Jacques Becker (1906-1960) is a classic case of the artist who comes in between. An assistant to Jean Renoir on several films in the ’30s, he was too young to be a full participant in the golden age of French film, the years of Renoir, Jean Vigo, René Clair, Marcel Carné. Yet he was too old to belong to the French New Wave of the late ’50s and early ’60s. Instead, Becker was one of its inspirations. “Frère Jacques” Jean-Luc Godard called him in an obituary tribute.
The Harvard Film Archive, in association with the Institut Francais and Cultural Services of the French Embassy, is screening a series, “Rediscovering Jacques Becker.” The retrospective began last month. After a break for the holidays, it resumes at the HFA on Jan. 14, with one of Becker’s best-known films, “Touchez pas au grisbi” (1954).
In English, the title means “hands off the loot.” Yes, it’s a gangster picture. “Touchez,” which also screens Jan. 20, may be Becker’s most entertaining work. Jean Gabin stars as Max, a very smooth, if also increasingly weary crime boss. Jeanne Moreau plays a notably pouty showgirl. Putting the squeeze on Max — or trying to — is a bad guy played by Lino Ventura, making his film debut. It’s hard to say which is more startling: seeing Moreau in a dance number or Ventura when young. He always seems ageless, in a geological sort of way.
If Max had a kid brother, he’d be the title character of a film released two years later, Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Bob le Flambeur.” Melville (1917-1973) was another filmmaker in the generational middle. He spent most of the rest of his career making gloriously mannered crime dramas: films in which fatalism is so stylized it becomes the pursuit of redemption by other means.
The contrast with Becker is telling. As an admiring François Truffaut once wrote, “Becker is an intimate and realistic filmmaker who is in love with verisimilitude and everyday realities.” He was a realist, not a fatalist; too interested in the sheer variedness of human society to let style overwhelm content, and unwilling to limit himself to any one genre.
His best-known film, “Casque d’or” (1952), is at once romance, crime drama, and period piece (set in turn-of-the-century Paris). It stars Simone Signoret at the peak of her one-of-a-kind powers: forceful, insolent, gorgeous. That a woman gives the most celebrated performance in any of his films underscores the unusual degree to which Becker was open to experience.
Alas, “Casque d’or” screened last month. The remaining titles give a sense of Becker’s range. “Falabas (Paris Frills),” from 1945, starts as a kind of comedy of manners and increasingly gives way to a study in obsession. Raymond Rouleau plays a couturier who makes Daniel Day-Lewis’s counterpart character in “Phantom Thread” seem emotionally threadbare by comparison. The film screens Jan. 18 and 19.
The world of fashion also figures in “Rue de l’Estrapade” (1953). So do auto racing and bohemianism. The film screens Jan. 18. It’s a comedy of adultery, but shot through with often-unsettling darkness. It’s unclear, in fact, how aware of that darkness Becker was. Louis Jourdan plays a straying race-car driver. Caught between his preening agitation and Daniel Gélin’s dourness as a scruffy musician is Anne Vernon. Visually at least, the most memorable thing in the movie may be Jourdan’s two-seater convertible. It’s everyday reality at its most sleekly stylish.
“Montparnasse 19” (1958), which screens Jan. 19, and “The Adventures of Arsène Lupin” (1957), which screens Jan. 20, are curios. The former is at once biopic, about the painter Amadeo Modigliani, and meditation on artistic creation. The film was the last project undertaken by Max Ophuls. It says a great deal both about the high regard in which his peers held Becker and his own devotion to the medium that the dying Ophuls asked him to take on the project and that Becker agreed. Like “Montparnasse 19,” “Adventures” is a period piece — but in circles sumptuous rather than impoverished. Robert Lamoureux plays the famous gentleman thief who’s a master of disguise. He’s an exemplary Becker character in being “always elegant and dignified,” as Truffaut put it. “What happens to Becker’s characters matters less than the way it happens to them.”
Becker’s final — and finest — film, “Le Trou” (1960), would seem to contradict Truffaut. What could be less “elegant,” let alone “dignified,” than an attempted escape from prison? And the title translates as “The Hole”? It screens Jan. 21 and 27. Yet in strictly filmic terms, the elegance is nearly absolute. That is to say, few films demonstrate a greater trust in the medium itself or understand so well how involving the act of just seeing can be. Or hearing: the crackle of cellophane, the drip of a leaky faucet, the echo of footsteps in a tunnel.
“Le Trou” is as unfancy as its title. There’s no music. The “sets” mostly consist of a prison cell and underground passages. There are no stars. The most remarkable performance comes from a nonactor, Jean Keraudy, who participated in the actual events that inspired the picture. What a face the man had: part slab, part hatchet.
Becker grasped that the true glory of motion pictures isn’t who (the miraculousness of the close-up notwithstanding). It’s certainly not where or when or why. If it were why, there’d be no need for voice-overs. No, it’s how, and “Le Trou” is a textbook demonstration of how-ness: from the use of a broken matchstick to steady a filed-through hinge to a reliance on string, brushes, and the workings of angular velocity to deliver objects from one cell to another. Before it’s an art, or even entertainment, the movies are a process, and “Le Trou” is to process as Gabin or Signoret is to star power.
Truffaut again: “Essentially he wanted to achieve an exactitude of tone, refining it more and more until it became evident, clear. Like all filmmakers who question themselves intensively, he eventually knew much more about what he wanted to avoid than what he wanted to get at.” In “Le Trou,” as in few films, the alignment between avoidance and achievement is so balanced that all it would take to throw it off would be one of those broken matchsticks. Instead, Becker puts them to different use.Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.