Like Henri-Georges Clouzot with Le Corbeau, Jacques Becker made his first major film in 1943 (after, in Becker's case, a long period of close collaboration with Jean Renoir). Both directors chose the claustrophobic confines of a small country settlement as a metaphor for Occupation-era France. Becker's setting is even more restricted than in Clouzot's film, since his characters are all members of the same extended clan, the Goupi family; each member has a different nickname, ranging from Goupi Tonkin, a veteran of France's Asian adventures (part of a rich vein of commentary on France's relationship to her colonies), to the eponymous Mains Rouges (wonderfully played by Fernand Ledoux, the standout in a tremendous cast).
There's nothing bucolic about this country tale, however, which reveals spectacular jealousies and a mad dash for personal gain whenever the opportunity presents itself: like Clouzot, Becker never masks his cynicism about the motivations of many of his fellow-citizens during wartime.The film undermines the notion of a peaceful country retreat from the very beginning: when one of the clan, Goupi Monsieur, makes his way from Paris to his father's home -- a place he barely knows, due to the fact that his parents separated -- the atmosphere is about as welcoming as that of the opening segment of Tod Browning's 1931 Dracula, when Harker journeys to Transylvania, a sequence that was surely in Becker's mind.
Becker confidently switches registers from deep seriousness to high comedy in several virtuoso sequences, without the transitions ever seeming abrupt: the viewer is constantly on the back foot, never quite sure what to expect either with regard to the story or the treatment of events. The final joke comes after all seems lost, and yet it simply underlines the ability of this self-contained community to regulate itself and ensure continuity in the face of adversity, either personal or political.