“There are no theories in circulation about Jacques Becker, no scholarly analyses, no theses. Neither he nor his work encourages commentary, and so much the better for that.” Francois Truffaut, Cahiers du Cinema, 1954.
Truffaut’s observation was written six years before both the completion of Becker’s last triumphant film Le Trou and the director’s death before the film was even released.
When New York’s Film Forum ran a season devoted to Becker’s work the noted critic Geoffrey O’Brien noted it with a long essay in The New York Review of Books and included this biographical background:
“Becker had been a significant figure in French cinema since his early acquaintance with Renoir, who took a liking to the younger man —“he was twenty years old and had a natural elegance”—and relished their shared passion for films. Born in 1906 and raised in a bilingual household, the son of an industrialist who worked for the Fulmen battery company and an Irish-born fashion designer who maintained her own maison de couture in Paris, Becker had been a restlessly curious and playful adolescent and an indifferent student, an enthusiast of cinema and jazz bent on resisting his father’s efforts to dragoon him into the world of industrial engineering. Working for a time as a steward for a transatlantic steamship line, he got to know touring American musicians, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington among them, and met the director King Vidor, who offered him an acting job in Hollywood.
“By the early 1930s Becker had formed a working relationship with Renoir that would continue throughout the decade, as he became an increasingly trusted assistant director, technical adviser (by virtue of his mechanical bent), and all-purpose consultant. He wrote and directed a portion of Renoir’s 1936 Communist-financed semi-documentary La vie est à nous and can be seen in bit roles in Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932) and La grande illusion (1937), films for which he served as a second-unit director. The friendship was intense, not always tranquil, and for Becker decisive: “Not even Jean Renoir knows how much his personality and his destiny have influenced mine.”2
“When Renoir fled to America in 1940, Becker remained behind, having been called up at the outbreak of the war. Taken prisoner in 1940, he spent a year or so in a German detention camp in Pomerania before being repatriated for health reasons after successfully faking an epileptic fit. Under the Occupation he made his first feature, the highly entertaining parodic crime film Dernier atout (1942), and went on to the more substantial Goupi mains rouges (1943), a crime story, set deep in a rural backwater teeming with mania and suspicion, that already shows him in full mastery of his art. His approach from the start involved multiple takes and complex continuity editing, experimenting with variant possibilities to be resolved in the cutting room, and he would work on all but one of his films with Marguerite Renoir—Renoir’s editor as well as his companion for most of the 1930s (she took his name although they were unmarried).”
The following notes on Le Trou are by Mark Pierce
Beyond all its other remarkable qualities, Le Trou is an entirely convincing film. The film lacks both pretension and polish; they are sacrificed for realism and precision.
Jacques Becker’s last film (1960) is set in a prison, La Santé in Paris, but in a gaol with no gangs, no drugs and no sex. The sole act of violence is a few slaps directed at a plumber’s cheeks, while the warders seem like benign buffoons, extras from a Jacques Tati film. Suspense and drama do certainly build, but Becker nonetheless spends time watching the cell mates file bars, fill pots with dirt, smash concrete and walk along dark corridors with a guttering lamp. Becker is quite content to hold a shot, and to oblige his audience to hold its breath.
Romance is completely absent. Having made a wonderful film dominated by a sensual Simone Signoret (Casque d’Or, 1952), Becker here includes a woman in one scene alone, as the mercenary half of a distinctly transactional exchange. Stars are absent as well; Becker’s prisoners include a number played by non-professional actors, wearing street clothes and happy to act as a well-knit, well-honed ensemble.
Becker’s films might seem sandwiched between Jean Renoir, in the 1930s, and the New Wave of the 1960s. Becker looked both forward and back. He worked extensively with Renoir, including on La Grande Illusion(1937). Marguerite Renoir is credited for montage in Le Trou. The prisoners in Le Trou suffer not from any grand illusion but from the petty, personal delusion of escape. Unfortunately for them, they are less far deft at escaping than two other heroes from Becker’s 13 features, Ali Baba and Arsene Lupin. As did the New Wave, Becker insisted (most of all in Le Trou)on gritty realism and close, semi-documentary narration.
In other prison films, particularly The Shawshank Redemption and Stalag 17,prison itself becomes a character, a malevolent, brooding presence. Here, Becker’s focus was not on a gaol but claustrophobically on one cell alone. We are inducted into a cell fraternity, in which nobody minds if one prisoner wears flash pyjamas, everyone shares food parcels. Vile prison soup (which goes down the toilet) can be supplemented by foie gras and rice pudding. All this hyper-realism profits from the fact that Becker was drawing on a genuine episode at La Santé (in 1947), adapted from a story written by the mastermind behind that escape attempt, Jose Giovanni. Giovanni (a pseudonym) evidently led a life packed with still more intriguing, sometimes horrible, tales.
Le Trou was filmed in black and white, and its subject matter indisputably conforms to “film noir”. Nonetheless, the dominant colour suffusing the film is grey – the grey monotony of prison life rendered in monochrome, the grey pallor of the inmates, and the grey weather – la grisaille – outside the prison walls. Moreover, all the main characters are subtle and supple enough to avoid any classification into black-and-white stereotypes.
Becker included only one moment of comedy, when one prisoner, with another standing on his shoulders, slowly circles a brick column to evade passing guards. That said, his prisoners were fortunate indeed that one key opened all the gaol locks, that no warder heard the sound of smashing concrete, and that a ledge saved any escapee from actually walking through the sewer.
Becker did well to concentrate his story and his camera on the hole itself, its excavation, its concealment and the hopes embodied in it. The punctuation marks in his and Giovanni’s tale are simple but forcefully dramatic. They comprise an inspiration, a bond of trust, a defection and a betrayal. That is enough.
4K Restoration in 2017 by StudioCanal.
Dir: Jacques BECKER |France | 1960 | 131 mins | B&W | Sound | French with Eng. Subtitles| 4kDCP (originally 35mm) | U/C15+.
Prod. Co: Filmsonor, Play Art, Titanus | Prod: Serge SILBERMAN | Scr: Jose GIOVANNI, Jacques BECKER, Jean AUREL | Photo: Ghislain CLOQUET | Edit: Marguerite RENOIR | Des/Art: Rino MONDELLINI | Music: Philippe ARTHUYS
Cast: Michel CONSTANTIN (Geo Cassine), Jean KERAUDY (Roland Darban), Philippe LEROY (Manu Borelli), Marc MICHEL (Claude Gaspard), Raymond Meunier (Vosselin
Source: StudioCanal (Thanks Andrew Rolfe)
Notes by Mark Pierce