Saturday, December 31, 2011

RIFIFI (Du Rififi chez les hommes, 1955)

"Don't strain your brain and grumble. All it means is rough-and-tumble." I paraphrase the English translation of the title song of Jules Dassin's French jewel-robbery thriller. The title is either gangland slang ("the battle cry of every real tough guy") or a nonsense word invented by the novelist Auguste le Breton, whose work Dassin adapted. The song, performed by a nightclub singer -- a glimpse of a floor show came to be obligatory in French crime cinema -- doesn't really represent the overall tone of the film. Dassin was American; he had made Brute Force, The Naked City, Thieves' Highway and Night and the City before being blacklisted. The blacklisters aspired to global sway, reportedly striving to stop Dassin from directing in Europe before Rififi launched his second career as a popular import for American arthouses. A crime story unconstrained by American censorship sounds like a golden opportunity to break boundaries, but Rififi is more a narrative breakthrough than a milestone of explicit frankness.

It does become clear pretty early that we're not in America anymore. You can tell when our protagonist Tony, aka "Le Stephanois" (Jean Servais), an ex-con jewel thief, reunites with his girlfriend. Turns out she'd formed new attachments while he did his time. The new boyfriend lavished her with jewels and furs, which Tony orders her to strip off. Not satisfied with humiliating her, Tony proceeds to beat her with a belt. To repeat: this is our hero -- but this is also a milieu where women willingly take their lumps as part of the rififi in order to partake of sexual paradise later -- or so the song claims. It's also a milieu where the men often end up taking what they dish out.

Freshly embittered, Tony reconsiders his refusal of a proposed jewel heist, except now he wants to up the ante. Instead of a smash-and-grab through the display window, he wants to take the safe where the good stuff is kept overnight. That means putting together an expert team and planning the operation in painstaking detail. After casing the place and identifying its security system, the four-man gang obtains an identical device so they can figure out how to disable or simply muffle its ultra-sensitive alarm mechanism. Confident of their ability to beat the alarm, they embark on the scene that made the film famous and influential: a step-by-step break-in through the ceiling, presented without unnecessary dialogue or music. Can they break in from above without setting off the alarm? Will their scheme to disable it work? Will they be able to break into the safe and get out before daybreak? Will the flics on the beat outside notice anything amiss? This is standard thriller stuff, but Dassin filmed it that way for the first time here, and Rififi has been a model for moviemakers and burglars ever since.

We may be in France rather than America, but crime still doesn't pay. In the U.S., the Breen Office dictated that result; in France it was a matter of fatalism, much as it was in many American films noirs. One of the gang gives a girl too ostentatious a gift and the sharks smell blood. To unify the plot threads, the lead shark is the same nightclub operator who stole Tony's girl. Methodically he breaks down the gang, forcing one to rat out another, killing the latter, kidnapping the kid of a third and demanding the loot as ransom. Here's where Tony most likely redeems himself for his misogynist violence early on, taking it upon himself to rescue the boy and rid himself of his rival once and for all. He takes a bullet in the process, setting up Dassin's second inspired sequence: a delirious drive through Paris as Tony rushes to get the kid home before he passes out, or worse, at the real. Dassin resorts to rapid-fire editing, compiling a disorienting montage to approximate Tony's reeling consciousness as he tries to keep his eyes on the road while losing blood, as all the while the brat treats it like a joyride. It's as brilliant in its own way as the break-in sequence, and it closes the film on a nice note of irony.

Dassin apparently couldn't resist a bit of American-style moralizing late in the picture, having a character question Tony's tough-guy standing by suggesting that all the downtrodden people who don't turn to crime are the real tough guys. It's an exceptional false note in an otherwise toughminded movie. Tony's execution of a stoolie was supposedly Dassin's way of venting against the blacklist and his Hollywood peers who ratted on him, but it's such a conventional scene for crime cinema that you could easily miss the personal political context and hear no axes being ground. Working with a much smaller budget than he was accustomed to as a Hollywood director, Dassin gets results nearly as slick and sleek, with huge help from cinematographer Philippe Agostini and production designer Alexandre Trauner. He's working with tawdry source material -- he apparently cut out lots of racism and other atrocities -- but infuses it with the vitality of the location noirs he pioneered in America. Rififi is more hard-boiled than noirish in many respects, and isn't quite as good as Dassin's best American noirs (Night and the City is his best), but it's not unfitting company for his work for the country that scorned him. If you're in a hard-boiled mood you could do a lot worse.


Shubhajit said...

Yet another great film noir by Jules Dassin, albeit this time in the French language. The heist sequence, covered in such meticulous detail, was perhaps the movie's highlight. Interestingly, Melville's Bob Le Flambeur was released in the same year, yet the two heist movies remain so diametrically different! While the former was bleak & fatalistic, the latter was light-hearted & stylish.

Samuel Wilson said...

Shubhajit, I guess that's what makes Rififi noir, or noirish, and Bob Le Flambeur something else, though I find Rififi closer to the other French film than to Dassin's American noirs. Light or dark, the French films are less narcissitic than the noirs, more matter-of-fact in their fatalism. The emotional element in the American films sometimes elevates them above the French, however. Thanks for writing.