Jacques Becker may well be the most seriously underestimated director in the history of French cinema. Even in his own lifetime, he suffered disparaging comments. Wrote Jacques Demeure about Touchez pas au grisbi in a 1957 Positif article: “Here we can measure the abyss that separates Becker from his master Renoir…. From Renoir, Becker has only derived certain narrative devices, such as a way of using doors…. Décor soon becomes the essential factor, and the film becomes simply decorative.” True, things have improved since then. In 1998, a critics’ poll in the very same journal chose Grisbi as the finest French crime movie ever made. But despite the tributes of such figures as François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette, and Renoir himself at the time of Becker’s death in 1960, it was more than thirty years before anyone thought to mount a complete retrospective—and even then it wasn’t in France, but at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland.
If Becker has received less than his due as a filmmaker, it may be partly because, like Franju, Melville, Clouzot, and Grémillon, he belongs to that intermediate, less celebrated generation of French directors who flourished in the years between the Golden Age of the 1930s and the rise of the Nouvelle Vague in the late 1950s. But it may also be because Becker is one of the great underactors among directors, with no interest in flashy technical devices or show-off camera moves: his dexterity, the unstressed elegance of his images, the wit and fluency of his narrative style have led some critics to write him off as a lightweight, lacking in seriousness. Also, Becker loved to explore fresh territory and different genres—no way to build a reputation as a respected auteur.
What sets Becker’s films apart above all is his highly personal approach to narrative. He was fascinated by what he liked to call temps mort—literally “dead time”—what goes on before, after, and around the necessary plot moves. Scenes that other directors would emphasize Becker compresses into a minimum or even skips entirely; scenes that advance the plot scarcely if at all he will linger over. Note how in Grisbi, when Max takes his partner in crime, Riton, to his secret apartment, Becker is just as concerned with the domestic routines of serving food and wine, of the donning of pajamas and the cleaning of teeth, as he is in the intrigues of the two gangsters planning their next moves. What he’s doing is inviting us, quietly but incisively, to watch his characters getting on with the business of living. His ambition, he once said—only partly tongue-in-cheek—was to make a film “with no beginning, no end, and virtually no story.”
He was born into a well-off Parisian family; his father was a prominent industrialist and his mother a Scottish-born fashion designer. Having decided that a career in engineering—the métier for which his father intended him—wasn’t to his taste, he served his cinematic apprenticeship during the 1930s as Jean Renoir’s assistant. From Renoir (who called him “my brother and my son”) he learned, as he once put it, that “one doesn’t use vinegar when directing actors,” and as a director he would become famous for his charm, sympathy, and insight in handling his players. Simone Signoret described working with Becker as like being “in a state of grace.”
But Becker’s affinities with Renoir—his lyrical response to nature, a strong sense of place, and a generosity toward his characters—mask deeper differences: in temperament, technique, and the angle of their regard. The directors’ respective approaches to editing are revealing. Renoir cuts as little as possible, favoring in-depth shooting, panning, and tracking within the frame to create long, mobile takes. Becker, by contrast, cuts readily, allowing the rhythms of dialogue and action to set the duration of each shot.
Becker stayed with Renoir from 1932 to 1939, the period of the older director’s greatest films. By 1941—after a short spell in the army and in a prisoner-of-war camp—he was ready to strike out on his own. Dernier atout was a lighthearted pastiche of the pacy Hollywood thrillers of which wartime French audiences found themselves deprived. After that Becker completed just a dozen more films during his all-too-brief directorial career. But that dozen took in costume drama (Casque d’or), social comedy (Edouard et Caroline), rustic melodrama (Goupi mains rouges), biopic (Montparnasse 19), prison drama (Le Trou), oriental fantasy (Ali Baba et les quarante voleurs)—and, of course, in Touchez pas au grisbi, one of the finest and most influential of French gangster movies.
By constantly roving like this between different types of material, Becker was able to bring a fresh eye to everything he undertook. Apart from the tongue-in-cheek Dernier atout, none of his films comes near being a routine generic exercise. Always in his work there’s a sense of discovery, of an intent eye delighted by what it has found out. “Look,” he seems to be saying, “you may think you know this milieu, this situation; but have you noticed this, and this?”
Unsurprising, then, that when in 1954 he tackled his first—and only—gangster film he broke entirely new ground. Grisbi contains plenty of the requisite genre elements—double-crossings, violence, kidnappings, gun battles, and the like—but it’s also a pensive meditation on age, friendship, and lost opportunities. The film was hugely influential, setting the tone of French policiers for years to come. Melville’s Bob le flambeur (1955) and Le Doulos (1962), Dassin’s Rififi (1955), and even Godard’s À bout de souffle (1960) all draw on its mood of ironic, existential fatalism. Grisbi also revived Jean Gabin’s screen career, which had lost direction since the war, launching him on the series of patriarchal roles that would continue into his old age.
Touchez pas au grisbi provided Becker with his first major box-office success since Goupi mains rouges a decade earlier. In the few remaining years of his life, he made four more films. The last of them, the taut prison drama Le Trou, was completed just a few days before his death in 1960, aged only fifty-four. It showed that, despite illness, he was still working at the height of his powers and tirelessly exploring new territory, eagerly responding to the creative energy and excitement of the Nouvelle Vague—whose members, for their part, paid tribute to him as one of the few directors of the previous generation whose work they wholeheartedly admired. François Truffaut found in his work “the triumph of something unique and fully realized that other filmmakers have not achieved: a total simplicity joined to a precision of tone that never falters.”
Philip Kemp is a freelance critic and film historian and a contributor to Sight & Sound, Film Comment, International Film Guide, and various other publications and reference works. He is the author of Lethal Innocence: The Cinema of Alexander Mackendrick and is working on a biography of Michael Balcon.