Jacques Becker (French: [bɛkɛʁ]; 15 September 1906 – 21 February 1960) was a French film director and screenwriter. His films, made during the 1940s and 1950s, encompassed a wide variety of genres, and they were admired by some of the filmmakers who led the French New Wave movement.
|Died||21 February 1960 (aged 53)|
|Notable work||Casque d'or|
Touchez pas au grisbi
|Spouse(s)||Geneviève Boyard (1931-1954)|
Françoise Fabian (1957-1960)
Born in Paris, Becker was from an upper-middle-class background. His father Louis Becker, from Lorraine, was corporate director for Fulmen, a battery manufacturer; his mother, Margaret Burns, of Scottish and Irish descent, managed a fashion house in rue Cambon near Chanel in Paris. He was educated at the Lycées Condorcet and Carnot and then at the École Bréguet. Becker was reluctant to pursue a business career like his father and at the age of 18 he went to New York. On a transatlantic liner he met the film director King Vidor who offered him a job but Becker turned it down.
Back in France Becker developed a friendship with Jean Renoir, whom he had first met in 1921 through their mutual acquaintance with the Cézanne family, and they discovered a shared enthusiasm for sports cars and jazz music as well as films. In 1929 Becker took a small acting role in Renoir's film Le Bled, and he went on to become Renoir's assistant for nine of his films of the 1930s. He also made brief appearances in some of them, such as La Grande Illusion (in which he played an imprisoned English officer who smashes his watch rather than allow the Germans to have it).
Becker had his first chance of directing a film of his own in 1939 with L'Or du Cristobal, but it ran into difficulties and he left the production after three weeks. After the outbreak of WW2 and the German invasion of France, Becker was captured and spent a year in a prisoner-of-war camp in Pomerania before getting released. Returning to occupied France, he was able to make his proper first feature, Dernier Atout (1942), thanks to a friend who was setting up an independent production company. Some of the filming of Dernier Atout took place around Nice on the Côte d'Azur and Becker used the opportunity to establish links between an anti-Nazi group of film-makers there and the Parisian resistance. In 1943 he was one of the film-makers who set up the Comité de libération du cinéma français to make preparations for the cinema after the war, and in the following year they organised filming of the uprising in Paris for the documentary La Libération de Paris. In the aftermath of the Liberation, Becker was among those who argued in support of Henri-Georges Clouzot and Robert Le Vigan when they were condemned for collaboration during the war.
Becker made two further films, of markedly different character, during the Occupation: Goupi Mains Rouges was a story of greed and murder in a remote French farming community, and Falbalas depicted the (more or less contemporary) world of the Parisian fashion business. After the war Becker made several films in comic vein which showed the everyday lives of young people in present-day Paris: Antoine et Antoinette (1947), Rendezvous de juillet (1949), Édouard et Caroline (1951), and Rue de l'Estrapade (1953). In the middle of these he made Casque d'or (1952), a tragic romance set during the Belle Époque and loosely based on a true story among the criminal gangs of the Parisian underworld. The film was not well received at its initial appearance, but following acclaim abroad it became one of Becker's most admired works.
Becker had a further success with Touchez pas au grisbi (1954) which relaunched the post-war career of Jean Gabin in the role of an aging gangster and introduced a distinctly French style of the gangster film which would become popular in the following years. Finding it nevertheless difficult to get financing for his projects, Becker next undertook a couple of commercial productions, Ali Baba et les quarante voleurs and Les Aventures d'Arsène Lupin, in which he found less scope to impose a personal touch (and the only two films he made in colour). In 1958 Becker took over the filming of Montparnasse 19 from Max Ophuls who died while preparing the project about the last years of the painter Modigliani, but because of its hybrid origins it remained a troubled production. In Le Trou (1960), which recounted in almost documentary fashion the planning of a prison escape (based on a real event of 1947), Becker was able to return to a more personal and rigorous style. It was Becker's final film and he died shortly before its release, which then brought some of the warmest acclaim of his career.
Becker was 53 when he died of lung cancer  in February 1960, and he was interred in the Cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris. His children by his first marriage included Jean Becker, who also became a film director (and assisted his father on several of his later films), and Étienne Becker who was a cinematographer. In 1957 the actress Françoise Fabian became Becker's second wife.
Perhaps because his career as a director was relatively short (13 features completed before his early death) and because the variety of his subjects and genres makes him difficult to categorise, Becker's reputation has tended to be overshadowed by those French film-makers who have fitted more easily into a critical narrative. He was however highly esteemed by many of his fellow film-makers. Jean Renoir, who knew him first as a friend and then as his assistant, described him as "my brother and my son ... someone who was both lovable and ardent", and he singled out Casque d'or as "one of the masterpieces of the screen". Jean-Pierre Melville was another friend, who regarded Becker's support for his early films as being crucial in giving him the confidence to continue his own career as a film-maker. He also described an example of Becker's perfectionism when he used Melville's studio to re-shoot scenes for Le Trou, repeating multiple takes before he felt satisfied that it was as good as it could be. Melville regarded Le Trou as one of the greatest films.
For the critic-directors of the New Wave in the 1950s, Becker was one of a select group of French film-makers whom they excluded from a moribund "tradition of quality" and regarded as auteurs, genuine creators of their own films who often wrote their own screenplays as well as directing. Jacques Rivette worked as Becker's assistant in 1954 on Ali Baba et les quarante voleurs. Jean-Luc Godard referred to Becker as "Frère Jacques". François Truffaut wrote often about Becker, and in an admiring review of Touchez pas au grisbi he argued that Becker's films stood apart from all theories and styles and were very much his own. They were notable less for their subjects or plots than for their economical, pared-down treatment and their explorations of character; "his work is a perpetual challenge to vulgarity, and it is a gamble Becker invariably wins, for his films are alway elegant and dignified".
Later assessments have taken up a number of these observations. Several critics have emphasised his attention to details, not only to create atmosphere but as a key to exploration of the characters who are linked to them. The prioritisation of character over plot is another recurrent feature which has been noted, especially in Becker's willingness to depart from the main thrust of the narrative to follow seemingly inessential moments in the lives of his characters through which they become more deeply embedded in their context.
The frequent observations that Becker's films are difficult to classify, because they are so varied in style and genre, are supported by a remark that Becker made about himself in an interview: he said that he had been haunted by the notion of being 'pigeon-holed', and this was something he had long paid attention to in his choice of work. Becker also expressed his ideas about film authorship in an article published in 1947, in which he argued that directors should work on their own screenplays and make their films personal. This was some years before proponents of the New Wave expressed similar principles.
The judgment that Becker's films can be seen as both classic and modern reflects the fact that he himself learned his craft as Jean Renoir's assistant on some of the great films of the 1930s and he went on to become an inspiration to some of the younger film-makers of the 1950s and 1960s, while his own films often drew intimate portraits of his own times in the years between.
|1935||Tête de turc||Medium-length film (42 mins)|
|Le Commissaire est bon enfant, le gendarme est sans pitié||Medium-length film (40 mins)|
|1940||L'Or du Cristobal||Cristobal's Gold||Becker left the film, which was completed by Jean Stelli|
|1942||Dernier Atout||The Trump Card|
|1943||Goupi Mains Rouges||It Happened at the Inn|
|1947||Antoine et Antoinette||Antoine and Antoinette|
|1949||Rendez-vous de juillet||Rendezvous in July|
|1951||Édouard et Caroline||Edward and Caroline|
|1952||Casque d'or||Casque d'or / Golden Marie|
|1953||Rue de l'Estrapade||Rue de l'Estrapade / Françoise Steps Out|
|1954||Touchez pas au grisbi||Touchez pas au grisbi / Grisbi / Honour Among Thieves|
|Ali Baba et les Quarante Voleurs||Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves|
|1957||Les Aventures d'Arsène Lupin||The Adventures of Arsène Lupin|
|1958||Montparnasse 19 / Les Amants de Montparnasse||Montparnasse 19 / The Lovers of Montparnasse||Becker took over the film from Max Ophüls who died while preparing the project|
|1960||Le Trou||Le Trou / The Night Watch / The Hole|
Assistant director edit
|Year||Title||English title||Directed by||Notes|
|1931||Y'en a pas deux comme Angélique||Roger Lion|
|Allô... Allô...||Roger Lion||Short|
|1932||La Nuit du carrefour||Night at the Crossroads||Jean Renoir|
|Boudu sauvé des eaux||Boudu Saved from Drowning||Jean Renoir|
|1933||Chotard et Cie||Chotard and Company||Jean Renoir|
|Madame Bovary||Madame Bovary||Jean Renoir||Uncredited|
|1936||La vie est à nous||Life Belongs to Us||Jean Renoir & collective||Becker directed one short sequence of this anthology film and was an assistant director|
|Les Bas-fonds||The Lower Depths||Jean Renoir|
|1937||La Grande Illusion||Grand Illusion||Jean Renoir|
|1938||La Marseillaise||La Marseillaise||Jean Renoir|
|1940||L'Héritier de Mondésir||The Mondesir Heir||Albert Valentin|
|1946||Partie de campagne||A Day in the Country||Jean Renoir||Produced in 1936|
- Vignaux, Valérie (2000). Jacques Becker, ou l'exercice de la liberté. Editions du CÉFAL. p. 11. ISBN 2-87130-088-7.
- Rège, Philippe (2010). Encyclopedia of French Film Directors. Vol. 1, A–M. Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press. p. 68. ISBN 9780810861374.
- Pinel, Vincent (2006). Cinéma français. Paris: Éditions Cahiers du Cinéma. pp. 145–147. ISBN 9782866423834.
- Mérigeau, Pascal (2016). Jean Renoir. Burbank, CA: RatPac Press. p. 78. ISBN 9780762456086.
- Renoir, Jean (1974). My Life and My Films. Translated by Denny, Norman. London: Collins. pp. 88–90. ISBN 0002167050.
- Siclier, Jacques (1981). La France de Pétain et son cinéma. Paris: Henri Veyrier. pp. 211–212. ISBN 2859568530.
- Crisp, Colin (1997). The Classic French Cinema. Bloomington, IN: Indiana U.P. p. 194. ISBN 0253211158.
- Bulletin officiel du CLCF (Comité de libération du cinéma français no.1, 23 octobre 1944, in Gallica (Bibliothèque nationale de France). Retrieved 2 September 2020.
- Siclier, Jacques (1981). La France de Pétain et son cinéma. Paris: Henri Veyrier. p. 242. ISBN 2859568530.
- Eisenschitz, Bernard. Jacques Becker: the very idea of freedom: notes from Il Cinema Ritrovato (Bologna) 2016. Retrieved 3 September 2020
- Bosséno, Christian-Marc & Dehée, Yannick (ed.) (2004) "Casque d'or" in Dictionnaire du cinéma populaire français des origines à nos jours. [Paris]: Nouveau Monde Éditions, 2004. p. 169. ISBN 2847360824
- Passek, Jean-Loup, ed. (1987). Dictionnaire du cinéma français. Paris: Larousse. p. 34. ISBN 2037200315.
- O'Donoghue, Darragh. "Beyond the visible: realism in the films of Jacques Becker", in Cinéaste, vol.44, no.1 (2018). (Archived at the Wayback Machine, 27/7/2020.) Retrieved 26 September 2020.
- Truffaut, François (1978). The Films in My Life. New York: Simon and Schuster. pp. 183–186. ISBN 0671244159.
- Vincendeau, Ginette. "Jacques Becker, the elusive auteur", in Sight & Sound, vol. 27(4), April 2017. pp. 50–54.
- Nogueira, Rui (1971). Melville on Melville. London: Secker and Warburg. pp. 77–79. ISBN 0436099217.
- Truffaut, François. "Une certaine tendance du cinéma français", in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 31, January 1954; translated in: Barry Keith Grant, Auteurs and Authorship: a Film Reader. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. pp. 9–18.
- Credits for Ali Baba et les 40 voleurs in BFI Films, TV & People. Retrieved 27 October 2020.
- In his obituary of Becker: Jean-Luc Godard, "Frère Jacques", in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 106, April 1960.
- Truffaut, François (1978). The Films in My Life. New York: Simon and Schuster. pp. 178–180. ISBN 0671244159.
- Perez Guillermo, Gilberto. "Jacques Becker: two films", in Sight & Sound, Summer 1969. p. 143: "...his films depend not on the gross accumulation but on the selection and heightening of physical detail; he could bring sensuously alive a drab and sparse prison setting. And with Becker the sensuous life of the physical environment is inseparable from the life of the characters. Objects ... are with him always perceived in a context of human activity and human meaning."
- Ebiri, Bilge. "For Jacques Becker, God was in the details", in The Village Voice, 3 August 2018: "He created entire worlds from the smallest details.... Becker knows how to direct our attention. These small particulars both pull us in further and lead us to a greater understanding of the story and characters. ... [Becker's] studied minimalism — a care for the in-between moments; the particulars that shape the everyday; the details that make our worlds knowable, and relatable — would gain greater importance in cinema in later years..."
- Brody, Richard. On Le Trou, in The New Yorker, 1 August 2018: "It’s nearly context-free, and has the feel of a work of pure virtuosity, in which the physical details that adorn Becker’s earlier films now become an end in themselves."
- Vincendeau, Ginette. "Jacques Becker, the elusive auteur", in Sight & Sound, vol. 27(4), April 2017. p. 53: "Consistently prioritising character over action and paying loving attention to faces and gestures, Becker's fictions are embedded in recognisable French backgrounds - he is in this sense close to Renoir. As he told Cahiers du cinéma, "I am French, my work is about the French."
- Vignaux, Valérie. Notes for the Jacques Becker rétrospective at the Cinémathèque française, April 2017: "...il révèle s’intéresser « aux personnages par un certain nombre de côtés qui ne sont pas seulement ceux qui sont indispensables à la compréhension de l’action.» Autant de moments anti-dramatiques où les personnages vivent et où nous découvrons leurs caractères à partir de gestes ou de situations inessentielles...." ("...[Becker] reveals that he is interested 'in the characters through various aspects which are not only those which are vital for understanding the story'. All those anti-dramatic moments in which the characters live their lives and we discover their characters through gestures or inessential situations....") Retrieved 28 October 2020.
- Quoted by Valérie Vignaux in notes for the Jacques Becker rétrospective at the Cinémathèque française, April 2017: "J’étais vraiment poursuivi par l’obsession d’être catalogué; et c’est une chose à laquelle j’ai prêté une grande attention pendant très longtemps."
- Becker, Jacques. "L’auteur de film? Un auteur complet", in L’Écran français, n. 123, 4 novembre 1947.
- Brody, Richard. On the Retrospective of Jacques Becker, in The New Yorker, 1 August 2018: "...in a 1947 article titled “The Author of Films: A Complete Author?,” he went into detail on the subject of the director as “auteur,” saying that “The author of a talking film tells a story with images, words, and sounds,” and emphasizing the importance of directors working on their own screenplays and making their films “personal,” whether the subject was one of their own invention or one provided by another writer. Becker proved his ideas with his films, even before the future New Wave, following in his footsteps, did the same."
- O'Donoghue, Darragh. "Beyond the visible: realism in the films of Jacques Becker", in Cinéaste, vol.44, no.1 (2018): "Becker is the crucial link between the two golden ages of French cinema—the 1930s experiments in realism of Jean Renoir, with whom he worked as assistant and creative collaborator for six years during the period he created most of his recognized masterpieces, and the New Wave directors who, as critics, interviewed Becker and celebrated him as one of the few French filmmakers of his era to eke out a distinctive personal style, and whose work they regularly cited and engaged with in their own as crucial intertexts." Retrieved 28 October 2020.
- Ebiri, Bilge. "For Jacques Becker, God was in the details", in The Village Voice, 3 August 2018: "Jacques Becker stands as an old-wave craftsman with a new-wave spirit."
- Vignaux, Valérie. Notes for the Jacques Becker rétrospective at the Cinémathèque française, April 2017: "Cinéaste classique et déjà moderne, il livre une réflexion sur la représentation du temps." ("A classic film-maker and at the same time a modern one, he gives a reflection on the representation of the time.")