11 May 2015

Picture This: Remembering Rififi

My column for BL Ink this month:

Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) might or might not be the best film noir I have ever seen, but it’s likely the most subversive.

Exactly 60 years ago, on May 10, 1955, the eighth Cannes Film Festival awarded Best Director to Jules Dassin for the festival’s opening film Du Rififi Chez les Hommes, known in English as simply Rififi. Released in France in April 1955, Rififi had already snagged Dassin a two-part interview at the iconic magazine Cahiers du Cinema. The interviewers were Francois Truffaut and Claude Chabrol, future giants of the French New Wave, both then in their early twenties. Truffaut, then forging a reputation as a notoriously unforgiving film critic, also gave Rififi a rave review: “[O]ut of the worst crime novel I have ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best film noir I have ever seen.”
The novel was by popular French writer Auguste le Breton, an orphan who frequented the low-life bars and gambling dens of Montmartre, that form Rififi’s atmospheric setting. Dassin wasn’t a fan; among other things, he thought it was racist (his screenplay did away with the dark-skinned Arab and North African rival gangsters). But he would have been a fool to refuse: despite having tasted success in Hollywood with Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948) and Thieves’ Highway (1949), he had been blacklisted by the House of Un-American Activities (HUAC) while making Night and the City (1950) and hadn’t managed to make a film in five years despite a move to France.
So the Cannes award wasn’t just good for Dassin’s career, but also a French slap in the face of Hollywood. The jury that year had five Frenchmen, plus one man each from Spain, USA, UK, Italy, Switzerland and the USSR (no women, naturally), and despite his French-sounding name, Dassin was very much an American, born in Connecticut to Russian Jewish immigrants. Interestingly, Dassin shared his prize with Soviet director Sergei Vasilyev, for Heroes of Shipka, about the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878.
I haven’t seen Shipka, but I imagine it shares little with Rififi, which is a supremely stylish film about a gang of thieves. But then Cannes wasn’t awarding Dassin for subject; the cutting edge of the French film establishment was excited about a certain Expressionistically-lit, dark, urban cinema coming out of Hollywood, and this film was a sophisticated example of it — in French. A few months after Rififi, two French critics, Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton, came out with the first book-length attempt to define the style: A Panorama of American Film Noir, 1941-53.
The characteristics of noir remain legendarily hard to agree upon, though critic Roger Ebert made a rather fun list of criteria in 1995, including “#2 A movie which at no time misleads you into thinking there is going to be a happy ending” and “#4 Cigarettes. Everybody in film noir is always smoking, as if to say, ‘On top of everything else, I’ve been assigned to get through three packs today.’” Rififi certainly ticks those boxes. At the film’s nervous, throbbing centre is a hood called Tony, whom we first meet losing the last of his money in a poker game, coughing as he lights yet another cigarette. The room is so dark that when Tony makes a phone call and we cut to the home of his protege Jo, it comes as a shock that it’s actually morning. The casting is perfect: Jean Servais, who plays Tony, has a pale, drawn face that makes perfect sense when you learn that he was a recovering alcoholic.
When Dassin’s characters aren’t huddled indoors in some basement or bar, they’re walking the wet Paris streets. The occasional neon-lit advertising is all for liquor brands: Cognac Martell, Haig Scotch Whiskey, Dubonnet. Only the final sequence swaps shadowy silences for a crazy, careening drive beyond the city, brilliantly juxtaposing a man’s desperate speeding with a child’s blithe enjoyment of it.
Rififi is a superb example of why films noir are often the best city flicks: to plan on rupturing the urban order, you need to know it inside-out first. The gang’s prep involves noting what time of morning the salesgirl arrives at work, when the florist makes his deliveries, when the policeman does his rounds. In one great scene, Tony walks Jo along the avenue on which their targeted jewellery store stands — it’s Mappin & Webb — making him recite the details of the shop fronts they pass, without looking up.
But if this is noir, it subverts its own rules. The women may look like femme fatales (one of them, Mado, even gets involved with a rival gangster while Tony is in prison), but they aren’t scheming or duplicitous. The men come off much worse. They beat up their girlfriends and infantilise their wives. Tony’s violence towards Mado is extreme, another gang member Mario keeps shutting the door on his smiling partner, calling her ‘pet’ and telling her to ‘run along’ and go to bed, and the film’s denouement reiterates how the women suffer the consequences of something they had no part in planning.

The ubiquitous machismo of this noirish world is also, to my eyes, undercut by the manner in which Dassin presents the half-hour heist at the film’s centre. I have rarely seen a group of men on screen conduct themselves in so wonderfully silent, unobtrusive a fashion, for so long. Wordless, invisibilised labour is something that women are traditionally socialised into; men, only if they are servants or slaves.

Which leads us to the last thing that makes Rififi’s heist so remarkable. The delicate, unspoken synchronisation makes the heist feel performative, akin to a dance, or a circus act. But Dassin’s two aesthetic decisions, of silence and of slowness, making it feel like real time (of course, it isn’t really) changes what we know to be a theft, an undeserving short-cut to riches, into something profoundly like work. Rififi was banned in many places because the police said it was a demonstration to potential criminals. But it is this that makes it truly subversive.
Published in the Hindu Business Line.

No comments: