Monday, September 03, 2007

Jacques Becker Spotlight

It is always a delightful experience to discover a masterpiece from an unknown director. Even though I have read many a book or an article on the French New Wave Cinema, I had never heard of Jacques Becker or his film Le Trou. All I knew from the DVD cover was that the film is about a prison break and I decided to try my luck. As it turns out, that is all one needs to know about the film because Becker gives us plenty of information as the film moves along.

Le Trou (1960): Rating 10/10

The film is about a prison break involving 5 prisoners. Initially, there are only 4 prisoners in the cell. Their plans are temporarily put on hold when a 5th person, Claude Gaspar is transferred to their cell. Only when Claude is taken into confidence do the escape plans start again.

It would be criminal to give away any details about the film as the sheer joy is in watching things unfold. The process of discovering the minor details is so throughly developed that the audience is made to feel like the sixth person inside the prison cell. What makes Le Trou an engaging experience is how the camera only focuses on the relevant details and how Becker uses long takes to show certain sequences.

For example, the following two pictures are about how the prison guards open and examine all the packages that the prisoner gets. In these two pictures, the guard breaks open the sausage
and cuts the cheese block into tiny pieces.

His hands move in a cold precise manner. The camera only focuses on his hands as he goes about his business and at no point does the camera bother to show us the expressions of the guard or even the prisoner because we know how each would feel about this -- the guard has to do his job while the prisoner has no choice.

All the important details about the prison escape are filmed in long un-interrupted takes. This way, we can get a feel about how much work is really put into what the prisoners are doing. Even when the edits are made, they are made at appropriate points so as to give a smooth progression of time. And there are plenty of important little details in how everyday objects are made tools in assisting the escape.

For example, a tiny piece of glass is attached to a tooth brush to make a tiny periscope which can be used to stick out of the prison peep-hole to see if the guard is coming or not.

In order to tell the passage of time, the prisoners put together a sand clock which they create by using everyday objects found in the prison.

Just like Robert Bresson's 1959 masterpiece Pickpocket calmly showed us the process involved in lifting people's pockets, Le Trou spends time in meticulously showing how these 5 characters attempted their master-plan. And like in Bresson's film, the camera in Le Trou spends enough time on each character that we can quickly gather each prisoner's personality.


While Le Trou showed us criminals serving time, both Casque d'or and Touchez pas au grisbi spend time in the world of mobsters. Some of these mobsters have spent time in prison and maybe even stayed in cells across from the criminals shown in Le Trou. Before the long arm of the law catches up with the criminals in these two films, the well dressed thugs go about extracting revenge in their own ways.

Casque d'or (1952): Rating 8/10

A bunch of gangsters are parading around with their women. One of the gangsters, Raymond, recognizes an old friend (Georges Manda) and invites him over to their table. Georges eyes Marie and the two of them go for a dance. But Marie is Roland's girlfriend and he is not amused. Roland has a brief tussle with Georges before Georges heads his way. But Georges can't just walk away. He has feelings for Marie and tries to win her. Things are not that simple because Marie's lover (Roland) works for Félix Leca, the local mobster. While Luca also has feelings for Marie, he decides that if Georges can defeat Roland in a knife fight, he can walk away freely with Marie.

This crucial fight sequence is filmed in a raw & engaging manner. The two men square off...

Luca is ready to toss the knife

The knife flies threw the air...

A gritty fight that ends quickly with Georges dispatching Roland.

But Luca is not a man of his word and never gives up his desire for Marie. The film's final sequence shows how Georges values loyalty and friendship over love. Casque d'or starts off slowly but is most interesting after the knife fight.

Touchez pas au grisbi (1954): Rating 9/10

The film features a topic which has been portrayed by Hollywood countless times since 1954 -- a mobster wants to pull off one last job and then retire. Max (Jean Gabin) is such a person and at the film's start, he has already pulled off a major job with his close friend, Riton.

Only Max and Riton keep the knowledge about the robbery to themselves. However, secrets about wealth can't be hidden for long and shortly afterwards both Max and his friend are targets.

Max catches a person tailing him and takes him to a friend's house for interrogation. This beautifully filmed scene is reminiscent of Melville's Army of Shadows but Melville didn't make his masterpiece until 1969.

The topic of loyalty and friendship once again takes center stage in this film as both these aspects serve as the powerful currency among mobsters. Max only works with those people he has had a long working relationship with. Even though he knows Riton has a weakness for women and can't keep his mouth shut, he continues to confide in him because of his long friendship.

New Discovery: A week ago I had never heard of Jacques Becker. And after seeing three films with one being a master-piece, I can't help ask, why is his name not taken in the same wavelength as other French masters such as Bresson and Melville. One can clearly see an inspiration of Becker in Melville's work.


Pacze Moj said...

I did some Googling to see why Becker's not better known... and I can't find a single reason for it! No shady past, no strange political affiliation.

Although I gather that his films, unlike those of his fellow French filmmakers, didn't really catch on in North America. Which could be it. New York, which embraced Truffaut, for example, and which launched the New German Cinema, seems pretty important. No New York popularity, less popularity in general, maybe.

Shame, though.

And shame on me, too. The only Becker I know is the DVD cover of The Hole.

Sachin said...

Hey Pacze,

Yeah it is strange why he is unknown. Even though he made films in the 50's thru early 60', he was not considered part of the New Wave. That may have something to do with his age as he was 20-30 years older than the so called New Age film-makers.

Currently, I am reading this book --A History of the French New Wave Cinema by Richard Neupert and there are only three references to Becker totaling about 3 lines. That is it! In one of the comments, it mentions how some critic put down Becker but there is no reason given.

Even though Rivette worked as an assistant to Becker and you can see Becker's influence in Melville's films, he went under the radar.

Hopefully that changes.