Born in Paris in 1906, the son of a wealthy industrialist and a Scotswoman of Irish descent, Jacques Becker developed an early passion for jazz, movies, and mechanics. Becker met his future mentor Jean Renoir during vacations spent at Marlotte, thanks to a mutual friend of their families, Paul Cézanne. Becker’s first official collaboration came with Renoir’s 1932 Maigret murder mystery, La Nuit du Carrefour, on which he served as second assistant director and production manager. He was then promoted to first assistant on Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), in which he had an amusing cameo as a poet on a park bench. Becker would remain Renoir’s assistant and closest collaborator until 1938, working on some of his greatest films, especially Grand Illusion. Becker was originally set to direct what would become The Crime of Monsieur Lange, but in a last-minute turnaround, the project was assigned to Renoir. This led to a brief falling out between the two friends.
Ironically, as was the case with other young hopefuls of the 1930s (Robert Bresson, Claude Autant-Lara, Henri-Georges Clouzot, and Jean Delannoy), Becker got his big break under the German Occupation. Repatriated home from a German POW camp (after having faked an epileptic fit), he finally made his first official feature, Dernier Atout (1942). He immediately went on to make two of the finest films of the Occupation years: Goupi Mains Rouges (1943) and Falbalas (1945). Though Becker was now one of the leading hopes of the post-war French cinema, he was not afraid of making films of modest thematic scope. Antoine and Antoinette (1947), a portrait of a young working class couple, was small in scale but enriched by Becker’s sympathetic attention to character and detail. These qualities also enhanced Rendezvous in July (1949), a group portrait of jazz-crazy young people in post-war Saint-Germain-des-Près. After another Parisian comedy about a young couple, Edouard and Caroline (1951), Becker produced the film he is perhaps best remembered by, Casque d’or (1952). Rue de l’Estrapade, another domestic comedy, followed in 1953, and then came Touchez pas au Grisbi (1954), starring Jean Gabin as an aging gangster. To the surprise of many admirers, Becker went from this triumph to direct the big-budget Fernandel vehicle Ali Baba et les Quarante Voleurs.
Becker followed this with The Adventures of Arsène Lupin (1956), a stylish comedy mystery about Maurice Leblanc’s gentleman-thief. Montparnasse 19 (1957), a project about the life of Modigliani, developed by Max Ophüls at the time of his death, was bequeathed to Becker. Becker’s final film, however, was one of his greatest artistic achievements: Le Trou (1960), an almost documentary style drama about an aborted prison break, based on an autobiographical novel by José Giovanni. Becker died during postproduction at age 53. Le Trou was finished by his son and then assistant, Jean Becker.
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