Sunday, August 10, 2014

Jules Dassin | Rififi

art and consequence

by douglas messerli 

For Jules Dassin, Dmytryk’s cooperation with the conservative forces of American culture (Edward Dmytryk named Dassin as one of 26 communists in front of the Committee on Un-American Activities) meant, in some respects, a more-or-less permanent dissociation with the US. Although US authorities had originally allowed US distribution if Dassin were to renounce his past, he refused to do so; yet his French film, Rififi, distributed by a dummy company linked to United Artists, carried his name on the credits, making him one of the first to break the Hollywood blacklist.

Based on the novel, Du rififi chez les hommes, by Auguste le Breton, the movie was first intended to be filmed by noted French film director Jean-Pierre Melville, who when Dassin approached him about directing the project, gave his blessing to the American—although Melville did a film that shared much with Rififi, including the basically soundless heist scene,
The Red Circle of 1970.

      Although Dassin’s film might certainly be described as sharing many of the tropes of the American film noir, which Dassin had himself dabbled in the genre in his 1950 British film, Night and the City, Rififi, one might argue, is a mixed-genre affair. Although it begins with a dark gabbling scene in which the recently paroled thief Tony le Stéphanois (Jean Servais) is on a losing streak, it quickly shifts to a much brighter work when Tony calls his friend, Swedish gangster, Jo le Suédois (Carl Möhner), a man who seemingly dotes on his home life, his young son, Tonio (Dominique Maurin), and his wife, Louise (Janine Darcey).

     Indeed, throughout much of the film it is Jo’s attachment to and engagement with his son and wife that helps the film’s audience to allay their judgments against Tony, Jo and their other two gangster friends. Tony, moreover, has taken the rap for a previous heist, saving Jo from imprisonment, and the fact that when called on for a loan, Jo not only immediately shows up but convinces his friend to abandon the card game helps us to perceive the devotion between these men of the street. Throughout the first half of Rififi, at least, we are somewhat enchanted with the “rough-and-tumble” street life led my these men, a life described in song by the local chanteuse, Viviane (Magali Noël) in the entertaining title song by M. Philippe-Gérard and Jacques Larue. Indeed, music (with a score by Georges Auric) is essential to this work, which helps to lighten its darker elements.

     That Jo and his happy-go-lucky friend Mario Ferrati (Robert Manuel) have a new idea for a heist in which they need Tony’s participation, almost seems a joyous occasion, as the group meet in a small bar in view of their intended target, a swank Parisian jeweler’s shop. For obvious reasons, Tony turns them down. The place, he observes, is rigged with up-to-date alarms and cannot be easily breached through the front window, and besides he’s not yet ready to face the possibility of another prison term.

     His re-encounter with his former lover, Mado (Marie Sabouret)—who has returned to Paris, working in a club for the notorious gangster, Pierre Grutter (Marcell Lupovici), who works out of his nightclub, L’Âge d’Or. Despite warnings from Jo, Tony insists upon visiting the club to reclaim Mado, only to take her back to his dismal room, force her to undress, and beat her with his belt.

     That scene temporarily shifts the tone of Dassin’s film once again, as we now must perceive the brutal elements behind Tony and his associate’s friendly wise-cracking exteriors. But we also accept Tony as a kind of seriously betrayed man like Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca, who when he discovers that Mado has again disappeared abandons any alternative fate to join with his old friends in a new heist.

     For that heist, the gang need a safecracker who they find in another Italian, the dandyish macaroni, César le Milanais (played by Dassin himself), a figure about it whom it is said: “There’s not a safe that can resist César and not a woman that César can resist.”

     Dassin found the original novel, with its racist types of Arabs and northern Africans  despicable, replacing them with figures from various European countries. But the film cannot quite erase the misogyny at the base of le Breton’s tale. Most of the women in this film are dangerous and expendable. And César’s infatuation with the singer Louise is ultimately the undoing of the successful heist.

      Before we know that for certain, however, Dassin takes us through the rehearsals of the robbery and the heist itself with spellbinding detail, a kind of literate “how to” pull off a major jewel robbery that outraged authorities in many countries, including Mexico and Finland, where the film was banned. The Los Angeles Times declared the film to be a “master class in breaking and entering….” In the US, the ever-censorious Roman Catholic Legion of Decency spoke out against the movie. Yet it would be difficult for anyone to deny Dassin’s mastery of direction in the tensely silent episodes of the heist itself. Dassin quipped that the fact that he had not yet mastered French perhaps led to his use of so little spoken language; but any nitwit can see just how brilliant the decision was to cast the events of the break in within the sounds only of an intrusive piano, the high-pitched drills the robbers use to crack the safe, and the occasional grunts of their labor. So tense is that long scene at the center of the film that when, as they are about to escape the place, César returns momentarily to collect one last diamond bauble for his new girlfriend, we feel almost cheated in our impatience for their magical caper to a close.     For some critics, what comes after seemed almost a let-down, film-making that could not match what Dassin had already achieved. But, in fact, it is the last half of the film, as one by one the successful villains destroy and are destroyed by one another, that Dassin truly reveals his mastery. Despite their success as thieves, the gang of four, the evil-minded Grutter and his heroin-addicted brother are failures at living life itself, which the money they have reaped or desire from those acts symbolizes. For most of the men, that money might only offer a few more pleasures, but Jo wants it for his son, which elevates him, strangely, to a man who we might see above the fray of the pack with whom he travels. But as his wife proclaims—after Grutter and his gang kidnap the kid—holding him for ransom, “You’re not the only one that had an unhappy childhood, there are millions like you, and, in my eyes, ‘they’ are the tough ones, not you!”  Predictably, Jo gives in to the Grutter’s demands at the very moment when his son has been liberated. He is not a successful “rififi.”   

     But neither are the others. Mario is killed, along with his wife, when she squeals about how to reach Tony. César, the original stool-pigeon, is strung-up to be shot by Tony for his failure to keep to “the code of silence.” And Tony himself, even though he now seems to be attempting an action on the good side of the law by trying to save Jo’s Tonio and destroy the unredeemable Grutters, is suddenly doomed.   He saves the boy, but cannot save himself, which Dassin portrays in a stunningly filmed long scene in which Tony attempts to drive the boy home through the Paris streets while dying from the plugs Grutter has put into his body. Conflating Tony’s hallucinatory vision of the Paris landscape with the exciting spinning motions experienced by the child trapped in his car, both figures appear to be floating across the city, having escaped all bonds of real time and space.  Yet we know that the child’s vision is of his imagination, somewhat like playing a wild version of cops-and-robbers, while Tony’s increasingly blurred view of the world is a lack of “real” vision which can only end in death. When the car comes crashing to a stop, Tonio is quickly scooped up into the protective arms of motherly love, while Tony and his suitcase full of cash receives only the cold curiosity and surveillance of the cops.

     In Dassin’s telling of the tale, one might almost be tempted to see the heist as art, and the gang member’s deaths as the undeserved consequences for having created it.

Los Angeles, August 10, 2014

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