Monday, August 18, 2014

The heists of Jules Dassin, part I: "First as tragedy..."

(Du rififi chez les hommes)

It's the gold standard for heist filmsbut just like there's a reason we aren't on the gold standard, it's a good thing that they don't make 'em quite like Rififi anymore, too.

Directed by Jules Dassin
Written by Renee Wheeler, August Le Breton, and Jules Dassin (based on the novel Du rififi chez les hommes by August Le Breton)
With Jean Servais (Tony le Stephanois), Carl Moehner (Jo de Suedois), Robert Manuel (Mario Ferrati), Jules Dassin (Cesar de Milanais), Pierre Grasset (Louis Grutter), Magali Noel (Viviane), and Marie Sabouret (Mado)

Spoiler alert: severe

Rififi is an immoral movie.  I'm not the first to make that accusationjust the first in about 60 years.  But it's true.

Rififi was the return to filmmaking for Jules Dassin, exiled from Hollywood in 1950 for suspected communism.  It looked like a promising career might be cut shortDassin had been responsible, inter alia, for The Naked City, a film that looked at neorealism and said, "this is boring."  City is now widely acknowledged as a classic, despite being merely an above-par police procedural that is ruined every five minutes by Mark Hellinger's iconic and awful narration.  Fortunately, it is not close to Dassin's best work.

Now a pitiful refugee, Dassin knocked about France for years.  He and his family survived largely on the kindness of strangers.  Thus came Rififi: Jean-Pierre Melville, heretofore attached to direct, stepped aside in deference.  And Dassin?  He almost refused.

As well he might've, given that the August Le Breton novel was, reportedly, borderline unfilmable, thanks to a combination of overplotting, impenetrable slang, and content unfit even for the Frenchest cinema.  Then Dassin remembered that women, children, and even film directors need food to live, and said, "Fine."  He seized upon the heist elementevidently a minor thread of the tapestryand refashioned the novel into a script for a movie someone might actually want to watch.

But don't pretend you're not at least a little curious as to how the story of Tony le Stephanois somehow intersected with scenes of necrophilia.

Le Breton, a poser who based his life off American movies, threatened to kill him.  Taking Dassin's laughter as a sign of fearlessness rather than the natural reaction to some clown pretending to be Sterling Hayden, he approved of the script and is credited with additional dialogue, presumably being responsible for the crass genital metaphors that litter the film like snuffed cigarettes.

Rififi was a hit, palpable enough to cross the Atlantic.  Dassin's imprimatur alone generated controversyand Rififi has been credited as the first film to break the blacklistbut this was not the primary outrage unleashed by the film.  And it's not due to any happy ending for its crooked heroes, either, since it still ends just like American noirs were still required to, under the "crime doesn't pay" provisions of the Production Code.

The thing that makes it special could never have seen daylight in America.  The cause of Rififi's deserved canonization today, and its execration by the Legion of Decency, amongst others, is the 31-minute, step-by-step lesson in burglary around which the entire enterprise revolves.

As a matter of fact, it did inform at least a few antisocial viewers.  But these are all-but forgotten crimes; Rififi's most important lessons were learned by crooks of a different sortfilmmakers.  (And many were not above cashing in: hence Rififi ad Amsterdam, Du rififi chez les femmes, Rififi in Tokyo, Rififi Meets Yojimbo, Rififi Scared Stupid, and more.)

Like Rififi vs. Barugon.

Now, if you squint when you're watching Hands Off the Loot (and also seriously miscategorize it), Rififi isn't even necessarily the first French heist movie.  But just to choose an immediately-available American example, perhaps we can profit from a comparison to the bank job in John Huston's Asphalt Jungle.  Both heists are staged as thrills, but Huston is (necessarily) obfuscatory.  Asphalt's safecracker works in the background, the exact methods really only taking center stage when they can't be ignored, because they involve a giant explosion.  It's but a sophisticated smash-and-grab in Asphalt, its brilliance more in an appeal to the ringleader's authority than any demonstration of his organizational genius.  And you are heavily encouraged to suspend your disbelief over the alarm system, a device so useless that analogues of it will be used in every movie that needs to generate false suspense out of an easily-overcome obstacle.  But at least Asphalt's "electronic eye" had the benefit of being cheap to realize on screen.

For the record, it's still a really good movie.

Now look at Dassin's effort: he wants you to know, not by vague information and belief, but by firsthand experience, the skill of successful career criminals.  Routines and geography must be established; logistics must be secured; the plausible technologies arrayed to defeat them must be overcome with their own ingenuity.  More than plan, they prepare.

And thus prepared, they begin.  It is a nearly silent sequence, occurring almost in real time without a single word spoken, from the unvoiced goodbyes to loved ones to the dreamy afterglow of success.  Even music disappears, returning only a few moments before our hero, in his one moment of unguarded happiness, says "Meow."

I assure you that he does so in the most gangster way possible.

The only sound is the metronome of professionals doing their jobs.  Surprises abound, but in the details: the accidental strike of a piano's key; an unexpected cop; the introduction of an umbrella that will leave you mystified for long seconds before you realize how obligatory it had always been.  On rewatch, the intensity remains, and Rififi still holds onto its thrills through sheer craft, but the suspense is replaced with the moment-by-moment satisfaction of watching this plan come together.  In other words, on second viewing, Rififi's heist is essentially pornography.  But it is great pornography: what film had heretofore so compellingly fetishized the mechanical process of the heist?  This is Rififi's immortal legacy.

But glamorizing crime is not Rififi's problem.  I've said not a word about plot or characters, but Rififi has both.  There is Jo, the family man, and the muscle.  There is Mario, a licentious Italian, and one half of the comic relief, whose main contribution is that he has an apartment.  There is Cesar, a second licentious Italian, who is also funny, in part because he speaks no French; in addition, he's the safecracker and thus the only one truly essential to the burglary.

Naturally, he is brought in last.  A curious feature of many heist movies is that the technical experts are routinely subordinated to a "mastermind" who often does very little other than come up with the idea, "let's rob a ______!"

Deepening that grand tradition, Rififi's mastermind doesn't even do that much.  This is Tony, grand old man of the Parisian underworld, just released from prison.  He is called "the Stephanois," which sounds far cooler before you look it up, so don't.  Unlike Carlito Brigante a half century later, Tony is not committed to the straight life, but neither is he terribly enthusiastic about crime.  In fact, he's not enthusiastic about jack shit.  In an inversion of the usual trope, the mastermind is approached by the underlings, who beg him to take on their plan.

But Tony's content to rotliterally it seems, from the hacking cough that plagues him throughout the film (and, yes, returns at a most inopportune time).  This is only until he learns that his old flame, Mado, is still in Paris.  Hoping for a chance at reconnection, he finds her.  He learns she is now with Pierre Grutter, a minor but dangerous criminal.  Upon this discovery, Tony nods sadly, accepting that life has moved on.

Just kidding!  He coaxes Mado to his apartment, pretends to reconcile with her, then takes strips of flesh right off her back with a belt, before tossing her, traumatized and half-naked, out into the night.

This is the first fifteen minutes of the movie.

Presuming that Mado will run back to Grutter, and that Grutter will take revenge, Tony's goal appears to be to commit a very complicated suicide.  His fate sealed, he decides to go out on a high note.  He embraces his friends' idea to strike the corner jewelers.  But not without a few modifications: they aren't going to go in through the window to take a few middling stones; they are going to take the safe for the fortune in diamonds hidden within.

Yet Tony still seems to be in a hurry to die, venturing into the lion's den itself and daring Grutter to do something about itonly to be confused when Grutter doesn't know that anything happened.  This is because Mado didn't tell him.  Something in her still makes her care for Tony, even though their relationship appears to be presently founded solely upon a jealousy that no one in the movie, nor the movie itself, seems to recognize as completely evil and insane.

Basically, then, Rififi fucking hates women.

Can a movie be immoral?  Well, of course it can, but ordinarily we apply such analyses to films that aren't vetted classics and scientifically verified masterpieces.  The usual dodge for a morally repugnant film is that the characters are immoral, or their society is immoral.  The defense of objectivity is a powerful one, but it would behoove any movie that uses it not to also feature a musical number about how misogyny is, after all, really hot.

"Rififi" by Magali Noel ft. Chris Brown.

Tony is likeable because the other, more colorful characters unreasonably worship him; he's carried the rest of the way by Jean Servais' expertly laconic performance.  It is almost commentary; but it is more Rififi going out of its way to frame Tony as the romantic figure it desperately needs him to be.  I hate to admit that it works.

Luckily, however, in the action thriller that develops after the heistRififi being a film in two parts, each more-or-less with their own three-act structurewe learn that it's cool to like Tony anyway, because he has heroism within him.  He saves Jo's little boy from Grutter's clutches.  Wounded and bleeding to death, he attempts to return both the boy and the loot, so that the sole heir to his gang's efforts might have a better life than they could ever forge for themselves.

Why, it's like if Jesus drove a convertible.

But there are notes that suggest Dassin isn't in love with Tony.  For one, the treatment of Mado is vividly disturbingthe way it's overtly sexualized, by having Tony force her to strip first, adds to how grotesque it is, and, I hope, is meant to be.  (And if the suggestion of nudity is clumsily blocked in, rather than created with clever editing... well, nobody's perfect.)  For two, there's Cesar.

As overanalyzed as the heist itself is the moment when Tony finds the Italian tied to a pole in the depths of Grutter's nightclub, confirming what he already suspected.  Cesar was a coward, who refused to die like a man, with his mouth shut.  Tony is big enough to offer him a few words of consolation, before he executes him.

The metafictional message couldn't be missed even if it weren't Jules Dassin himself in the role. With Dassin it's a bit more confused, functioning almost as a forgiveness to his personal betrayers.  This confusion clears up when you learn that someone else was originally cast and Dassin only wound up playing Cesar because they literally couldn't afford to find a replacement when he bailed.  I'm glad it happenedDassin's is by far my favorite performance.  It's a performance that's dangerously close to out of place in this dark, dank noir: Cesar is a live-action Pepe le Pew.  He wears a comically offensive mustache, practically winks at the camera when he's about to get laid, and he wears tuxedos everywhereeven to heists.  But the sheer delight he offers means that his final fate is utterly depressing... in the very best way.

The intrinsic function of the scene, after all, is to emphasize that Tony is a bastard.  There is no percentage to slaying Cesar; it is simply what the rules of their game demand.  Much like they demand Tony possess Mado through violence; much like they demand Mado view it as an expression of love.

Film criticism is obligated to emphasize how well a goal is achieved rather than what those goals are.  And it's impossible to deny that Rififi achieves its goalswhatever they areto damned near perfection.  It's such a good movie, both formally and as a pure entertainment, that the nature of its goals shouldn't even matter.

But it does, at least a little.  And "1955" is no excuse; people from the past were stupid, but they were human; humans have known better than the characters in Rififi since two million years ago in Africa.  If one must, one can find the sociology buried within Rififi's unrelenting, worshipful style.  Sadly, I've been alive too long and seen too much to pretend that there is not an ugly and personally upsetting whiff of truth to every toxic moment between Tony and Mado.  But you have to work hard to believe that Rififi doesn't think it's all so very cool, without much distinction at all as to whether it's right or wrong.

Score:  8/10

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