Rififi (1955)

Rififi (1955) movie poster

director Jules Dassin
viewed: 01/22/2017 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

A few big differences since I first saw Jules Dassin’s masterpiece, Rififi. This time, watched it as part of the Noir City festival at the Castro Theater, alongside my kids. In the intervening 8 years since I first saw it, I’ve managed to see a number of Dassin’s other film noirs. Rififi was the first of Dassin’s films I ever saw and I knew little or nothing of him specifically at the time.

One big thing that is still utterly the same is the film itself and its brilliance.

That Dassin, however French his name may look and sound, was American is significant. He was blacklisted in Hollywood, chased from the country, and harassed even from afar to find employment in film. Rififi was the first film he made in France and the first he had made in 5 years, after the also brilliant Night and the City (1950), filmed in London. Top that off with featuring as a great character performance himself in the film as César “le Milanais”, what did he NOT do?

The heist is the film’s centerpiece and is duly and rightfully praised and influential, but the whole of the film is amazing. Paris is a bleak yet beautiful backdrop to the criminal activities and the rain-soaked streets emblematic of the fatalistic reality of the common man, even if he is a common criminal.

The brutality toward his nightclub moll is the one troubling aspect of the film for me. Women are rarely treated well in noir, but the nasty beating Tony (Jean Servais) metes out to her, while it makes contextual sense in the narrative, is still rather hard to sit with. Tony is, in the end, a good guy, and women, in the end, are largely functional or decorative in the film. So. Yeah. Anyhow.

The Naked City (1948)

The Naked City (1948) movie poster

director Jules Dassin
viewed: 12/14/2015

Jules Dassin and Mark Hellinger’s The Naked City could have been a really interesting anomaly.  Except, over a decade after it came out, it morphed into a television show, having no relation to Dassin nor Hellinger (who died before the film had even been released).  And it utilized the one super-iconic thing from the film, the line: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.”

The real story though, in the film, is a pulpy procedural, showing the long, hard work of being a detective, working a case with not a lot of information, a murder of a model and the hunt for her killers.  But it’s not the story that’s so interesting.  The film is shot in part in mock-documentary style, with a classic omniscient voice-over telling all as it is.  The adherence to this style grounds the film in aspects of neo-realism and documentary, pushing for a sense of realism over drama.

While all that is kind of interesting, the thing that really winds up being compelling is the fact that the film was shot entirely on location in New York City, even many interior shots.  In a way, outside the story’s drama, we have a depiction of New York on any given day, like something from People on Sunday (1930) or a much less jazzed up Man with a Movie Camera (1929).  The images of the city are truly revelatory, even when speaking of a city like New York that has been captured so much and so often on film.

It’s interesting that Dassin utilizes location in several of his important films: San Francisco and Oakland in Thieves’ Highway (1949), London in Night and the City (1950), or Paris in Rififi (1955).

While the drama isn’t particularly rich and the stiffness of the documentary style might chafe you, somehow, this The Naked City transcends it all and becomes a truly worthwhile document.

Thieves’ Highway (1949)

Thieves' Highway (1949) movie poster

director Jules Dassin
viewed: 02/01/2015

I started to work my way through the films of Jules Dassin.  Then five years happened.  Actually, it’s one of the true uses of having a personal film diary that you’ve actually made note of how long it’s been since you saw something.

I watched Brute Force (1947), Night and the City (1950), and Rififi (1955) back about five years ago and was quite taken with American director Jules Dassin.  That is, American director turned ex-pat Jules Dassin who was chased out of Hollywood and America during the Red Scare in the 1950’s.

Thieves’ Highway was his last film made in the United States and stars Richard Conte as Nick, a Greek-American who returns home to find his father cruelly crippled in a suspicious motor vehicle accident related to his job trucking fruits and vegetables from Fresno to San Francisco.  Nick seeks vengeance and gets a truck of his own to haul a load of apples to Frisco and to confront Mike “The Fig” Figlia (Lee J. Cobb), the tough market vendor who had Nick’s father duped out of his money and nearly killed in the accident.

The fruit market of San Francisco was filmed on location in the city and in Oakland, CA, and it’s a compelling portrait of the harsh marketplace of unbridled and criminal capitalism.  The screenplay was adapted by A. I. Bezzerides from his own novel.  Bezzerides was also the source for another noir truck hauling flick, They Drive by Night (1940) and seems to be quite an interesting figure himself.

Truck noir — is that a thing?  I’m thinking of Hell Drivers (1957) and The Wages of Fear (1953) alongside the others.

A top-notch flick, with lots of interesting location shooting, great character acting, complex mise en scene and other stuff.  I don’t know why it took me five years to get back to Dassin, but it won’t take me that long to see some more of his films, at least the ones on Criterion.

Night and the City

Night and the City (1950) movie poster

(1950) dir. Jules Dassin
viewed: 03/15/10

Better late than never, I am discovering the work of director Jules Dassin.  It’s not like it’s a secret discovery.  The fact that most of his films that are available on DVD are Criterion Collection editions tells you pretty safely that he’s solid stuff.  Over the past year or so, I’ve watched Rififi (1955) (my favorite) and Brute Force (1947) and now his 1950 film, Night and the City, and all I can say is I can’t wait to watch the next one.

Dassin was one of the filmmakers who was chased out of Hollywood during the Red Scare and blacklisted.  Night and the City was filmed on location in London, and essentially was his last film for the Hollywood system that stymied him.  Even though his name has such a European sound to it, he’s American, from New York and he made serious contributions to the film noir aesthetic and period crime picture.

Night and the City stars the fantastic Richard Widmark as the poor sap who strives so hard but just doesn’t have what it takes to make it big, only what it takes to make a big mess.  He gets involved in a rather convoluted scheme to “take over professional wrestling in London”, aiming to shaft the current promotor, played by a young Herbert Lom.  He teams up with a legendary Greek wrestler and his protoge and plans to run roughshod over Lom, protected because the honorable Greek legend is Lom’s semi-estranged father.

It’s kind of confusing to explain, and there is this other angle, borrowing money from the wife of the bar owner that he works for, she thinking they’ve got a “thing”.  And then her husband suspects and puts the bite on Widmark.  Anyways, it’s a world of duplicitous people and honest people, and sometimes, quite often, each person is both, honest and duplicitious.

The cinematography is amazing, using the city streets of London and the shadowy offices and apartments of the characters as cages for these would be prisoners.  Or maybe they are all just prisoners of their own situations.  When Widmark is running from the whole city, he is chased across a construction site and climbs the stairs to hide, but has to attack to survive.  The scene is brilliantly filmed, moving the camera from shot to shot and catching Widmark’s harried face in varying angles of sweat and fear.

It’s excellent stuff.

Brute Force

Brute Force (1947) movie poster

(1947) dir. Jules Dassin
viewed: 04/12/09

Why it took me so long to discover director Jules Dassin, I’ll have to clock up to circumstance.  But after seeing his influential caper film, Rififi (1955), I’ve queued up his other works, which actually had already been in my Netflix queue.  I just queued them higher.  I think I rented Brute Force first because it was the earliest of his films in my queue.

Brute Force is considered a film noir but is a prison film, not the most typical of settings for noir, but not an inapt one.  Starring Burt Lancaster as the leader of the inmates, it follows the brutality of the prison system on the prisoners, especially as meted out by sadist Hume Cronyn, the leader of the guards.  And while the actual warden is a man of liberal leanings, one who prefers reform to brutality, the failure of the system and growing anatagonism leads to a very violent prisonbreak, quite shocking even today, much less at the time of the film’s production in 1947.

The film depicts the criminals as nobles, largely, none of whose back-story shows them to be anything other than would-be good-guys caught in wrong situations or at least somewhat emotionally understandable situations that lead them to prison.  Some of the situations and narrative tropes are just straight-up genre functions, which are the film’s weakest moments.  But Dassin’s cast is stellar, through and through, with all interesting faces, tough guys who are characters, and a knack for the action and violence that acts out the world of the prison.

Prison films aren’t a particular favorite of mine, but there is an interesting interview on this DVD with a film scholar who specializes in the genre and offers some good context for reading this film and considering others.  Lancaster is rock solid, with his pained expressions, you can read the bleakness right from his eyes.  And also, there is a tiny cameo by the stunning Ella Raines.

A solid and interesting film, not my favorite, but certainly calls for further viewing of Dassin’s oeuvre.


Rififi (1955) movie poster

(1955) dir. Jules Dassin
viewed: 03/14/09

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.