Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Target #190: Du rififi chez les hommes / Rififi (1955, Jules Dassin)

TSPDT placing: #578
Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: Auguste Le Breton (novel), Jules Dassin, René Wheeler (screenplay), Auguste Le Breton (screenplay and dialogue)
Starring: Jean Servais, Carl Möhner, Janine Darcey, Pierre Grasset, Robert Hossein, Marcel Lupovici, Dominique Maurin, Marie Sabouret, Claude Sylvain, Jules Dassin

As evidenced by the recent success of Ocean's 11 (2001) and its sequels, The Italian Job (2003) and Inside Man (2006), the heist movie is still as popular as ever. For decades, audiences have flocked to the cinema to enjoy the latest crime caper, a veritable goldmine for intrigue, suspense, betrayal and adrenaline-charged action sequences. However, it's always beneficial to consider the origins of a film movement, and, though it may not be the first example, Jules Dassin's Rififi (1955) would undoubtedly influence ever cinematic heist flick that followed it. Employing, and perhaps pioneering, the three-act narrative format that proves commonplace for films of its sort – the preparation, the heist, the aftermath – Rififi slowly and thoughtfully allows its plot to unfold, striving for realism over embellishment, and delicately laying down the cards for a tense and volatile climax. Interestingly, the authorities perform almost no function in the story at all, and so the manner in which the thieves' scheme unravels concerns only themselves and other desirous criminals, cementing the typical film-noir belief that the darker side of humanity – greed, lies, selfishness – will prove its own undoing.

By 1950, director Jules Dassin had already released a string of well-received American film-noir thrillers, before falling victim to the Hollywood blacklist. Considered un-backable by the bulk of the European studios, Dassin languished in poverty for a period of five years, before he was offered the opportunity to direct a low-budget French thriller based on Auguste Le Breton's novel. Du rififi chez les hommes (1955) {which loosely translates to "of brawling among men," a suitable description for the destructive male behaviour that devastates their well-laid plans} proved Dassin's redemption of sorts, becoming an incredible critical and commercial success and winning Best Director at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. Then-critic François Truffaut famously referred to Dassin's film as "the the best film noir I have ever seen," a lofty word of praise if there ever was one. Though the film differs from classic film noir in that the story unfolds in Paris, it contains sufficient elements of the movement to easily qualify. Indeed, Jean Servais' character, Tony le Stéphanois, might conceivably have been played by Humphrey Bogart – he may be a man past his prime, but he's proud, shrewd and decisive, and it'd be a mistake to get in his way.

Rififi takes a few minutes to fully swing into motion, and, though our introduction to the fellow team members is quite interesting, I found little importance in Tony's relationship with former girlfriend Mado (Marie Sabouret). It was possibly included to further flesh out his character, and to interestingly define the role of women in this particularly story, but I felt that Mado simply distracted from the caper that we were all here to see. However, the undisputed centrepiece of the film is undoubtedly the breathless 33-minute heist sequence, which is entirely devoid of all music and dialogue. The crime unfolds in almost complete silence, the thieves' quiet movements barely audible in the hushed atmosphere of the empty jewellry store. Every unexpected sound leaps out at the audience like a dagger, the single resonating note of a piano acting as the men's mortal enemy. Their ingenious heist unfolds like a meticulously-staged ballet {somewhat reminiscent of the extended pickpocketing sequence in Robert Bresson's Pickpocket (1959)}, every man completely and silently aware of his role in the operation. Following the successful jewel theft, composer Georges Auric is finally allowed to spread his musical wings, and Dassin begins to toy sadistically with the fates of his characters.

Currently my #1 film of 1955:
1) Du rififi chez les hommes {Rififi} (Jules Dassin)
2) The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick)
3) Nuit et brouillard {Night and Fog} (Alain Resnais)

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