|French screen siren Simone Signoret has the face of a child, the calculating eyes of a master thief, and the curvaceous body of a sexpot. Although she won an Oscar for her role as an unhappily married woman in the 1959 British film Room at the Top, which was one of the first of Britain’s gritty “kitchen sink” films, she was arguably best used in Jacques Becker’s melodrama Casque d’or.|
Signoret stars as Marie, a beautiful prostitute in turn-of-the-century Paris who is at any given moment on the arm of one of suave gang leader Felix Leca’s (Claude Dauphin) men. At the beginning of the film, she is with “Pretty Boy” Roland (William Sabatier), a tall, dandy of a gangster with a quick temper and a flair for jealousy, which is immediately aroused when Marie catches the eye of Georges (Serge Reggiani), an ex-con now trying to fly straight as a carpenter. Georges is old friends with Raymond (Raymond Bussières), a member of Felix’s gang with whom he did time in jail half a dozen years ago.
Thus, within the first 10 minutes, we have established a classic doomed romance: the struggling ex-con falls in love with the gangster’s moll and she with him. Not only is Georges at risk physically from the reprisals that might ensue from his involvement with Marie, but he is also at risk spiritually as his love for Marie may force him to respond violently, something he is clearly trying to avoid in his new life. And, to make matters worse, Felix has his eye on Marie, as well, thus putting her at the center of attention from three men, one of whom is genuine and the other two of whom are sadistic and treacherous.
The story in Casque d’or is fairly straightforward in its development, and it doesn’t offer much in the way of narrative surprise as it marches dutifully toward a climax of romantic tragedy. However, Becker makes it work through the characters, who are drawn quickly, but effectively, and are perfectly cast. Serge Reggiani was an especially inspired choice for Georges, as he has a soft, appealing face that makes him believable as a man trying to do the right thing. But, at the same time, he is able to convey a sense of toughness and experience, which is crucial for a pivotal plot point that involves a murder.
Becker, who began his career in film as an assistant to the great Jean Renoir, lets the atmosphere of “Belle Epoch” Paris do much of the work. He establishes a sense of romantic nostalgia by setting the film half a century in the past (the film was made in 1952 and takes place in the late 1890s), which gives more license to the heated melodrama. He also intensifies the emotions with a heavy reliance on close-ups at important moments in the story, and a particularly effective one comes when one character guns down another, and we see the action only as a close-up of the shooter’s face, the violence of the moment conveyed entirely in his eyes and the involuntary flinching that accompanies each shot. It is a moment of magnificent restraint, which cannot be said for Becker’s visual treatment of Simone Signoret, as he holds her close-ups longer than anyone and angelically backlights her to near excess. Of course, she is the film’s star -- the “casque d’or” of the title -- so it is hard to imagine his not privileging her presence any chance he got.
Casque d’or was not considered one of Becker’s greatest films until recent years, probably because of its narrative and emotional simplicity. Yet, that simplicity is key to why it works; the film’s vision of love at first sight and romantic dedication is the potent stuff of dreams, and only the most fervent of cynics will fail to be moved by it.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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Overall Rating: (3.5)
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