The French Noir season at the Ciné Lumiere is a timely reminder both of the number of great French crime films, and also of the range of directors and classic films which are still neglected in this country. Silent master Louis Feuillade and post-war underachiever Réné Clement are two good examples, but neither is as underrated as Jacques Becker. Becker learnt his craft working under the great Jean Renoir during the thirties when his mentor turned out masterpiece after masterpiece. Renoir’s influence might account not only for Becker’s technical expertise, but also his humanism and psychologically sophisticated characterisation.
In many ways, his work bridges the gap between the classic thirties noir typified by Marcel Carné’s films, especially Quai des Brumes (1938) and Le Jour Se Lève (1939), and the modern American influenced crime films of Jean Pierre Melville and the Nouvelle Vague directors. In fact, he and his mentor Renoir are perhaps the only members of the old guard not spurned by the Cahiers du Cinema invective. Two of his greatest films have been screened for the current French Noir season: Touchez pas au Grisbi (or "Honour Among Thieves" – the uninspiring English title which replaces the literal translation of "Don’t Touch The Loot") and Le Trou (The Hole").
Touchez pas au Grisbi, made in 1954, shines in no small part because of the sad and soulful performance of the great Jean Gabin, star of both aforementioned Carné classics as well as many of Renoir’s greatest films. He’s the perfect noir anti-hero: intelligent, soul-searching, guilt-ridden and fatalistic, exuding an effortless, browbeaten charisma. In Touchez pas au Grisbi, he plays Max, an ageing hood, trying to see through one last job so he can retire from the business. A familiar scenario then, but this is not really a conventional thriller, more psychological character drama. The viewer doesn’t even witness the heist – the film is just about trying to get rid of the loot successfully and the complex network of loyalty and treachery between characters for whom appearance is everything and communication rarely explicit. Max’s problem comes down to his associate Riton, whose lover has left him for rival gangster Angelo. Riton is too jealous to think straight and keep his mind on the job and Angelo finds out about the loot, hatching a plan to kidnap Riton and blackmail Max for the gold. A beautifully complex and understated character study is subtly rendered via this rather slight plot.
Max’s character embodies the classic fatalism of noir: he’s perceptive enough to think one step ahead of his adversaries but self-aware enough to recognise the inevitable futility of it all. His doomed compatriot Riton, however, shares neither of these attributes. In one particularly well directed scene in the early part of the film, Max learns of the threat from Angelo and takes Riton to a secret flat and the garage where he’s kept the gold, taking him through the plan step by step and gently persuading him of the logic of the last job – their crows’ feet and slack jowls show they’re both getting on a bit. Riton looks in the mirror as if he’s never noticed before, but still he can’t think beyond the woman he’s lost and his hatred for Angelo. Max’s planning is immaculate, except for his reliance on others to think like he does. Riton’s lack of emotional control ruins everything. The dream of the last job isn’t really attainable, only of keeping up appearances: beautifully tailored suits, champagne in the fridge, his song on the jukebox.
Many scenes show the immaculately groomed Max in a seedy, Montmartre café where he’s happy to let those around him conspiratorially talk up his alleged exploits and fuel rumours. He’s a living legend, but the legend is a self-constructed illusion, maintained by a carefully crafted image and the ability to communicate by suggesting much and revealing little. He always withholds information if he can and gets others to give theirs. Neither confirm nor deny: let them jump to their own conclusions. But under the surface is a tortured soul with the burden of genuine feelings of warmth and compassion for those he knows he’s exploiting. The eternal promise of the big payoff is an easy means of getting his friends to take risks on his behalf. They are victims of fate but he knows he is the catalyst. Aspiring to escape from this role and lead a dignified, redemptive old age, he eventually opts to settle for the illusion. He’s a failure, and allowing others’ fabrication of his enigma is really the same as a barefaced lie.
Le Trou, Becker’s last film made in 1960, is even better. It’s not quiteappropriate to call it film noir – it’s actually a prison escape drama – but at the end of the day, does that really matter? It’s a classic film that everyone should get the chance to see. It’s no Great Escape, though, and it’s not only about what can be achieved by teamwork, but also what can be destroyed by treachery. Four prisoners: Manu, Roland, Geo and Monseigneur share a cell and are awaiting sentences, all expecting long stretches inside. Their plans to escape are threatened by the appearance of a fifth cellmate, the polite young Gaspard. He claims he’s been wrongfully imprisoned for the attempted murder of his wife, that she pulled the gun on him after discovering his affair with her sister. Though suspicious at first, all four members of the group decide to trust the newcomer and continue with their plans, but Gaspard learns his wife has dropped the charges, leaving him with an important decision.
Reminiscent in some ways of Bresson’s classic A Man Escaped (1956), the film has a strong visual style that focuses on the rituals and routines of prison life: the body searches and security checks, the food delivery and the guards cutting into gift packages to ensure there is no contraband. These are the strict, reliable boundaries of time, between which the aspiring escapees can improvise. Time is measured by one of many ingenious expedients constructed with meagre resources: an hourglass made with sand and medicine bottles. Another essential tool is a look out "periscope" fashioned out of a toothbrush and a sliver of broken mirror. The inmates also mock up a fake body out of string and cardboard to hide under the blankets while two of them are actually tunnelling down below, surreptitiously tugging on the string to satisfy the eye at the peephole. Good relations with the guards must be maintained to minimise the scrutiny of their actions: it’s another film about keeping up appearances. It’s also another film with fine characterisation, each of the inmates and their relationships gradually fleshed out. Monseigneur is the avuncular but wily ringleader, Roland the resourceful problem solver, Geo the reticent tough guy. Manu is most suspicious the naïve newcomer, but develops the strongest bond in the long run. At one point Gaspard erupts with boyish excitement: "I’ve never felt so good inside and it’s all because of you", a comment that eventually reveals a bitter and irreversible irony. And that’s the sentiment of film noir at its most uncompromising.