Jacques Becker | Ali-Baba et les quarante voleurs | Le Trou
Classic Film and Television Home Page
Jacques Becker is a French director, a disciple of Jean Renoir.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (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.
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.