Casque d’Or, 1952. 10/10

Simone Signoret stars as Marie, girlfriend of criminal gang boss Felix Leca (Claude Dauphin). She’s also ‘kept’ by another dapper criminal, Roland (William Sabatier). Despite these entanglements, Marie falls in love with a reformed criminal, Georges Manda (Serge Reggiani). Set in La Belle Epoque (late nineteenth century) France, this is a beautiful production.

Co-stars include Raymond Bussieres as Raymond, Odette Barency as Eugenie, Emile Genevois as Billy, Paul Azais as Ponsard, Dominique Davray as Julie, also Police Inspector Juliaini (Paul Barge), and the Superintendent (Tony Corteggiani).

Couldn’t have a more pastoral beginning, as we see a rowing excursion on a lazy river. They dock near the entrance to an open-air cafe. Laughing and giggling, the women troop in, while an elderly lady gives them dirty looks. Then the guys saunter by, they’re either kind of lit up, or just having a very good time.

Georges Manda, on a bit of a carpentry job, meets Raymond. They haven’t seen each other in years, since doing time together. Unsurprisingly, Raymond’s with the criminal gang–that is to say–the boating party. Marie dances with Roland, very reluctantly. She glances a bit at Georges, who sits down with their group.

I find it odd that he’s only introduced to the men by name, the women are just, collectively, “our ladies.” Anyway, Marie wants to dance with Georges; Leca is instantly jealous. She obviously likes the carpenter, and when he punches the immature, annoying Leca, she follows him out to say goodbye.

At Georges’ shop, Billy and Ponsard stop to chat. Later they talk about his boss and the boss’s daughter. From her friend’s hotel, Marie sees the two guys approach; they’re on a mission to fetch her for Leca. At Leca’s wine shop, the guys say “here’s the goods” (meaning Marie). Leca’s thing is that it’s “it’s bad for business” for her to be fooling around behind Roland’s back.

He says he’s going “buy” her off Roland. Anyway, Leca calls the gang in for a meeting–its payday actually. Now’s the time for a Roland-Leca one-on-one. Roland gets slapped around for filching some money.

Meanwhile, Marie sneaks up in a cab on Georges’ shop; he goes out to meet her. They walk around and start making out, but the boss’s daughter confronts her and tells her that Georges is engaged. Now it’s Marie’s turn to be upset, mostly at the other woman for calling her a “whore,” but she slaps Georges’ into the bargain.

Next scenes at a ritzy club, The Angel Gabriel. Leca sits with the Police Inspector; Marie comes in with Julie. Leca approaches Marie about the ‘deal’ with Roland; but, look, here’s Georges. He says he’s “come for her.” With that statement, the good old boys give him a once-over.

That’s because, Roland isn’t cool with the uppity Georges. There’s a standoff, with a host of on-lookers, including Leca. Basically, Roland wants to ‘take it outside.’ Marie fills in Leca about Georges, and reminds him of the dancing incident after the boating party.

The disputants, and the entourage, collect themselves in an alley. Leca intervenes. Incredibly, Leca and Roland consider that Georges might want to make a cash ‘offer’ for her. “You’d rather fight to save money” they discern. Leca dismisses most of the chumps.

Geez, they’re going to race for a switchblade midway between them…Roland gets the knife, but Georges wrestles him to the ground and eventually kills him with it. Somewhat superficially, all they can think about is finding Marie. Leca’s impressed with George’s ability, and offers to let George’s into their gang.

She’s amazingly blase about the whole thing, to the point that she just says that she’s leaving, as though nothing’s going on. Back in the club, Marie collects Julie; but Leca holds her up. Just then, the gendarmes arrive, and find the corpse.

Marie looks on, asking Leca how Georges’ made out; he tells her that he got away all right, and will probably make himself scarce. At the carpenter’s shop, Georges’ packs, saying goodbye to the boss. What’s he going to do? Well, a boy gives him a note; it’s from Raymond, to meet him in Joinville (the river town that was the setting in the opening scene).

A older peasant woman, Eugene, tells him to look for Raymond down by the river. Who is it showing up in a rowboat, but Marie. It’s a nice scene, as she comes upon him sleeping on the river bank. Well, next thing you know he’s waking up again, having slept with her.

At Eugene’s cottage, that is (is she Marie’s grandma?). This is all very touching and romantic. They go walking in the woods. “I’m staying here” she announces. In town, Leca is walking about, and goes into a bar. The locals are talking about one of their buddies who’d just been crushed to death in a construction accident.

He’s obviously a big deal there; when he goes in the back room, it’s clear that his guys probably had something to do with the ‘accident.’ Anyway, Leca and Fredo discuss the happy couple. They’ve been seen around, but they don’t know where they’re holed-up at. Are they going to extort Georges in exchange for not turning him in? Or is this about Marie?

There at “Ma Eugene’s,” they say. Raymond tells Leca to lay off Georges, meaning, in effect, to lay off Marie. Leca tries to blow him off by saying he could care less about Georges, which is a defensive way of giving in. The local corrupt cop arrives, cutting their meeting short. Well, he gets in a dig at Raymond by telling the cop that the guy’s a murderer.

Looks like Georges and Marie walk into a wedding. She asks suddenly, “do you love me, Manda?” No answer, really. Upon leaving, they come across the nefarious Felix Leca. Some banter about weddings–it’s all pleasanties; until Leca drops the hammer. It’s Georges’ buddy Raymond who’s been fingered for Roland’s murder; so now Georges has nothing to worry about.

Except (which is obvious) that not only is his friend the accused, but that Leca’s behind it “Don’t worry, he won’t talk.” That’s no consolation. Now what? Marie gets Georges to come to bed, “Stop thinking about it…think about me” she tells him. She’s right, but it sounds selfish; it’s his fault that his friend is railroaded (technically, it’s Leca’s fault). When she wakes up, he’s gone; he left a paper which says that Raymond is indeed the “Angel Gabriel killer.”

Leca’s guys aren’t happy about the deal–for the obvious reason that it’s incorrect, and, besides, Raymond’s one of them. Plus, they were there, or nearby, when the fatal fight was on. “Next thing you know, we’re all in hot water!” (Because the cops might readily believe Raymond’s account; Georges was the only one with a motive, after all).

Well, it seems that Leca is very two-faced; on the one hand he’s protecting Georges (because “he’s a regular guy”), but, then, impugning Raymond is hardly helpful to Georges. Anyway, Marie drops in on Leca. She tells them that George’s has turned himself in. Knowing him, that makes sense, but is she just saying it?

“Only you can help me” she admits. The price? Herself, it seems. At the police station, there’s a stir about the Roland Dupuis case; that is, Georges basically gives a confession. Then they bring in Raymond. The friends exchange looks, Georges is taken away.

We remember that the Inspector was in cahoots with Leca; so he sort of saves face by haranguing Raymond. He’s an accessory, in possession of Roland’s stuff, whatever. Rather incredibly, Marie expects that Leca will engineer an attack on the paddy wagon to spring Georges.

That would make some poetic justice, not to mention it would also extend her romance with Georges. But why would Leca go to all that trouble? We’ve got to think that his original motive was to get Marie for himself, and, even though he has some respect for Georges, why stick his neck out so far?

She tells him off–he hits her, and leaves. At the jail, he’s joined by Raymond, off to the paddy wagon. As they’re herded into it, there’s a touching moment–here’s Marie trying to give them some goodies. Raymond tells George’s about Leca’s role in their plight “he did it to trick you, so he could have Marie.” But why the elaborate ruse–why wouldn’t Leca have just turned in Georges?

Anyway, Marie is up to something, as she emerges from a cab when the paddy wagon gets to the prison. Cool! She runs interference for the guys, giving them an opportunity to overpower the guards. They escape in her cab, although Raymond is shot.

Great denouement in store! The old boys at the hideout gets a wake-up call when Georges busts in, demanding Leca. He’s not there; but Georges tells them to get a doctor for Raymond. At Leca’s, he finds Marie’s slippers. Leca appears at the bar, discovering the guys huddled around the now-dead Raymond.

Leca ducks into the police station, asking to see the Inspector. That worthy isn’t in–but hey, here’s Georges! He pulls a pistol from a rack of gendarmes’ gear, and jumps into a side room where Leca tries to hide. Execution style, he empties the clip on the crime boss.

Meanwhile, Marie gets a lift to a rooming house. This has the spiral staircase from hell; with a view of hell down below: Georges’ execution–didn’t know they still used the guillotine in the 1890s (or thereabouts). Well, we get some of Marie’s flashbacks of her first dance with Georges, then we’re ‘fin.’

This movie was immaculately done. Everything fits: each character, each nuance of the plot, and, above all, the nostalgic setting. It’s much more of a romance than a crime story. Signoret is beautiful, enchanting, beguiling. Not to mention strong, clever, and (mostly for sociological reasons) vulnerable.

With her and Reggiani, there’s the natural ease that goes with mutual attraction. It’s certainly not all rainbows and happy trees for them; in fact, it’s hard to think of a more star-crossed pair. Roland and Leca are formidable adversaries–Roland is more dangerous when dead, it seems. Plus, there’s the tragic ending. This movie was made within the dim spectrum of the existentialist era in French philosophy–not to mention the noir movement in both French and American movies.

The determinist theme kind of ensnares the characters. Georges can’t escape his past (as Marie is in the middle of the gang, as well as Raymond). Nonetheless, in between the strokes of fate, there’s plenty of room for lighter, happier moments. The dance scene, Georges and Marie’s walks together, her sneaking up when he’s napping by the river–the beauty of their love that shows here and there, that’s their lives.

The sordid stuff, while inescapable, just doesn’t seem as important. Another type of love shown here is the close friendship between Raymond and Georges. On the other hand, there’s relationships that are highly contingent. It’s no coincidence that no one really cares about either Roland or Leca; in fact, they don’t even like each other.

Marie’s role is nearly impossible. In that period, a woman without the connections that social standing would bring, is pretty much a step away from the streets without a guy that’s got the means to ‘keep’ her. That’s why she’s so cunning; she’s got to go with which way the wind’s blowing. If guys argue over her, her ‘value’ goes up. Which is not to say that she enjoys this status–twice she’s literally ‘for sale.’ She’s stuck.

Leca is interesting too; surely he’s a jerk, and a manipulator; he does see, however, that Georges deserves Marie as much as Roland. Possibly he’s fascinated by Georges’ incorruptibility, and even admires him for that. He does everything to make the fight between the other two guys fair.

I thought briefly that the cops would look the other way on the Roland v. Georges fight–afterall, it was a duel. In any case, neither murder victim should solicit much sympathy. This too is ironic: Georges, the decent guy, is executed for killing two guys the police would just as soon get bumped off anyway.

The very ‘blindness’ of justice works against the sense of good v. evil. In a sense, both murders are crimes of passion, and not necessarily crimes against society.

This movie is quietly spectacular; unlike straight film noirs, it has a much greater tonal range. Sort of an adult fairy tale; picturesque, yet tragic. 10/10.

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