(1955) dir. Jules Dassin
While I’ve been watching a number of French crime films of late, including Pépé le Moko (1937), Touchez pas au grisbi (1954), and Le Doulos (1962) among others, one of the noted Criterion Collection films that I had still in queue was director Jules Dassin’s Rififi. Oddly enough, though this is indeed a French crime film, and even with as French a sounding name as Jules Dassin, Mr. Dassin himself was an American and made this film as an exile from the US after being investigated by the House of Un-American Activities and blacklisted. I can only chalk up my ignorance to ignorance, since Dassin had made several notable film noir and/or American crime films before his blacklisting, including Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948), Thieves’ Highway (1949), and Night and the City (1950)…all of which have already been in my Netflix queue for some time.
Rififi may not be the “original” heist movie, but it is clearly a striking template for many, if not all heist films to come. The jewel heist, perpetrated by a quartet of low-time criminals, is executed perfectly, staking out the jewelry store, casing the street, and negotiating the alarm systems. And the quite stunning certerpiece is the heist itself, a 32-minute affair in which nary a word is spoken. The thieves need to be silent, so without music and without speaking, the heist is pulled off, showing their teamwork and preparation. I most recently saw this to an extent appropriated in The Bank Job (2008). But you can definitely see the influence it worked on the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, most specifically in his heist film, Le Cercle rouge (1970).
Beyond the writing and directing of this film, Dassin’s first in French, Dassin also plays a great character part in the role of Cesar le Milanais, the safe-cracking specialist from Milan. Oddly enough, I was really struck by this performance and character, not realizing that it was Dassin himself (sometimes ignorance can add to the experience — or at least change it dramatically). He’s a charming Italian fellow who speaks very little French, “but understands everything”. The character has great charm and is really quite wonderfully realized.
The film is shot in a gorgeous Paris of its day, but shot almost entirely on rainy days. The streets are shining with rain, reflecting the lights against the black, while the skies are interminably gray. But the city, while not depicted entirely for its beauty, is actually depicted beautifully. From the back alley streets, to the semi-rural edges, the boulevards, the avenues, even the Arc de Triumphe shows up toward the end. The camera sets the city distinctly in place, quite wonderfully.
Of course, it’s a crime caper, one filled with fatalism and a sense of the impossibility to effect that fate. It fits well with the films that I mentioned above, but I am going to quickly queue up some more of Dassin’s films, push them to the top of the queue, that is.