Three Ways to Exit a Building: The Cohesive Style of Jacques Becker

Becker has dared to see his script for what it is: nothing … None of the episodes are dramatically necessary. If we try to tell the story, we soon see that it is composed of nothing but aborted, thwarted, and interrupted actions.
– André Bazin, 1953 [1]

Fine Form
Two men arrive at an apartment building, to intimidate, beat up or kill a target – who, in this case, unluckily for them, happens to be the seasoned criminal, Max (Jean Gabin). These men arrive in unusual clothing: long, white, medical coats. In the 1960s, in a Jean-Pierre Melville film, this would be a sign of something steely, cold, sinister, perverse. Here, it is a detail of the plot, already introduced to us, fleetingly, ten minutes earlier: these thugs disguise their actions – and also their disposal of any unconscious or dead bodies created by their nasty work – by posing as ambulance attendants, driving an appropriate vehicle.

Max knows these two guys have been tailing him in his cab. We see him watching, brooding, as he arrives home: closing the main entrance gateway, running up the darkened stairs. He avoids the lift, swiftly retrieves his gun from inside his apartment, and greets the men as the lift rises to his level: “This is a new game? Ambulance rally meets surprise party?” Max fires his gun, not to hurt or kill anybody, but to cause a commotion – thus rousing the old concierge who immediately calls the cops: Max is an expert at counting on consequences or expectations arising from any action performed.

Now the two guys, thwarted in their plan, try to flee. They try the normal, assumed exit route: down the stairs and out the front gate. But it is locked, and they can’t unfreeze it. The concierge, spying on them, gives them a second option: he releases the lock, so they can escape. Meanwhile, in a deft piece of cross-cutting, Max follows the track of an entirely different, third way out of the building: a back route that takes him, first, to a window where he can observe all that is happening on the street, and second, along a fence and onto a roof that eventually deposits him at a service entrance door, outside. He pauses in this passageway, in silhouette, looking back and forth; for the moment, his action is blocked. End of sequence.

The film is Jacques Becker’s celebrated Touchez pas au grisbi (1954). The scene is modest, swift, understated like so much in Becker: no blood (we will see only a single, startling glimpse of that near the film’s end), no violence, only the mild drama of a confrontation – or better, an outwitting, a game of Max knowing and making his move before his enemies can. The scene allows room for small but telling details of characterisation, even for characters we will hardly see elsewhere in the narrative: the surprise of the gangsters caught in the lift, the cowardly, self-preserving action of the concierge. The scene lays out, yet again, the terms of Max/Gabin as the intriguing hero of this crime story: his intuitions, his sensory impressions (what he sees, notices), his swift movements – and, above all, his eternal elegance in all things, even when he is menacing someone with a gun. [2]

But, above all, we have the quite obsessive attention to plotting space and – more exactly – place, a specific location or décor. Becker’s topographic attention to architecture, and all that it allows in a film, is on par with Fritz Lang or Jacques Tourneur. And not just monumental architecture, but the most humble and domestic of dwellings, fixtures and fittings: doors, gates, windows, stairs, walls, roofs. We come to learn about, and admire, the three different ways that one could exit this particular apartment building. And this is true of every single, individuated space – restaurant, nightclub, secret apartment, parking bay – outlined and explored in Touchez pas au grisbi.

In a striking and unique formulation, the critic Alain Masson once dared to summarise the components of film form in the following way:

What is form in a film? … In order to remain faithful to the cinematic art, we must include at least three elements in this determination of form. These elements can be rightly characterised by their various kinds of mobility within a mode of representation where movement constitutes the principal authority. The first of these domains, which provides repose, is the décor, the ensemble of objects defined as habitation or simply place, on which the camera angle confers a particular configuration. The second domain, open to specification by the possibility of spontaneous action, is roughly that of the characters (human or not), who only become intelligible through being followed. Third, camera movements, apprehended in their continuity or discovered across the intervals which separate successive shots, which are dependent on either the inevitable presence of a world (as implied by décor), or the free exercise of a subject (as implied by the action of characters) … Form results from the changing relations between places, gestures, and camera viewpoints. [3]

Places, gestures, and camera viewpoints: with this, we can begin to take the measure of Becker’s synthetic, cohesive art. But let us immediately add in a fourth, crucial and principal element: narrative. The mastery of Becker’s style is that all these four elements flow and advance simultaneously: a step or move in the plot is crystallised in a specific, physical gesture; it is mapped onto a detail of place (décor or environment); and it is staged and captured according to a precisely and economically mapped-out découpage.

Becker is sometimes called – misleadingly, in my opinion – a realist, or someone who, at any rate, made realistic films. The evident naturalism, the ease and fluidity of his cinema in fact come from his lack of ostentation: he is not the type of director we automatically praise for exhibitionistic camera movements, sudden overhead shots, or an overtly lyrical mise en scène. Because his films fold in on themselves in this way, putting the characters and their world in the foreground, and because so many details seem right or authentic (even if we have never experienced the historical period or the chosen milieu ourselves), they easily attract the label of realism. And yet, this penumbra of realism should never blind us to the concreteness and exactness of Becker’s film style.

Becker’s artistry must be located, discovered and experienced elsewhere than in the usual signs of filmmaking ostentation. Rather, what matters is his choice of what to include and exclude in a scene, or what to emphasise and what to downplay; in the tone he adopts and the mood he creates; in the total emotional and thematic effect of a movie’s overall structure. When François Truffaut remarked that Becker (who wielded an enormous influence on the younger director) worked “outside all styles”, [4] he meant that each project which Becker undertook was regarded by its maker as its own organism, with its own demands, requiring its own style.

No two films by him are really alike, except from the angle of approach or plan of attack that Becker takes. Identifying recurring themes (“In my work, I don’t want to prove anything except that life is stronger than everything else”) [5] is not the best or most appropriate way to go, as a critic, in studying Becker as an auteur. He was an auteur in his manner of making films, neither in the obsessive recycling of one, master story, nor in the inscription of a signature style. And we will only ever appreciate the essence of Becker’s art through grasping the substance of his craft – the types of small decisions he made as a director, one atop the next.

The Essential
In a general sense, Becker’s approach can be defined in two ways. First, in terms of his approach to genre expectations, to movie conventions and clichés of every sort and on every level. Becker set out to avoid them. Or, better yet, he used his ethical refusal of cliché as a spur to inventiveness, at every point of the filmmaking process.

Like Ernst Lubitsch, Becker took a problem-solving approach to narrative filmmaking. This is why Truffaut described him as “very finicky, absorbed by detail, obsessive, restless, and at times uncertain”. [6] And the problem to be solved was always: how do I show this, tell this, a little differently than usual? How do I navigate around the cliché? While nonetheless delivering (as the movie industry likes to say) to the average spectator on what he or she expects to see and experience, giving them that satisfaction. But also deepening this satisfaction with a twist, a surplus value provided by an unexpected emphasis, detail, mood or suggestion. This is precisely what Becker achieved so richly in relation to genres including the heist crime thriller (Grisbi), the marital romantic comedy (Antoine et Antoinette, Edouard et Caroline), the historical costume picture (Casque d’or), and the prison-break film (Le Trou, 1960).

The second general way in which Becker’s approach can be defined is in terms of his particular investment in everyday life as privileged subject matter. “He loved to make detailed films about ordinary things – a misplaced jacket, a lottery ticket”, testified Truffaut. [7] He skips over normally dramatic scenes (deaths, confrontations) and lingers on daily events, rituals. No wonder that Jean-Luc Godard, when he paid tribute to Becker in 1960, was able to evoke the moment of the filmmaker’s passing with reference to exact scenes from his oeuvre: “It was Sunday morning, the hour when Max plays his favourite record, when Lupin meets the Princess at Maxim’s, when day finally dawns over the 7 rue de l’Estrapade”. [8] Truffaut can, once again, be trusted for his special insight into Becker: “He keeps only what is essential … even the essential part of the superfluous. He will skimp what another director would treat most seriously in order to linger over the characters eating breakfast, buttering a roll, brushing their teeth.” [9]

This leads to a special feeling in Becker’s work; as André Bazin described it, we come to “love the characters independently” of their place in the “infrastructure of the plot” or its given movie genre. [10] This loops back to the previous, general point: the detailed attention given to characterisation is so specific, so precise, that it shakes free of the standard clichés, and no longer plays a purely functional or instrumental role in a predictable scenario. This is precisely why Becker made it a practice to collaborate on the scripts for his films: according to Truffaut, it allowed him “to avoid the sorts of scenes and cues typical of scenarists, and to create scenes a typical scenarist wouldn’t think of”. [11]

With these generalities in mind, let us now return to the four-fold formal construction of Becker’s films around the interrelation of place, gesture, découpage, and narrative.

André Bazin was not an unconditional fan of Becker, but he certainly rates among the director’s most perceptive critics since, as a critic, he shared in a particular generation’s sympathetic identification with those special filmmakers who worked between the end of Liberation and the start of the Nouvelle Vague, creating a personal cinema: Ophüls, Tati, Clouzot and Bresson. Bazin wrote something brilliant about the role of place in Becker. Settings, as revealed by the camera and the découpage, are “precise, but partial”. [12] These settings are never given to us all at once; rather they are unfolded in steps, in stages, revealing now one face or side, and then another face. Different logics, according to the dramatic or comedic demands of each film, govern this gradual unveiling of place.

In Grisbi, for example, key settings have a public face – dining in the restaurant, showgirls on the stage – and then a private, secluded, often secret face. In the central nightclub belonging to the criminal boss, for instance, we pass from the public area to the private office – and then, in a further twist, we suddenly descend to the literal underground of this same site, where nasty scenes of interrogation and violence can occur.

Likewise, once we have come to know Max’s apartment (where the men in white coats arrive), we are unexpectedly introduced to a second, secret abode. Here, his car parked in the downstairs parking garage hides in plain sight its own secret: the grisbi of the film’s title, the stolen gold bars. This is another paradoxical twist of private and public, narrated to us in the manner beloved of Becker: we discover the facts, the aspects, the hidden sides of everything, in a linear fashion, without excessive underlining in dialogue or through portentous flashbacks – just by following the characters as they navigate the often treacherous paths from one site to another.

In this linear unfolding of story, there is a strong interdependence, from the filmmaker’s viewpoint, of gesture and setting. That is to say, it is gestural acts that slowly reveal to us the true nature or character of a place; while, at the same time, the place conditions, circumscribes and limits the types of gestures that can be performed within it. At the start of Grisbi, we are introduced to a restaurant. We will soon learn that this is a more-or-less private mob restaurant, reserved for criminals. But it is not pointed dialogue or any heavy-handed signs and indices that tell us this. Again, Becker opts for an indirect narration, an unusual, inventive approach. As Gilles Deleuze theorised the process: “It is as if an action, a mode of behaviour, concealed a slight difference, which was nevertheless sufficient to relate it simultaneously to two quite distant situations, situations which are worlds apart”. [13] For Becker, these worlds tend to be social classes, groups, subcultures. We learn what the restaurant in Grisbi really is at the moment that a group of ordinary citizens venture in, stare longingly at the array of food – and are then quickly ushered out by the proprietor. Everything we need to know is told by this string of gestures; the order constituting this criminal world slowly dawns on us as viewers.

An important caveat: within this general interdependence of human gesture and social milieu, Becker’s characters are never entirely free nor entirely determined. Serge Toubiana notes another essential aspect:

Becker’s art is thus that of intimacy and sharing, founded on various concrete elements. No general ideas, no grandiloquence. The mise en scène is often confided to the characters themselves: those who arrange [mettent en scène] their own space of play, movement, action. Becker proceeds by a sort of delegation of the mise en scène. This is an essential trait of his cinema: we get the impression that he hands power over to his characters. The action is precise, evolving within space and décor, involving objects, lighting, the crossing of space. [14]

Playing for Time
Grisbi belongs to a second, major phase in Becker’s evolution as a director. In the 1940s, for example in Antoine et Antoinette, he still favoured (as Bazin notes) montage structures, featured in bravura passages – bold intercutting to indicate comparisons and establish differences (slight or vast). Casque d’or inaugurates a modulation into his characteristic approach of the 1950s, where, according to Bazin, Becker concentrates on “the direction of the actor, the internal tempo of the image, the sharpness of details and their relationships”. [15]

The overall narrative structure of Becker’s films is, as Truffaut rightly noted, ingenious – at once “strong” and “oblique”. [16] The careful rhyming of the first and last scenes of Grisbi offers a great example of this process at work. At the conclusion, we return to the restaurant. On the surface, nothing has changed; it is business as usual. Is this ending, therefore, the oldest cliché in cinema: life goes on, the earth turns, the everyday world persists? No. First, because of a significant “slight difference”: Max has brought with him, for the first time, his society girlfriend, who is not a part of the criminal underworld, and may not even be aware of her lover’s association with it. Her presence represents Max’s sincere attempt, after his botched last job, to reach a respectable life. At the same time, certain repetitions – especially of the Grisbi musical theme by Jean Wiener, cued by Max once more on the jukebox – allows us to remember and reflect upon all that has happened (Becker’s films are full of these iterative reminders); we can then weigh the volume and the mixed emotions of the preceding narrative. Some gestures point toward the future, while other, more ritualistic movements evoke the past – here, as always, and as many commentators have observed, Becker aims for just the right tone, just the right, bittersweet balance of contrary moods.

Like Luchino Visconti, Becker tied together narrative with place and gesture through his almost maniacal attention to the succession of day and night. Jean-Claude Carrière, in his superb book The Secret Language of Film, underlines how important it is for a spectator to feel – even without consciously noticing – the natural cycle of the succession of days and nights in a film; or else, to be subjected to deliberate variations or subversions of this planetary rhythm, in the service of some particular, disorienting effect. Becker stuck rigorously, in this regard, to what Carrière refers to as “uniform rhythm” and “smooth tempo”. [17] This is the classical side of Becker’s art: he knew there was always a mood-effect, keyed to the story and the characters, to be drawn from the dying of the day, the breaking of dawn, the twilight moments, the scheduled daily meals, and those personalised rituals such as Max’s Sunday morning playing of his favourite record … Grisbi offers a quietly dazzling day-to-night construction – two nights (the second being the decisive night of action) and two days – which rightly led Jacques Lourcelles to anoint it “doubtless the most Hawksian of French films”. [18]

Yet, within this smooth, temporal order, Becker knew masterfully well how to play with film-time, how to stretch it out deliciously, or telescope it economically. Referring to the continuous, twenty-five-minute sequence that opens Edouard et Caroline, Tom Milne described it as suggesting “a slow-motion Preston Sturges”. [19] Toubiana, more exactly, breaks it down into a play of “several temporal micro-unities”, five durations of action, whether successive or simultaneous: searching for a jacket, playing a Chopin piece on the piano, making a telephone call, installing a newly arrived piano, and getting to know a visiting family group. Toubiana observes how speech – whether on- or off-screen – constantly “gives birth to new spaces … from the salon to the vestibule, from the vestibule to the stairs, from the stairs to the Beauchamps’ apartment, then to Alain’s room”. [20] Again, as in Grisbi, a topography of places and spaces is meticulously, painstakingly laid out for our ongoing, almost unconscious memorisation as spectators.

This sequence in Caroline et Edouard, which implies a real-time procedure, in fact plays all sorts of subtle games with shortening and lengthening its announced clock-time. For instance, the neighbours who arrive “in thirty minutes” actually take only seven and a half minutes in screen-time! The fine plasticity of time and space is so well shaped by Becker that it is not uncommon for critics to sometimes completely misremember the real, fragmented découpage of a sequence, substituting for it instead a realistic flow and unity. This is exactly what Milne did when he recollected not the letter but certainly the spirit of a famous sequence in Grisbi:

As he installs Riton in the spare apartment he has thoughtfully provided for himself in case of need, the roving camera lingers on the luxuriously appointed bathroom, the pâté de foie gras in the refrigerator, the cupboard laden with fresh bed-linen and silk pyjamas, the lighter and box of cigarettes placed by the bedside. [21]

What Milne evokes as a panoramic “roving camera” is, in fact, distributed in details all throughout the sequence, arising as the characters’ gestures reveal them. But perhaps Becker would have been quite pleased at this impression or gestalt that his style, here and everywhere in his work, creates.

Becker’s cinema offers a quite particular impression of reality, one that arises not from the raw footage caught by the camera, but from the finest craft, skill and artifice. Jean-Pierre Gorin said it perfectly in relation to Le Trou: “Pure filmic pleasure, more complex than it appears, because all depends on the intensity with which Becker piles details upon details”. [22]

This essay first appeared, in both English and Spanish, in Quim Casas & Ana Cristina Iriarte (eds), Jacques Becker (Donostía Zinemaldia Festival de San Sebastián/Filmoteca Española, 2016), pp. 151-161.

[1] André Bazin (trans. Bert Cardullo), “The Cinema of Jacques Becker: Four Original Reviews”, Film Literature Quarterly, Vol. 34 No. 4 (2006), p. 253.
[2] For a more detailed analysis, consult my audio commentary on the Australian DVD edition of Touchez pas au grisbi (Melbourne: Madman, 2010).
[3] Alain Masson, “Le boxeur transfiguré (Raging Bull)”, Positif, no. 241 (April 1981), p. 48 (translation mine).
[4] François Truffaut (trans. Leonard Mayhew), The Films in My Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978), p. 178. For more on Becker’s influence on Truffaut, see my “The Untimely Moment and the Correct Distance”, in Dudley Andrew & Anne Gillain (eds), A Companion to François Truffaut (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), pp. 205-217.
[5] Quoted in the Criterion DVD edition of Le Trou (New York, 2001).
[6] Truffaut, The Films in My Life, p. 177.
[7] Ibid., p. 187.
[8] Jean-Luc Godard (trans. Tom Milne), Godard on Godard (London: Secker & Warburg, 1972), p. 163.
[9] Truffaut, The Films in My Life, p. 179.
[10] Bazin, “The Cinema of Jacques Becker”, p. 253.
[11] Truffaut, The Films in My Life, p. 178.
[12] Bazin, “The Cinema of Jacques Becker”, p. 253.
[13] Gilles Deleuze (trans. Hugh Tomlinson & Barbara Habberjam), Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. 161.
[14] Serge Toubiana, “Actualité de Jacques Becker”, in Jacques Aumont (ed.), La mise en scène (Brussels: De Boeck, 2000), p. 206 (translation mine).
[15] Bazin, “The Cinema of Jacques Becker”, p. 254.
[16] Truffaut, The Films in My Life, p. 177.
[17] Jean-Claude Carrière (trans. Jeremy Leggatt), The Secret Language of Film (London: Faber & Faber, 1995), pp. 119-121. For more on this theme, see my Mise en scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art (London: Palgrave, 2014).
[18] Jacques Lourcelles, Dictionnaire du cinéma. Les films (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1992), p. 1453 (translation mine).
[19] Tom Milne, “Jacques Becker”, in Richard Roud (ed.), Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, Volume 1 (London: Secker & Warburg, 1980), p. 107.
[20] Toubiana, “Actualité de Jacques Becker”, pp. 213-214.
[21] Milne, “Jacques Becker”, pp. 108-109.
[22] “Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Top 10”, Criterion website, undated [].

© Adrian Martin, April 2016

About the Author

Adrian Martin

About the Author

Adrian Martin

Adrian Martin is an Australian-born film and arts critic living in Malgrat, Spain. He is the author of nine books since 1994, and thousands of articles and reviews since 1978. His website of writings is all posts by Adrian Martin →