Jacques Becker‘s films seem to be coming back into style, with the recent rereleases of Casque d’Or and Touchez Pas au Grisbi. These, along with his last film, the brilliant prison escape movie Le Trou and the less memorable Rendezvous de Juliet, are the works of his that I’ve seen. Le Trou was the first and is still the best: as a claustrophobic document of five inmates and their clever, meticulous plan to break out, it rivals Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped for gripping verisimilitude. It even beats Bresson’s film by having one of the men who participated in the real break-out that Le Trou is based on play himself.
But there’s something in Casque and Grisbi that anticipates Le Trou. Both movies are fundamentally gangster movies about trust and betrayal amongst these sort of men; neither is as compelling as the best that was being offered simultaneously by Clouzot, Melville, and Dassin. Becker was not as grim as Clouzot, nor as artfully spartan as Melville, nor as virtuosic as Dassin. But there is one recurrent area where he is a master. In all of Becker’s movies, there are rhapsodic scenes of quotidian life. In Grisbi, Jean Gabin walks around his home tending to his clothes and cleaning up his papers before going out on a raid. In Casque, hero Rolando lies in bed one morning next to his girlfriend while hiding out from the boss. Elsewhere, the boss sits at his desk and shuffles papers. There is not a narrative tension in these scenes as there would be in Melville. Becker just lets time elapse, as though to have the audience fall into moments of peace and deferral, as though no one could be as monomaniacal as a Melville character. (And they probably could not.) But the interest does not diminish; it gives a sense of roundness and fullness. (Benoit Jacquot employed similar techniques to lesser ends in A Single Girl, which took place in 90 minutes of a hotel maid’s day.)
It’s this skill that reaches its apotheosis in Le Trou. By focusing on the most minute actions, both relevant and irrelevant (thereby separating him from Bresson, who boils it down to necessities), he reaches a sort of presence independent of suspense, more rooted in tactile reality.