A gangster movie/love story set in the underworld of Paris at the start of the 20th century, Casque d'or feels slight, but its images have a way of tantalizing you. Perhaps that's because it evokes paintings like Pierre-Auguste Renoir's Dance at Bougival and Luncheon of the Boating Party. Jacques Becker began his career as an assistant to Pierre-Auguste's son, Jean Renoir, so it's easy to guess that there's an element of hommage in Becker's film. (Jean Renoir's wife, Marguerite, also worked as Becker's film editor.) The film's title, which translates as "golden helmet," is a reference to the blond hair of Marie (Simone Signoret), whom we first see as part of a boating party that lands at a riverside dance hall. Marie is the mistress of the gangster Roland (William Sabatier), but they're clearly not getting along. So when a stranger, Georges Manda (Serge Reggiani), joins the company at the dance hall, Marie begins to flirt with him. Meanwhile, the head of the criminal syndicate of which Roland is a part, Félix Leca (Claude Dauphin), is also making a play for Marie. Georges is an ex-con, trying to go straight as a carpenter, but he is drawn into a fatal involvement with Marie. The performances of Signoret, Reggiani, and Dauphin, as well as a colorful supporting cast, carry the rather thin story a long way, greatly helped by Becker's finesse as a director. There is a real chemistry between Signoret and Reggiani, which Becker had noticed in their previous teaming as the prostitute and the soldier who set the sexual carousel turning in La Ronde (Max Ophuls, 1950). In their first dance together, which is reprised in a haunting flashback at the film's end, Georges holds Marie with one hand on her waist and the other arm hanging free at his side -- a suggestion of their innate intimacy. Later, when Georges sees her again at a café, Marie is dancing with Roland, but she keeps her gaze focused on Georges: Becker and cinematographer Robert Lefebvre execute a dizzying tour de force in following the spinning couple around the dance floor, as Marie turns to look at Georges after every spin. The evocation of the seamy side of the Belle Époque is greatly aided by the production design by Jean d'Eaubonne and the costumes by Mayo (né Antoine Malliarakis).
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party