Tuesday, December 5, 2017


Rififi (aka "Du Rififi Chez Les Hommes") (Jules Dassin, 1955)

It's not a word that people use/
Among the "swells" and "Who's Who"/
It's the lingo of the streetwise/
The battle cry of real tough guys/
So don't try your brain and grumble/
All it means is "rough and tumble"

A vital missing piece (in my viewing, anyway) in the career of director Jules Dassin (of Middleton Connecticut, Harlem and the Bronx—it's pronounced "Dass'-in,") is this second European film of his exile from America and the Hollywood Black List (he had not made a film since 1950's Night and the City, which he'd filmed in London at the behest of producer Darryl F. Zanuck). Rififi is not well regarded as literature (Francois Truffaut said at the time of its release "Out of the worst crime novels I ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best crime film I've ever seen."), and Dassin was not the first choice as director (that was Jean-Pierre Melville-I'll have to look at Le Samouraï one of these days), but he needed a job, and managed to turn the book (which he also didn't like) into a cracklingly dark caper movie about a motley crew of thieves knocking over a jewelry store. The leader, Tony le Stéphanois (Jean Servais in a nicely played, tubercular performance that recalls Humphrey Bogart) isn't interested, having just served a stretch in prison for a previous crime, but relents after finding his girl having taken up with a local gangster. Rather than the fast snatch-and-grab proposed to him, though, he up's the ante, going all in only if, rather than just grabbing some jewels, the group steals the entire contents of the store's safe, the latest in security.

The scheme is elaborate, involving casing the joint for police walk-by's, then doing a home-invasion of the apartment above it, and drilling through the floor/ceiling to gain access in order to disarm the high-tech, high-sensitivity alarm system. This sequence, which works out to nearly half an hour of screen-time is un-scored, reliant on natural sound...and as the heist occurs in the middle of the night, every screeching, tearing, hammering sound could betray the enire operation. It's a nail-biter, one of the better crimes in film history, and the model for every highly planned knock-over since.

The robbery is the big set-piece, but it's merely the middle of the film. It's buttressed by the set-up and subsequent fall-out resulting in a rival gang's extortion, a kidnapping, and the gradual dissolution of the gang, a section that, after the tension of the robbery, becomes more and more free-wheeling, taking off, playing on the relationships established in the film's first third, the audience's complicity in the robbery, and by itself, becoming a tour de force. At the same time, it makes an interesting change-up from the rest of the film as "le Stéphanois" becomes a one-man wrecking crew, balefully upholding his criminal code while also trying to "do the right thing," culminating in a desperate drive through Paris that has a thrilling manic intensity with nary a car crash nor explosion (why, they don't even crash through a fruit-stand).

Rififi is a showcase for Dassin's talents* as an adapter and director, taking the noir film back to the place where the phrase was first coined, by one of "da guys" in Hollywood who'd created and perfected the dark mysteries of the genre, and making it work no matter which city streets are drenched with a forbidding rain.  

* The production of Rififi was so hurried—Dassin wrote the script in six days—and strapped for cash that when an Italian actor he'd chosen for the safe-cracker failed to receive his contract, Dassin just took over the role himself.  There is some irony there: (SPOILER ALERT) the character of Cesar ultimately gives away the mob to a rival gang and suffers a fate for it. Dassin, had fled the the U.S. and his successful Hollywood career as director Edward Dmytryk had named him as a communist before the House Un-American Activities Committee.

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