- (1906-1960)Director and screenwriter. Jacques Becker was born into the world of the Parisian intellectual and artistic elite. His father was a Scotsman and his mother, a member of the French haute bourgeoisie. Becker was brought up in Paris, where he became friends with Paul Cézanne. However, it seems that it was an American director, King Vidor, who attracted Becker to cinema. Vidor even invited Becker to work with him as an assistant. Becker declined the offer and instead began a long collaboration with Jean Renoir, whom he knew through family connections. The two worked closely on a number of Renoir's great works, including Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932), Chotard et cie (1932), Madame Bovary (1933), Les Bas-fonds (1936), Une partie de campagne (1936), La Vie est à nous (1936), La Grande illusion (1937), and La Marseilleise (1938). The two were at one time very close, even living together during the filming of La Grande illusion. In fact, Renoir once compared their friendship to that between Boieldieu and Von Rauffenstein, two of the primary characters in Renoir's film.Becker made a brief attempt at directing on his own from 1934 to 1935, but the few films produced during this period were either incomplete or not significant. He was mobilized during the war and spent time in a German prisoner of war camp, an experience that would mark his future films. He went on to make what is considered his directorial debut, properly speaking, on the eve of the German Occupation. His first film as director, Le Dernier atout (1942), reflects the social and political climate, while at the same time problematizing both. The story of two apprentice police officers who challenge the authorities by investigating a murder that those in power want forgotten, Le Dernier atout is set in a "safe" and distant Latin American city, and in that regard, it shares characteristics with other Occupation-era films, which were often set in distant places or ages. This film was followed by Goupi mains rouges (1943), the story of a young village man who is framed for murder. The film continues the theme of abuse of power present in Le Dernier atout, and has the same noiresque plot elements. These would later come to be seen as characteristics of Becker's work.Becker's third film, Falbalas (1945), seems to be a complete anomaly, breaking from the first two films and having no obvious connection with Becker's later works. Set in a Parisian fashion house, Falbalas is essentially a melodrama, and it is, on the surface, atypical of his work. However, the careful cinematography and realist mode (reminiscent of Renoir) do tie it in, in some ways, to Becker's other works. Moreover, the film gives a very detailed portrait of the fashion industry, and in that regard, it shares characteristics with Becker's subsequent films, which would also feature meticulous depictions of different facets of French society.The immediate postwar films are, in many ways, chronicles of the lives of average people. However, in every film, there is also the near constant interrogation of power and oppression. Antoine et Antoinette (1947) is the story of a working-class couple who lose a winning lottery ticket and the tensions this loss provokes. Rendez-vous de juilliet (1949), which won the Prix Louis-Delluc, is the story of an aspiring jazz musician and his struggles with his disapproving father. Edouard et Caroline (1951) is the story of a young couple torn apart by class differences.Similarly, Casque d'or (1952), which is often considered Becker's masterpiece, is also a highly realist period film chronicling life in the lower classes in turn of the century Paris. Some see in the film a late return to Le Réalisme poétique or poetic realism. The film returns to the subject of romantic love and also explores the effects of outside interferences on the romantic couple, in keeping with Becker's previous late films. This film, more than any other, affirms the degree to which human beings are subject to the outside power structures in the world, and the degree to which love cannot simply conquer all. Following Casque d'or, Becker's films moved more toward something quite close to film noir, a direction that may be seen in the progressive pessimism of his worldview, at least as expressed through his films, and that was heralded by the return to Le Réalisme poétique, which was, itself, quite pessimistic. This move to noir is best embodied by Touchez pas au grisbi (1953), also considered one of Becker's greatest films. In Grisbi, the noir elements are fairly evident—the film is about questionable people and the influence of money, and the tangled structure of plots and subplots is highly reminiscent of film noir. There is also a level of tense discomfort to this film that was not evident in Becker's previous works, an element also linked to film noir. Some critics consider Grisbi the greatest French crime film ever made.Becker's final film, Le Trou (1960), is also considered one of his masterpieces. It retains the tone of imminent danger and unease found in Touchez pas au grisbi, but the context has changed. This is a prison/ escape film, but, as is typical with Becker's films, the focus is on issues of power and exploitation and not really on the escape itself.Between Grisbi and Le Trou, Becker made Ali Baba et les quarante voleurs (1954), a classically orientalist, popular film; Arsène Lupin (1957), a period piece recounting the adventures of the gentleman burglar; and Modigliani-Montparnasse 19 (1957), a biopic about Amadeo Modigliani that Becker took over after the death of Max Ophiils. The latter film was something of a disappointment, as might be expected when a noir director like Becker takes over a spectacular costume drama from someone like Ophiils.Apart from the interest in Becker as a filmmaker, several critics have been interested in the connection between Becker and Le Réalisme poétique, and particularly in the issue of Renoir's influence on Becker's work. Traces of Renoir may be seen in the interest in the lower classes and most obviously in the camera's realist gaze. After all it was from Renoir that Becker learned how to make films. However, certain of Becker's films are also reminiscent of Marcel Carné. Casque d'or evokes Les Enfants du paradis (1945) at certain points (as is obvious by its setting and story), and films like Touchez pas au Grisbi bring Carné's Quai de brumes (1938) to mind.There are certain connections between Becker and some of his contemporaries as well. There is often a psychological and moral component communicated through silence and minimalism that is reminiscent of Robert Bresson. Jean-Pierre Melville was another kindred spirit and a great admirer of Becker's work. Although Melville's films are less psychological than Becker's, a connection between the two filmmakers' work certainly exists, especially a shared interest in film noir. Like both Bresson and Melville, Becker would become an influence on the filmmakers of the Nouvelle Vague or New Wave. It was they, in particular, who would regard him as a bridge between the realist impetus of poetic realism and the experimental mode of their own sociological realism.
Historical Dictionary of French Cinema. Dayna Oscherwitz & Mary Ellen Higgins. 2007.
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