Casque d’Or review – Jacques Becker’s gripping tragic drama of Parisian lowlife

A 70th-anniversary rerelease for this film by a masterly French director who is known for his craftsmanship – but deserves also to be known for his artistry. Jacques Becker’s Casque d’Or is a gripping tragic drama of Parisian lowlife set at the turn of the century, based on news stories and apocryphal tales of the “apache” criminal gangs that roamed the Paris underworld in the belle époque, terrifying and titillating those wealthy boulevardiers who liked to slum it in seedy dives.

Simone Signoret is glorious as Marie (nicknamed “Casque d’Or” for her golden helmet of hair); she is a woman of the night, based on the “gigolettes” tempting gentlemen into dark alleys, who would then be beaten and robbed by the woman’s male accomplices lurking behind her. Marie, though, never does anything so cruel here and has a heart, as well as a hairstyle, of gold. She is currently kept by Roland (William Sabatier), a sneery and insecure criminal, who takes offence in a bar when Marie likes the look of a quiet, personable carpenter called Georges (Serge Reggiani), who is going straight after some time inside and not looking for trouble. Marie and Georges fall deeply and tenderly in love, to the rage not only of spiteful beta-male Roland but his sinister gang-boss, Leca (Claude Dauphin), who uses his wine business as a respectable front and a means of bribing cops and is also enamoured of Marie. He has a plan to get this low-rank rival out of the way by having him convicted of murder.

Like Renoir and Ophüls, Becker has a knack of creating densely and vividly achieved visual set-pieces and extravagant, involving drama. Scene follows scene seamlessly and the screen is flooded with detail and incident. Becker uses real locations which have the immediacy of the New Wave Paris movies; perhaps this is the reason for Truffaut admiring Becker so passionately. The tragedy is shot through with a kind of knowing black comedy: a doltish young waiter, who is an inconvenient witness to Leca’s criminal affairs, is killed in a mysterious street accident, after which Leca organises a solemn whip-round for the boy’s tearful grandma.

There is also a lovely setpiece when Georges and Marie, loved up and wandering the rural streets in postcoital bliss, tiptoe into a church where a wedding ceremony is taking place, and Becker creates a droll tableau of the bourgeois guests in their finery and the uncomfortable looking bride and groom. Georges himself looks uneasy and sceptical: does he sense that a wedding and a happy ending is not in his future?

Casque d’Or leads up a great coup de cinéma: the final, mysterious sequence in which Marie appears to want to rent a certain room for a stomach-turning reason. In earlier scenes, Signoret usually gets an ethereally lit soft-focus closeup: but not now, in this pitilessly grim finale. This is an unmissable classic.

• Casque d’Or is released on 25 November in cinemas.