Jacques Becker | Ali-Baba et les quarante voleurs | Le Trou

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Jacques Becker

Jacques Becker is a French director, a disciple of Jean Renoir.

Ali-Baba et les quarante voleurs

Ali-Baba et les quarante voleurs (known as Ali Baba in English) (1954) is an engaging film version of the folk tale "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" in The Arabian Nights. Unlike many such works, neither the original story nor the film has any fantastic elements. Both take place in a highly stylized, mythologized world, but one without any jinn or magic.

An Architectural Director

Ali Baba has some elements in common with Becker's later prison escape film, Le Trou (1960). Both films are highly architectural. Most shots firmly anchor us within large, complex buildings, and show much of the architecture around the characters. Becker seems as architectural a director in these films as Fritz Lang.

In both films, the characters are often exploring buildings for the first time and experience a sense of wonder. These areas include the underground corridors in the prison in Le Trou, and the treasure caverns of the Forty Thieves in Ali Baba. Both of these regions are deep underground. Both grant the heroes deep desires: a promise of freedom for the prisoners in Le Trou, wealth for the poor Ali Baba and heroine Morgiane. Both areas seem magical, a combination of awesome architecture, underground locations, and an ability to grant human happiness.

The underground corridors in Le Trou, and the treasure caverns in Ali Baba, share architectural motifs:

Both films alternate between scenes of purposeful activity in the architectural locales, and scenes advancing the characters' personal lives. When Ali Baba is in the treasure cave, he makes a repeated effort to scoop up money from the cave. Such repetitive actions anticipate those of the prisoners in Le Trou, as they dig out of their prison.


While Ali Baba is nominally free, his life has much in common with the prisoners of Le Trou. The building in which he is Cassim's servant is full of guards, who control the lives of the people there. Morgiane is actually a slave, and a literal prisoner in the building. The rooms in which she and the other slave women are forced to live actually have bars on the windows, just like the cells of a prison. Becker frequently shoots conversations through these barred windows. Both Ali-Baba and the prisoners have to work around the guards, doing activities at times in which they are not vigilant, or moved elsewhere. This battle of wits is a central plot device in both films. Ali Baba and the prisoners are also always coming up with ingenious schemes, that advance their cause. Both have a tireless energy, and an idealism that tries to make their world a better place.

Class and Money

The treatment of rich and poor in the films also has much in common. Both films portray rich people as sneaky, corrupt and no good. By contrast, both films express a moving solidarity among the poor. Ali Baba is virtually a hymn to the virtue of sharing. This is an important dimension of both films, and quite emotionally involving. In both films the poor welcome the rich into their midst, only to have rich people turn on them. These scenes directly symbolize the director's political views. In real life Becker, like another left wing director, Robert Aldrich, came from a wealthy, upper class family. Both directors had a deep skepticism about the morality of their own social class, which often behaves quite viciously in their films.

A huge hidden treasure amassed by thieves also recalls Becker's earlier film, Touchez pas au grisbi (1953). However, the hero here is a vastly nicer and more decent person than those in grisbi. He is also much more honest. The thieves in Ali-Baba are actually bad guys, who get little sympathy from the director, unlike those in the earlier movie.

The Joy of Life: Clothes and Food

Becker was also notable for being fashionably and exceptionally stylishly dressed, and his heroes do the same in his films. They might be from a poor background, but they are always elegant and handsomely dressed. This after all is the movies! Ali Baba celebrates his beautiful new robes in the latter sections of the film. And the prisoners in Le Trou are the best dressed convicts in the history of film, being allowed to wear civilian clothes inside their cells. All of these men really know how to dress, a gift Becker had in real life.

In both films, food is a big issue. There are many shots of people eating, and much discussion of food. Becker's characters love sweets and deserts. This is consistent with Becker's sense of delight in the world around him, and his desire to please and entertain.

Camera Movement: Pans

Ali-Baba is full of gracefully executed pans. These occur in both the indoor and outdoor scenes.

The panning shots often follow a character in motion.

Virtually every shot in Ali-Baba is beautiful. Becker knows how to pick out and compose graceful images. The stately pans tend to move fairly slowly, designed to make a beautiful sense of motion on the screen. They are often combined with the equally pleasing motion of the characters. This is hardly an avant-garde use of pans; this is a standard approach to panning in the classical cinema, both Hollywood and European. But Becker executes this strategy with grace and visual beauty.

The two ends of the pans often reveal vistas. This is a fairly common approach to panning in the cinema. Becker will start out with one long vista, then pan till another deep view is revealed.

Becker seems to pan more often from right to left, if my memory serves me. His scenes are often set up so that the characters and camera start on the right, then move toward the left as the pan progresses. Some film scholars state that right to left motion on screen suggests "effort" and "difficulty". Certainly, Becker's characters are often making a big effort, struggling against hard circumstances.

Pans and Reverse Pans

The pans sometimes reverse themselves: Becker might pan from left to right, following a character, then track back from right to left when one character or another returns along the original route.

Both Ali-Baba and Le Trou take place in worlds far removed from daily reality. Becker gives his audience much pleasure in showing them unusual features of this world. The giant coffee pot in Ali-Baba is an example of the sort of visually unusual prop found in this world. It is unexpected and fun to look at, full of complex curves. Becker includes a whole panning shot following a servant from right to left as he brings the coffee over, then pans back from left to right as the servant returns, carrying the pot both ways. It completes a whole motion and activity on screen: the pouring of a cup of coffee. Such a complete motion recalls the films of Louis Feuillade, who also liked to show a complete activity within a single shot. Such simple delight in the beauty of the world, combined with graceful camera movement, is a pleasure of the classical cinema.

Camera movement along a path, followed by a reverse camera movement moving backwards along the same path, occurs in Murnau's Sunrise (1927) and Josef von Sternberg's Blonde Venus (1932). Later, it becomes a major stylistic feature in the films of Joseph H. Lewis and Max Ophuls.

Pans: Explaining Architecture and Geography

Pans can also be used to reveal scenery to the audience, before picking up on a character mid-way or at their end. The pans also help Becker's exposition: the viewer always has a very clear idea of the over-all geographic layout of the scene, because Becker's camera has panned over it. The exceptional clarity of Becker's exposition is a major asset here and in Le Trou. The audience always has a complete understanding of everything that is going on.

Towards the end of the film, there is a two-story palace room with a mezzanine. Becker includes a number of delightful panning shots that make a full circuit of the mezzanine. These combine Becker's interest in architecture with his pans.

Camera Movement: Tracks

There are also a few tracking shots in the film. Becker tracks along with Ali Baba as he tries to keep up with the bird-seller's moving caravan. Such an approach is more or less mandatory if the camera is to follow the action; it is as if Becker could not stage this scene any other way.

When Morgiane is dancing in Cassim's palace towards the beginning, Becker sometimes tracks in a little on her, or tracks out. These tend to emphasize moments when her feelings are becoming a bit intense. These motions are small and graceful, and not as underscored as the sometimes intense track-ins found in Hitchcock, and frequently employed in modern films.

In one pan in the garden, Becker seems to move his camera back in the middle of the pan, as the character moves from one path to another at a right angle. The short retreat of the camera helps establish a clearer view of the second path.

Camera Angles

Becker often shoots his scenes frontally and from eye level. This shows both his characters and the architecture behind them, in a direct straightforward way. There is something friendly about this angle. The viewer feels that they are taking part in the action, and seeing everything that are participant would.

Becker also sometimes employs an elevated angle. This can show the floor plan of a large room in a building. It can also be used to show many individual characters in a crowd of people. Whatever his choice of camera angle, it always: 1) makes a pleasing composition on the screen; 2) helps give a clear exposition of both the architecture and the characters on the screen.

One of the most beautiful scenes in the film is the finale, showing the great masses of people following Ali Baba. Becker first shoots them from elevated angles; then he gives a frontal, eye-level view.

Le Trou

Le Trou (1960) is Becker's final film. It is one of his finest works.

The scenes in which the lights move along the underground corridors remind on of the finale of Anthony Mann's He Walked By Night (1948), in which spectacular light patterns emerge along Los Angeles' underground storm drains.

A Geometric World

Many of the scenes involve small geometric objects: These objects, along with the prison walls and fixtures, help create a purely geometrical universe for the characters to inhabit.

Becker often arranges these objects to give a 3D emphasis to the staging. The objects will be jutting out, at different angles from most of the people or walls in the shot. This makes them look like 3D projections or protuberances, away from the main planes and surfaces of the shot.

Becker also gets much mileage out of geometric patterns on the floor. The wood paneling of the floor is arranged in a complex cross hatch pattern. In addition, there is a contrasting set of tiles around the bathroom fixtures, which are at a roughly 45 degree angle to the floor. This helps Becker create complex compositions with them. The different angles of the floor coverings, like the jutting objects in other scenes, helps give a vibrant sense of contrast to the directions of different objects and regions within the shot. The scene in which the mirror is shattered adds a third set of directions, by placing the small mirror at an different angle from the tile or wood paneling on the floor.


Le Trou is full of Becker's trademark panning shots. The pans here tend to be quicker, sometimes smaller in angle, and less conspicuous than those in Ali Baba. But they are regularly used to add motion to the composition.