What once was great, now appeared small.
– Czeslaw Milosz (1)
Above us are seven words that mourn the invisible, with hope of resurrection. As Seamus Heaney explains, Milosz’s words “[illustrate] how things that seem feeble or useless can be transfigured by poetry into lifelines of the spirit” (2). I wholly agree. But to apply this to Jacques Becker requires two minor changes: that of “great” to “nothing” and “small” to “less”. And that’s the polite approach. For not only has Becker’s work been reduced by critics to its most feeble, most useless state, it has yet to be transfigured by anything, poetic or otherwise.
Becker had his supporters, yes: the nouvelle vague, the whole of it. Jean-Pierre Melville adored him, as did François Truffaut; his dearest admirer was a famous little director named Renoir, Jean, to be sure. But too many others (critics and the audiences who believed them) fell shy of understanding. Becker was all tribute, they felt, but not a man of his own. Should this be the case, however, then we have a long road of undoing ahead of us. Every artist throughout history will need to be given a new name – the conglomeration of influences. Meet Alfred Griffith–Clouzet Hitchcock, Master of Suspense, Second Only to Poe, But Brilliant Nonetheless. Must we really bother? Or can we just learn to watch Becker’s films with eager, virginal aspirations?
Jacques Becker left this world on February 21, 1960. Like his old friend Jean Renoir, Becker patiently waited for the day to see his labours appreciated – a day which sadly never came. As with Joyce, as with so many, Becker tried only to give the smallest places and people of this world a name; in doing so, his own name, his own place, was discarded as a crusade of futility, of love over intellect.
By most, Becker is remembered primarily as Jean Renoir’s sidekick, not as Jacques Becker. Yet Renoir might have been an entirely different creature were it not for Becker. Little doubt there was a sacrament of mischief known only to the two men – the tiny details unmentioned in books, private gestures put on film, a night of drink under a tree, perhaps, a moon, a promise: two men inspired by a laugh. As Renoir once said of his dear friend Jacques:
I cannot get used to the idea that Jacques is dead. He was my brother and son; I cannot believe he is now rotting in his grave. I would sooner think he is waiting for me in some corner of the next world, waiting for us to make another film together. [Jacques] loved mankind not in any generalized, theoretical way but directly and in terms of the individual. He had no prejudices in his choice of friends, being as capable of sturdy attachment to a plumber as to a noted writer (3).
Jacques Becker was born in Paris, September 15, 1906; his parents were Scottish and French, and well to do. He met Renoir through Paul Cézanne (son of the Cézanne), and the two formed a relationship steeped in a love for cinema (both were quite fond of von Stroheim’s Greed ). While filming La Grande illusion (1937), Becker and Renoir lived together, leading some to think suspiciously of the sexual nature of their relationship. A relationship, as noted by Renoir in his My Life and My Films, that was similar to that of Rauffenstein and Boieldieu in La Grande illusion – put simply, a love story. Becker and Renoir lost sight of each other during World War Two, and when Renoir did find his friend again, Becker had become a somewhat successful filmmaker. Then, Renoir tells us, “[Jacques] followed his line as I followed mine” (4).
Becker left us with 13 sorely unappreciated films, beginning (truly) with Dernier atout (1942) and ending with Le Trou (1960), his tidy masterpiece. In between were stints as an actor (most notably in Renoir’s Boudu sauvé des eaux [Boudu Saved from Drowning]  and La Grande illusion), an independent producer and co-director (Le Commissaire est bon enfant, le gendarme est sans pitié ), and of course an apprenticeship with Renoir, co-directing numerous films, of which La Grande illusion is his most infamous – and famously overlooked – contribution to cinema. His love stories, Antoine et Antoinette (1947) and Edouard et Caroline (1951), deserve better recognition. And his brilliant Casque d’or (1952) was not only favoured by the nouvelle vague collective, but called by Renoir “one of the masterpieces of the screen” (5). (Touchez pas au Grisbi  would later star a Renoir favourite, Jean Gabin.)
Becker had an unrelenting nag to observe – and often do little with his camera. Throughout his films, explicit detail is given to mundane activities, which, quite frequently, are the greatest triumphs of a particular picture. But if you are David Thomson, this sings of the filmmaker’s inability to profess a profound intellectual obedience, and thus provide answers. Thomson writes of Becker that he was “humane, observant, and inventive”, but that “his work [was] very variable, more often exploring and searching than discovering truths” (6). That’s all fine. But Thomson seems to forget what it means to be “humane, observant, and inventive”. After all, isn’t he? What truth (other than spelling and birthdays, really) can any film critic claim as his? The word Thomson is looking for is not discovery but promiscuity: we must always be aroused by (and looking for) truth; if not, we cease to be human, to see, and especially invent. That is not to say that Becker arrived perfect. As we will see in Antoine et Antoinette, Becker was indeed searching – though not entirely for truths but, rather, style.
A primitive yet sparkling film, Antoine et Antoinette finds Becker observant but not entirely patient. His camera seems rushed, busied, and almost too predictable. Often, the beautiful moments are hurried by; little caresses of the face are bumped through the frames. However, brewing in the race of things is Becker’s observant hunger: to see Antoine (Roger Pigaut) seduce Antoinette (Claire Maffei), for instance, with a simple wink, is precious. The seduction and subsequent act of passion go something like this: Antoine beckons Antoinette to come beside him on the bed; she does; they kiss; the camera pans to the doorway, through which sits the bed; Antoine and Antoinette are superimposed on the bed, but sitting to dinner. Seduction, lovemaking and supper – all in a blink of an eye.
In addition to Becker’s observational methods, Antoine et Antoinette finds him fast at work mastering another of his great talents, silence. While the film can often conjure the delight of René Clair’s Le Million (1931), it is the minimal score and the diligent use of orphaned piano notes that keep it from being cast into too whimsical a light. Becker haunts his scenes with spare beauty: watch Antoine in the lottery office, the slow, lonely dirge of a piano the only cue. For Antoine, who discovers his ticket has been lost, it may very well be his own funeral march.
The ever-playful and inventive Becker returned two years later with Rendez-vous de Juillet. This and Casque d’or show Becker at his peak transition, which is to say these two works earmark Becker’s most boisterous period. Rendez-vous de Juillet borders on a musical. It tells the story of Lucien (Daniel Gélin) who, embittered by social expectations, wishes to make a film of Africa. His professor, in a very funny moment, says after showing Lucien’s class a slide show of pygmies, “We’ve no more pictures of pygmies.” Lucien senses this as the ideal dilemma worth solving, and decides to abandon security in favour of wild cinematic exploits. The beauty is he doesn’t, and so we are treated to Becker’s wild ride of Parisian misfits at large.
The exquisite camerawork of Claude Renoir (Renoir’s dear nephew, responsible for giving La Grande illusion its eel-like “suppleness” (7)) reveals a postwar Paris as full of life as ever. Almost every corner, every tree and street, is alive with poetry. The characters are observed by an almost bashful camera, sleeking hesitantly beneath them as they giggle and sing – or whisper endearing odes. On the wilder side, Becker has at one point his characters drive in a vehicle, painted like a shark, which almost shockingly drives into the water to become a boat. Since Becker will end his career on a note of silence (see Le Trou), he appears to be saying, “now is the time to sing.” And sing he does, using his liberal narrative sense to allow a few café impromptus in which the characters sing and drink and forget Paris was (only a few short years earlier) nearly a gravesite.
The rowdy accordions and dance halls of Casque d’or undermine the lurid activities of Paris in the 1900s: the sword fights and sex-for sale endeavours. Becker lightens the despairing methods of Marie (Simone Signoret), who sells her body in exchange for the release of her beau Georges (Serge Reggiani), by infusing noir ethic with traditions of the 1900s. We get the idea that Marie would be a lusty moll in a John Huston film of the 1950s, and the duel (between Georges and Marie’s aspiring thug boyfriend Roland [William Sabatier]) being necessitated by the “code of the Apache” only heightens the hilarity. But none of this was enough to ignite the acclaim so deserved by Becker. And while many consider this to be Becker’s masterpiece (including Renoir), it didn’t receive its due until some years later. But rather than brooding and receding into despair, Becker turned another corner and refined another of his exceptional talents, comedy.
It isn’t hard to see why Becker’s most overlooked gift was his sense of humour. He had always been known as a mixer: despair and humour, but always more of the former. But there was always a comic quality in everything he did, and nowhere is this better employed than in his “heist” picture Touchez pas au Grisbi. While the film is every bit a Cagney-by-the-Seine fever dream, it is also a sweet dose of Pepe Le Pew. Becker, his thirst for unimportance gone amok, is more concerned with pates and pyjamas than with gangster predicaments. Our hoodlum, Max (Jean Gabin), shuffles about sipping wine and keeping himself safe with enormous and exquisite locks on his apartment door. His pyjamas are kept neat (a reoccurring gag to be found later in Le Trou), his suits dapper and free of grime. The real treat of Grisbi is that it lacks an actual heist. For a film that nearly set the standard for the French heist genre (presumably influencing Rififi [Jules Dassin] , Bob le flambeur [Jean-Pierre Melville] , and later Le Cercle rouge [Melville] ), it certainly neglected a key element. But that is all part of Becker’s charm: Why dwell on the obvious? Let’s iron clothes instead.
The plot is old hat: Max, fresh from his “final” heist, has to keep the lid on nearly 100 million francs in gold bullion – and hopefully retire happy. The hard part is over (the heist), so the film’s action will focus primarily on Max and the after-effects of crime. But Becker shows us that more often then not, the hard part is actually managing a semblance of life once you’ve pulled a heist. There are still errands to run, and cafes to visit, and romance and jealously, and friendships to mend or break apart. Financial woes may be a thing of the past, but the future is an ever-escalating miasma of paranoia and planning. And if Becker did not amuse us with Max’s carousing, his penchant for pates and wines, his refrigerated champagne, we might not care to see the practical side of crime. That is, the side of it that sparkles with normalcy – the mundane side. But if the mundane side of crime consists of the idle moments between heist and riches, the maddening and most despairing side consists of the few who get caught. And this brings us to Le Trou.
It’s a fatal convenience that we dismiss Becker’s Le Trou as a tribute to Renoir’s La Grande illusion. Because Le Trou, while fundamentally an escape picture, is inherently a sermon in patience. It is no pageant. Its sets and characters are cold, its dialogue practical and bleak; there is no musical score. But there is humour, patiently and exquisitely placed. When Gaspard (Mark Michel) is first brought in and questioned about his lighter (which sets up the story, putting Gaspard into the escapees’ cell), notice the prison guards as they shift their eyes to each person speaking, or seem transfixed by minutia (one guard examines his fingernails, almost aristocratically). In fact, the faces of the prison workers are more deflated than the prisoners, giving the alliance a deadpan comic virtue. (Later we will find Gaspard in pyjamas, signalling him out as both problem and pansy of the outfit.)
Gaspard’s cellmates do not, to me, seem his obstacles. A more meticulous inspection reveals them as his course home, guided by memory. (Thus, Gaspard is our Dorothy, the prison his Oz.) Roland (Jean Keraudy) is towering but perhaps the most gentle (mother memory). Monseigneur (Raymond Meunier) is the bumbling interlude between the tense character edges (sibling, playtime memory). Geo (Michel Constantin) encourages talk of sex (father memory). And finally Manu (Phillipe Leroy) gives us hope when he later says he likes rice pudding, but he’s just not hungry at the moment (home). Though the hope here is to escape, Gaspard perhaps already senses the fatality of this mad idea, thus surrendering to memories and digging his own hole to the past. This should help us consider Le Trou as one of the few set pieces in which action is displaced by a quieter activity: heartache.
Gaspard never fully fits in but is eventually coerced into joining the escape plan after the men convince him that his sentence could last as much as five years. The need is great to include Gaspard to prevent him from squealing; the latter result, however, will have horrific consequences.
In both Le Trou and La Grande illusion, food strengthens the bond of the escapees. But the significant difference between Becker and Renoir is that Renoir makes his food scenes celebrations, whereas Becker simply makes them necessary. Becker is devoted to the feat, not the feast. His celebrations appear mathematical, colourless, and confine the characterisations and histories to the most common details.
To escape, the prisoners must dig a hole in the cell floor, a feat which has no equal in cinema. For nearly four minutes we stand with our backs against the cell wall and hold our breath. Like Modigliani chiselling at his mad creation, the relentless shards of cement and clumps of dirt form a pile, mounting the tension masterfully. Jules Dassin accomplished this a few years earlier with Rififi, but his 30 or so minutes of chiselling and robbing were somewhat relaxed by the cartoon-like leisure of the methods (the umbrella and ballet slippers of key note). But the characters of Le Trou are breaking out, not in. No sense of place other than the dour grey walls has ever been established. So we’re stuck; the guards pace randomly along the halls; the crafty periscope – made of toothbrush, mirror and thread – seems ready to fail at each thrust through the peephole. And inside the cell, as the men whisper and swallow in silence, freedom is reckoned by the sound of a primitive jackhammer – bed frame and brute strength. From here on out much of Le Trou is devoted solely to ingenuity, memories, and the narrowing possibilities of triumph.
Becker is proof that people do miraculous things because they are pursued by a spirit, not because they are chasing a ghost. The inherent scheme of the individual is too often revealed as a tribute to greatness, otherworldly or mortal, when in fact it is often just the daily rite of human expression. Becker made his films as Jacques Becker, never trying to persuade anyone he was greater than his imperfect mortal abilities. His most blatant defect was that he made common films, for common people, but the intellectuals got a hold of them first and pinned them in the galleries, served with brie. Yet scant few understood Becker, and he blew there like a pin up girl, a little joke for the inebriated know-it-alls filing to the exits. Alas, the transfiguring was disfigured, the lifelines rendered lifeless, the poetry reduced to its most feeble. Even words, it seems, could not find words for Becker. If I might borrow a recent observation by John Berger, speaking of his friend Sven: “Others disapproved of him because he devoted his whole life to art, and they saw he was not a genius. For them, the nobility of that persistence passed unnoticed” (8). Again, even words cannot find words.
Tête de turc (1935)
Le Commissaire est bon enfant, le gendarme est sans pitié (1934)
La Vie est à nous (1936)
Dernier atout (1942)
Goupi mains rouges (1943)
Antoine et Antoinette (1947)
Rendez-vous de Juillet (1949)
Édouard et Caroline (1951)
Casque d’or (1952)
Rue de l’estrapade (1953)
Touchez pas au Grisbi (1953)
Ali-Baba et les quarante voleurs (1954)
Les Aventures d’Arsène Lupin (1957)
Les Amants de Montparnasse (1958) also known as Montparnasse 19
Le Trou (1960)
As Assistant Director
Y’en a pas deux comme Angélique (1931) assistant director; as J. de Beauker
La Nuit du carrefour (1932)
Boudu sauvé des eaux (Boudu Saved from Drowning) (1932)
Madame Bovary (1933)
La Vie est à nous (1936)
Une partie de campagne (1936)
Les Bas-fonds (The Lower Depths) (1936)
La Grande Illusion (1937)
La Marseillaise (1938)
L’Héritier des Mondésir (1940)
Raymond Durgnat, Jean Renoir, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1974.
Jean-Luc Godard, “Frère Jacques”, Cahiers du cinéma, April 1960.
Philip Kemp, “Jacques Becker: Life in the Dead Time”, Film Comment, January–February 1999.
Films de France – Jacques Becker
Contains bio, synopses and reviews of some of his films.
Feature article on Becker with particular interest in Touchez pas au Grisbi and Le Trou.
The New York Times on Touchez pas au Grisbi
Acquarello’s Review of Les Amants de Montparnasse.
Transcendent Realism: Jacques Becker Film Retrospective
Article on Becker’s transcendental films from PopMatters.
The sound of knocking: Jacques Becker’s Le Trou
An essay that examines the ways that the pulse or beat established through Le Trou‘s soundtrack temporalizes the image in particular ways and positions the film in relation to Becker’s earlier work and the prison genre.
The Films of Jacques Becker
Reviews of Ali-Baba et les quarante voleurs and Le trou from the Classic Film and Television Website.
Click here to search for Jacques Becker DVDs, videos and books at
- Czeslaw Milosz, New and Collected Poems: 1931–2001, Ecco, New York, 2001, p. 450.
- Seamus Heaney, Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971–2001, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, p. 382.
- Jean Renoir, My Life and My Films, Antheneum Publishers, New York, 1974, p. 43.
- Renoir, p. 43.
- Renoir, p. 45.
- David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2002, pp. 63–64.
- Renoir commenting on his nephew Claude’s camerawork in the essay insert of the Criterion Collection edition of La Grande illusion.
- John Berger, “Et In Arcadia Ego”, Harper’s Magazine, August 2004.