Saturday, February 16, 2008

Rififi: Blacklist noir

5-year-old Tonio (Dominique Morin, left) and Tony (Jean Servais) in an especially startling moment from the amazing final few minutes of Rififi. That's a toy pistol, but still. Image originally found here.

Rififi (1955; dir. Jules Dassin). The Criterion Films page is here.

As I watched Rififi tonight, I was struck by how often its protagonist Tony (Jean Servais) never breaks his stride when walking and so, more often than not, nearly collides with people on the sidewalk. If he sees them, he never acknowledges them. The same is true of when he drives: when pulling out into traffic or cutting across the opposite lane to park, he, never deviating from his trajectory, barely avoids collisions with other cars--or, rather, they barely avoid the crashes.

This film's story--not just its plot and themes but its very making--is one of near-misses.

My colleague Larry the movie guy lent me this one as well. Dassin's best-known films are the noirs The Naked City and Brute Force, but I have yet to see them. No, the only Dassin film I had seen before this one was, of all things, Never on Sunday (1960), a bittersweet romantic comedy starring Dassen and his real-life love, Melina Mercouri. Let's just say that it didn't prepare me for this.

Rififi (the word roughly translates as "brawling" or "trouble") has a pretty straightforward plot as films noir go: Tony (Servais, who reminds me in appearance of Robert Mitchum) has just been released from prison, only to find that his girl Mado (Marie Sabouret) has taken up with Grutter (Pierre Grasset), the owner of a nightclub. He has money and Tony doesn't now, so to woo her back Tony agrees to join with his friends Jo (Carl Möhner) and Mario (Robert Manuel) and Mario's safe-cracker friend Cesar (Dassen himself, credited as Perlo Vita) to burglarize a jewelry store. They pull off the job; Grutter later learns Tony is behind it and sets into motion a truly-despicable scheme to get both the goods and his revenge on Tony.

The (murky, dubbed) trailer (the Criterion DVD I saw is subtitled and in pristine condition, as their films usually are) gives you a good sense of this film's sensibility and style. That shot of Tony's leg is meant to show you blood from a gunshot wound he's suffered earlier:

Below the fold, a few comments.

This is yet another of those great films that either was fortunate to have been made at all or, once made, no one held out much hope for. Dassen's Wikipedia page briefly sketches out his troubles as a blacklisted director. Dassen was so desperate for work that he agreed to direct this one despite having read--and despised--the novel it was based on; after it was made, he was told it would never be released commercially in the United States (though it did gain an audience via the art-house circuit). It was a stunning success in Europe, though--fortunately for Dassen, since the studio didn't want to pay him a decent salary (the whole thing was made for $250,000--cheap even by 1950s standards) and so he agreed to accept a percentage of the receipts as his pay.

It did so well because, though it fits comfortably within the conventions of noir, Rififi ends up showing the viewer just what can be done within those conventions. As the trailer shows, this is noir with an edge lacking in U.S. noir: the camera is closer to the actors than is customary in American noir, so the sex and violence feel more intense. But no matter the scene, indoors or out, documentary-like or, as with the driving sequence you saw bits of in the trailer, hallucinatory, Philippe Agostini's cinematography is inventive and anticipatory of future films--there's a sequence where the camera closes in tightly on the faces of each of the thieves that makes you wonder if Sergio Leone didn't have Rififi in mind while making his Dollars Trilogy.

The grand set piece in Rififi is the actual heist, which you have already seen, in a sense, if you've seen any of the scores of heist-films that incorporate meticulous planning and nifty gadgets and close calls. What makes this scene grand, though, are both its length--33 minutes, a full quarter of the film--and the fact that for its duration, no one says anything. There's not even any background music. The thieves, who have rehearsed and rehearsed their roles, communicate via glances and gestures and nods of the head. As with the ten minutes of action without dialogue that opens Jean-Pierre Melville's zen-noir Le Samouraï, which I posted on here some time ago, the silence during the heist draws the viewer in, making him/her sympathetic toward and even complicit with the men as they pull off the theft. There's no music to telegraph to the viewer what to feel; that information gets conveyed via the men's faces.

The other great sequence in Rififi is the driving sequence that closes the film. I've already mentioned that Tony had been shot prior to that scene and so is suffering from loss of blood; more than that I don't want to say so as to avoid spoilers. Suffice it to say that the camera's movement back and forth from 3rd-person perspectives to shots showing what Tony sees as he's driving--not to mention the image at the head of this post--combine for a hold-your-breath visual experience that feels much more contemporary than 53 years ago.

But most remarkable of all is how sympathetic, relatively speaking, Tony becomes by the end of the film. Not even ten minutes into the film, we see him beating Mado for not remaining faithful to him; yet, like Roy Earle (Bogart) in High Sierra (which I discussed here), we know Tony has a decent streak in him as well. We learn he had not committed the crime he had done time for--Jo was the guilty one but had just become a father, and so Tony took the rap so jo can be with his baby son. Also like Bogey's Earle, Tony wants to go straight . . . or at least not do something that would send him back to prison again: he'd rather not be involved in the heist but joins the others, as I mentioned above, so he can have money to woo Mado back. And, there is what he does in the film's final act. He is a hood, and no mistake. But he's far from being a flat character.

Rififi is well worth seeing, not just as a film that's often been borrowed from but as a film of visual and emotional complexity. Its characters often experience near-misses, but that is certainly not how it comes across to the attentive viewer.

1 comment:

Mary said...

Hey John, Andrew Simone via twitter sent me to your post here since I just watched Rififi last night. One question about your notes:
I don't see Tony as wanting to woo back Mado after that beating. For me, it's over between them partially due to her infidelity, and in my opinion, more due to the physical abuse from that scene. Perhaps I missed the exposition of him wooing her- or perhaps it is simply my own take on the film- but I see their relationship more as a symbol of his past life, and less as a hope or light at the end of the tunnel for Tony. That he beats her is retribution for his prison sentence. That she moved on while he was away was too much for him as he re-enters his civilian life. My question is regarding your notion of Tony wooing her- I get that he's romantically linked- I don't see him courting her.
I, like you, found this film very contemporary- especially in tho last scenes. I truly had a vertigo-like experience. I felt woozy in that car with Tony and the kid.
Anyway, thanks for the words and the impressions. It's a fine film indeed. And I appreciate your shared thoughts on this world wide web. Cheers.