the Moroccan setting, the eye-popping artificialities of design and color, and the comic invention of Fernandel’s best scenes.
In the course of his career Becker sometimes generalized about his work to interviewers, saying that he was interested in “French stories in a French atmosphere” or that he wanted to show that “life is stronger than everything else,” but however fuzzy such statements, there is nothing fuzzy about the films. More to the point, he affirmed in L’écran français in 1947 that “the author of a film deserves that title only if he is its complete author.” Becker’s craftsmanship was obsessive—from the drafting of the screenplay through all stages of post-production—but that craftsmanship served to convey the subtlest and most elusive moments of awareness. The qualities of emotional frankness and rhythmic invention that he admired in jazz were the qualities that inform his filmmaking.
Details are all: Anne Vernon in Édouard et Caroline turning on the radio when she finds herself alone for a moment and dancing unselfconsciously to her favorite tune; or a piano tuner striking dissonant notes at the lottery office where Roger Pigaut has gone to make a plea about his lost ticket in Antoine et Antoinette; or children carrying on a noisy ping pong tournament in Falbalas while an alienated couple avoids conversation; or Serge Reggiani in Casque d’or unobtrusively putting out a cigarette in his hand as he enters a church; or in Grisbi the repast of wine and pâté on crackers served by Jean Gabin in his secret hideaway. The details don’t punctuate the storyline; it’s more as if the storyline punctuates the details. The details provide the evidence of feeling that makes the story consequential.
At times, the storyline is scarcely there, or is at best an occasion for observing the people caught up in it. We learn about them not by being told about their past but by watching them respond to events. In Antoine et Antoinette, the complicated anecdote of the lost lottery ticket comes into play only when the film is already well along, as if to acknowledge that, after all, there needs to be some sort of plot. By then we are familiar with the bookbindery where he works and the department store where she works, and gotten a glimpse of working conditions in both places; have met their friends and neighbors; and have taken in the oppressive limits of the space they inhabit and the budget they live on, all without any laborious exposition.
In Édouard et Caroline, the title couple have spent what seems like a third of the film preparing for their big evening out before we grasp precisely what they’re preparing for. When it finally gets underway—a soirée at her rich uncle’s mansion where the unappreciated pianist Édouard will be given a chance to play for an audience of bored aristocrats—it’s like being transported to a zone where time has been suspended. The ensuing party is a hilariously vacuous orgy of hypocritical politeness that could go on forever, something like a lighter dress rehearsal for The Exterminating Angel. Rendez-vous de juillet does little more than track the intersecting activities of its young characters as they try to figure out where their lives are headed; the story is that they haven’t figured out the story yet. In the meantime they go to jazz clubs and loft parties, where private storylines can be submerged in music and dance.
Romantic comedies tend to pay attention to first meetings, but with Becker we never find out how Antoine and Antoinette, or Édouard and Caroline, or Rue de l’Estrapade’s Henri and Françoise got together in the first place, and we leave them with no clear sense of how things will go for them in the long run. We simply participate in how they manage to sustain their relationships amid a perpetual instability that may derail things at any moment—whether from Antoine’s simmering rage about a lecherous neighbor, Édouard’s touchiness about Caroline’s affluent family, or Françoise’s sudden discovery of her husband’s infidelity. The equilibrium of the couples teeters from moment to moment, with never a resolution but for the provisional happiness of a recovered balance. If Becker places such high value on loyalty, it’s because it is almost never to be counted on.
He excelled in showing social rituals, always attentive to their fault lines and to the pockets of isolation within them. The supreme example of this is the long opening sequence of Casque d’or, where the interplay at a riverside tavern is choreographed in its minutest aspects, charting multiple lines of attraction, camaraderie, jealousy, and lethal combativeness while retaining the pictorial harmonies of, say, Auguste Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette. Becker’s concern for character extends not only to minor roles, but to extras. People in a crowd stand out not by unusual appearance or personal tics but by their responsiveness, or manifest lack of responsiveness. Whether it’s the seamstresses in Falbalas or the young partygoers in Rendez-vous de juillet or the gangsters in backroom conclaves in Grisbi, rapid eye movements can take the place of words. Multiple fleeting reactions acquire bracing force: everybody is having a look, and at the same time everybody is having a look at them. In Les amants de Montparnasse, when Gérard Philipe as Modigliani is asked how he can possibly paint surrounded by the students in a classroom at the Academy, he replies in what might sum up Becker’s aesthetic: “Everybody is always surrounded by everybody.”
With some filmmakers you come away with indelibly composed images, or moments of supreme tension or release, or an overwhelming sense of encroaching or radiant patterns, and Becker was certainly capable of all those effects. Yet the final impression after spending several weeks watching these films was of having associated with a remarkable variety of people—whether at a wedding party, in a workplace, in an after-hours café, or in a prison cell—and having gotten a very precise sense of both how they act within a group and what they are like in moments of pure aloneness, as they steal a glance at a mirror or pause in bewilderment on a staircase or, perhaps, meditate a betrayal, whether their own or someone else’s. Their voices and faces remain present.
The warmth of that impression has nothing to do with sentimentality. Becker was if anything a pessimist when it came to the limits of human empathy. He did, however, stay faithful to the longing for a freedom never to be quite realized—an escape from the limitations he so precisely mapped. Toward the end of Le trou two of the prisoners break through a final barrier and, lifting a manhole cover, find themselves peering out at a Paris street, just before dawn, just outside the prison walls. In the end they will only have that glimpse and nothing more. The joy of it—the care with which the moment was made visible—feels like Becker’s testament.
See François Truffaut, “The Rogues Are Weary,” Cahiers du Cinéma 34 (April 1954); reprinted in Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s: Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave, edited by Jim Hillier (Harvard University Press, 1985). ↩
Quoted in Valérie Vignaux, Jacques Becker, ou l’exercice de la liberté (Paris: Céfal, 2000). ↩
On the French television program Cinéastes de notre temps; her interview can be found as a supplement to the Criterion Collection’s edition of Casque d’or. ↩
Brigitte Auber, “Rendez-vous avec Becker,” Positif 608 (October 2011). ↩
André Bazin et al., “Six Characters in Search of auteurs,” Cahiers du Cinéma 71 (May 1957); in Hillier, Cahiers du Cinéma: The 1950s. ↩
Cahiers du Cinéma 107 (May 1960). ↩
Roy Armes, French Cinema Since 1946 (London: Zwemmer, 1966). ↩
David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film (Knopf, 2004). ↩