Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Rififi (1955) Spine #115

For any film, there are two stories.  One is what we see when we watch.  The other is how the movie came to be.  The second, at times, can eclipse the first, like with The Firemen’s Ball.  But for others, both stories can be equally compelling.

Such is the case with Rififi (1955).  Finally I get a French picture on the list, given my blog title.  Rififi is the story of a thief just out from prison who immediately turns back to crime.  Tony (the Stephanois) doesn’t really take all that much convincing.  In the scene where Tony, Mario and Jo (the Swede) sit in a café (which really isn’t a café but some panes of glass blocking off part of the street) across from the jewelry store they intend to rob, Tony claims he is not interested.  The two want to do a brazen smash-and-grab.  Tony later hatches a much grander scheme, involving a great deal more risk for more reward.  They enlist the help of an Italian safecracker, Cesar (played by the director, Jules Dassin, who stepped in when the actor originally slated to play the role was not sent his contract in time), find a front in London, case the block meticulously, and after figuring out how to defeat the security alarm (with fire extinguisher foam), they break in by carefully (so as not to cause too much noise or cavitation to set off the alarm) through the ceiling, with an ingenious use of an umbrella, disable the alarm, cut a hole in the back of the safe (using a contraption that they invented for the film), steal the jewels, and exit out the way they came.  This is all done in a breathless 33-minute sequence that has no music (there was a score written, but it was wisely jettisoned) and very little sound.  This scene changed how heist movies were shot.

Of course, it is only after they successfully rob the place that thing turn awry.  The film, unfortunately, has a rather 1950s view of women and seems to implicate them.  Cesar cannot keep from seeing Viviane, and he gives her a ring that links the singer to the heist.  Mario is not willing to give up Tony to Grutter, even though he knows this will be a painful death, but his girlfriend Louise, who doesn’t know the score, uncovers Tony, and they are both killed.  The other woman in the movie, Tony’s girl Mado les Grands Bras (wow, really?), does help in the end, but his treatment of her after he finds that she is now with Grutter is so brutal that we as an audience are funneled to not liking her, given how Tony handles her.  The world of this movie is harsh and unforgiving, but that’s with good reason.

Now we switch to the other story of Rififi, Jules Dassin.  Dassin was a director who was integral to smithing what the French critics of the Cahiers du Cinéma would define as film noir.  He had four of note, back-to-back, from 1947-1950:  Brute Force, The Naked City, Thieves’ Highway and Night and the City.  Towards the end of production of the last, he was blacklisted.  He couldn’t oversee post-production of the movie.  The interview Criterion includes on the disk is insightful and painful.  All doors closed on him in Hollywood, and I don’t just mean domestic doors.  When he relocated to Europe and tried to make movies there, American distributors told European film companies that if they allowed Dassin to work on a film, it would never be distributed in America.  Not only that, but anyone working on a Dassin film would never get a job working on an American film or have their pictures distributed.  So, no one would give him work.  Rififi was the first movie he was allowed to make after being blacklisted.  The producer of the movie really wanted to do an adaptation of the novel Du rififi chez les hommes, but only the heist part.  According to the interview, there was a lot of “undesirable” content in the novel (including necrophilia and rampant racism).  It was really underworld / underbelly stuff.  So Dassin, needing money, wrote a screenplay adaptation.  The author of the novel, who Dassin said was a George Raft-like character (I just can’t escape George Raft!) with a hat, came to see Dassin and the producer, asking “where is my book?”  Dassin said he gave le Breton some song and dance about how things change in an adaptation.  le Breton said, “ok, but where is my book?”  Dassin tried to relay the same message, again, with slightly different words, and le Breton took a gun out and put it on the table in front of him.  Dassin, finding the whole situation ridiculous, laughed.  Because he showed no fear, le Breton liked him and allowed the film to go forward.  That description is enough for a movie of its own, in my opinion.

Some people talk back to their TVs when watching sports.  I do it with movies.  Of course, it has to be something that I don’t know what’s going to happen, and when I do it, it always signals for me the mark of something special.  I love not knowing what’s going to happen, and even with a film that is this old, I don’t want to look into researching it until after, just in case.  This is an intense movie.

The Hollywood blacklist threw a lot of great talent under the bus, some for so long they never recovered.  Others for so long they never came back.  Dassin did make Up Tight! (1968), and Promise at Dawn (1970) was a joint venture between the US and France, but he never lived in the US after 1952 and only came back rarely.  It makes me itchy and nauseous when the flag-waving democracy of the good ole US of A looks like just another puppet master.  But what it does present is something odd.  Critics point to Rififi as being one of the great, if not the greatest, examples of French noir.  But if the guy in charge is American, and had been making noir well before Rififi, is it really French?  The French definitely claim the movie as theirs.  The source material, locations, and language are all French.  But is it French?  No, it isn’t.  How complicated is it that Dassin, an American, is directing a French film as well as playing an Italian in the film?  Trés internationale.  But then again, maybe it is.  We don’t call Hitchcock’s films made in the United States British.  Someone more slippery would be Kubrick.  I’d feel that A Clockwork Orange is definitely British.  So’s Barry Lyndon.  But Full Metal Jacket?  Eyes Wide Shut?  The Shining?  Hrm…  I always like pointing to the movie The American (2010) on this.  The book is based on a British novel, shot in Italy with mostly Italian actors, post-production in London.  What makes it American?  George Clooney?

I’m getting off-topic.  It’s a beautiful film and indeed a great example of film noir.  I didn’t know this before, but the sets were designed by Alexandre Trauner, who did the sets for Children of Paradise.  I can see its echoes in the scene where Cesar gets shot.  Dassin won the Best Director Award at Cannes for the film.  That is vindication, but when he talks about how the Americans had to invite him to a party they were hosting at Cannes when they clearly did not want to, and how everyone on the receiving line hid their faces, I don’t see an overall win.  Dassin said that someone actually hid under a table to avoid being seen with him.  He made the film on a shoestring, $200,000.  Ridiculous.  To produce so much from so little is amazing in and of itself.  Like Some Like It Hot, this film was also condemned by the Catholic League of Decency, but then some editing was done so that it passed.  I wonder what they took out?  When considering the MPAA, no one gets away with anything by the end of the movie.  That it was banned momentarily in some places (and outright in Mexico) because crimes copycatting the robbery in the movie started popping up is an eye-opener.  And incidentally, “rififi,” according to the song purred by Viviane, means “rough and tough.”  To get through what he did, I think that is more akin to Dassin than all of the characters in the movie combined.

Addendum (10/1/12):  The end of the film, which is amazing, would not happen today because of cell phones.  Kim and I started thinking about how true that would be of a lot of things.  I was just reading an interview in Paris Review of Bret Easton Ellis where he notes that Less Than Zero, if written today, would only be about 20 pages long because most of the novel is people driving around looking for each other, stopping off at people's houses and other places in order to use the phone.

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