The Criterion Collection presents
Casque d'or (1952)
"Don't try to figure women out."- Felix Leca (Claude Dauphin)
Stars: Simone Signoret, Serge Reggiani
Other Stars: Claude Dauphin, Raymond Bussiéres, Gaston Modot, Paul Barge, Dominique Davray
Director: Jacques Becker
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (adult themes, some sensuality)
Run Time: 01h:34m:00s
Release Date: 2005-01-18
DVD ReviewThe work of Jacques Becker rightly stands among other greats of pre-New Wave French cinema. Set in turn-of-the-century France, Casque d'or is a costume picture in every visual sense, but it manages to transcend the average period spectacle, infusing a romantic energy that is both surprising and powerful. Like Michael Curtiz's Casablanca, Jacques Becker's drama was widely rejected upon its initial release. Audiences expected a rough and tumble gangster picture, but were instead treated to a tragic, funny, character-driven romance. Unfulfilled expectations can blind one to something worthwhile.
Marie (Simone Signoret) is the casque d'or, a stunningly beautiful woman whose golden hair and voluptuous curves cause men to fall over themselves just to get a glimpse. She is a playful one, fully aware of her allure, and ready to use it to her advantage. In an open air café, she socializes with local gangster boss Felix's crew of dandy misfits; you'll never see a better dressed, more meticulously groomed group of thugs. Her current brute of a boyfriend, Roland, is a lithe, brooding shadow of a man fitted with a sharp mustache and straw hat. Marie, however, has found a new object of affection: Mande (Serge Reggiani), a simple carpenter, has entered the café, conversing with his friend Raymond (Raymond Bussiéres). Mande meets her gaze with magnetism, and the two waltz. Theirs is a love of wordless emotion, much to the chagrin of Roland. Posturing and spouts of violence ensue—not uncommon when Marie is around.
Felix (the suave Claude Dauphin) is amused by the charms of Marie. He attempts to exude power over them, but he is as smitten with the casque d'or as any. He has business to attend to, however, and a façade of unbreakable power to maintain. After arranging a brutal knife fight between Roland and Mande (the prince vs. the pauper), the young thug is killed, and the victor wins the affections of Marie. This is a cutthroat, immoral world where honor supersedes decency. The two lovers retreat to the innocence of the country, where they share a few brief moments of bliss. Felix is not about to lose his most prized possession yet, and has it in mind to shift the game in his favor. A few words to the local authorities sets the inevitable in motion, testing the love of Marie and Mande, and the honor of a simple carpenter.
Jacques Becker's world is stunningly meticulous, capturing the nuances of the period with gorgeous black-and-white imagery. This is a beautifully shot film, full of graceful camera movement and well considered transitions. Becker seems fascinated with the details, hoping to create a thoroughly convincing world in which the actors can operate without distraction. He succeeds admirably; the rich production design is a fine setting, but mere spectacle is not the goal.
Instead, characters and relationships are Becker's focus. The two lovers do not exude as much chemistry as I would like, but their connection was undeniable. Simone Signoret's Marie is supremely confident in her physical assets, yet is unable to hide a sense of vulnerability. She may seem to be a spoiled golddigger, but she wants nothing more than real romance, and simple happiness. Serge Reggiani's lower class Mande is certainly a contrast to the pampered living of his male competition. He too cannot quite hide a genteel side beneath an exterior of machismo. I found his character somewhat unsympathetic when he simply abandons his fiancée without a word, but such is love in old time France.
Even the smallest character is surprisingly fleshed out (including a slimy henchman appropriately named Fredo), convincing us this is a long established world of connections, acquaintances and friendships. Casque d'or is somewhat predictable, despite its intriguing thematic spectrum, which ranges from light hearted comedy in its opening frames to something decidedly darker upon its close. It remains compelling. As Truffaut summarized, this is a fine blend of "tenderness and violence."
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B+
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 - Full Frame|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: Criterion's 1.33:1 black-and-white transfer is simply luminous. Detail is high and contrast is rock solid. The film exhibits some fine grain, and some occasional print defects do show up, but this is remarkably clean. Beautiful.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: The french mono audio is serviceable, with clear dialogue and minimal hiss. There is also a dubbed English language soundtrack, performed by Serge Reggiani, Cluade Dauphin and Simone Signoret for the film's London premiere. This track is decidedly more harsh and muffled. The three leads provide good performances, but other bit parts can be distractingly bad. Stick to the original French audio.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Peter Cowie
- Insert with an essay by Peter Kemp
Next is a short reel of silent behind-the-scenes footage, entitled Silence on Tourne: Casque d'or (07m:35s). This is a real treat, showing Becker and the actors at work on the film's opening scene. The quality is decent, but limited to the 8mm source material. An optional commentary by "film historian and movie buff" Peter Kemp provides some helpful background information.
A pair of interviews with the two lovers, recorded several years apart, is also included. The interview with Simone Signoret (07m:14s), recorded in April 1963 for the television series Cinépanorama, covers the actress' career choices, and more. Serge Reggiani's piece (06m:19s) was recorded in 1995 for the program La France en Films, and includes discussion on the film's initially lukewarm reception.
Two excerpts from the French series Cinéastes de Notre Temps (1967) showcase interviews with Becker's friends and colleagues, including Francois Truffaut and Simone Signoret. Part I (14m:13s) covers Becker's origins, and Part II (12m:33s) explores the production of Casque d'or.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsJacques Becker's period romance is a visually stunning juxtaposition of the gentle and brutal. Full of detail and character, this is a fine film. Criterion's rich effort is quite comprehensive, showcasing multiple audio options and some solid featurettes. Recommended.
Matt Peterson 2005-01-17