By Edward Karam
Updated January 24, 2005 at 05:00 AM EST

EW reviews two classic Jacques Becker films

Jacques Becker had the misfortune of working just before the French new wave took hold and rendered his kind of craftsmanship unfashionable. But two new Criterion releases, Casque d’Or and Touchez Pas au Grisbi, demonstrate his mastery of narrative and his preoccupations with male friendship, gangsters, and honor among thieves.

In the belle epoque Casque, a ravishing Simone Signoret plays Marie (the title, ”Golden Helmet,” refers to her hair), a gangster’s moll who can take a slap unflinchingly. When Marie meets Manda (Serge Reggiani), an ex-con-turned-carpenter, It’s love at first sight, but their relationship is complicated by her current lover, along with his unscrupulous boss. Manda eventually faces a hard choice: to be with Marie or to sacrifice himself to save a buddy from the guillotine. Becker evokes the world of apaches — edgy nightlife, division of spoils — meticulously, and the actors shun sentimentality (though Reggiani lacks Signoret’s charisma).

In the splendid film noir Grisbi (slang for ”loot”), Jean Gabin discards all vanity — puffy-eyed, jowly, thickening at the middle — in a comeback role as gangster Max le Menteur. Max has pulled off a gold heist with his hapless buddy Riton (René Dary), but when Riton blabs to his duplicitous doxy (a ponytailed Jeanne Moreau), he is kidnapped by an up-and-coming drug dealer (Lino Ventura) who wants the gold as ransom. Grisbi owes a debt to Hollywood noir, but Max’s weary air is pure paris: The jaded boulevardler even leaves a club before the dancer he’s dating has finished her show, because he can’t muster the energy for sex. It’s a mark of Becker’s artistry that Max and Riton munching forlornly on pâté and biscuits is as memorable as the climactic battle with machine guns and grenades.

EXTRAS Brief interviews with the principals; on Casque, a TV doc on Becker and a fine audio commentary.

Casque: B+
Grisbi: A-