Monday, February 18, 2008

Du rififi chez les hommes a.k.a. Rififi (1955)

Adversity is the touchstone of friendship.

-French Proverb

While not a clear-cut case of art imitating life, director Jules Dassin’s 1955 film Rififi is a strong example of a tumultuous life event serving as muse. Bearing Dassin’s unmatched ingenuity in the study of duplicity and devotion under the guise of a film noir heist movie, this inspiration came from a burdensome and pathos filled experience for Dassin. A talented Hollywood director and writer in the 1940s, Dassin was eventually named as a communist sympathizer to the HUA committee by friend and fellow director Edward Dymtryk in 1952. This led to Hollywood blacklisting for Dassin and eventual exile from the United States. The trauma afforded Jules Dassin the opportunity to understand profound dimensions of loyalty and betrayal. This same understanding remarkably paved the way for Rififi‘s themes to resonate in a manner that still wields power today as it did over fifty years ago.

Rififi’s opening shot is a card table filled with poker chips, cash and hands being played. Through this visual establishment we understand risk, chance and big stakes set the tone of this film. Taking part in this back room game is Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais). Tony is an older Parisian con just out of the joint after a five-year stint in which he took a pinch for his pal Jo le Suedois (Carl Mohner). When a caper they tried to pull went awry, the inexperienced Jo could easily have been the one incarcerated, but Tony was solid and took the fall for his cohort. The time in prison has taken its toll on “Le Stephanois” as he’s known, looking haggard and also nursing a deep malign chest cough. Jo gravely realizes the effects five years on the inside had on Tony; he understandably feels indebted to him because his sacrifice. Not to be discounted there is also a genuine affection between the two men. Jo’s wife Louise (Janine Darcey) and son have also embraced Tony as family, as he was the inspiration for their boy’s name ‘Tonio’ and also serves as the tyke’s Godfather.

Fresh out of prison and Reliant on Jo for money, Tony takes a meeting regarding a job Jo has planned with friend and fellow heist man Mario Ferrati (Robert Manuel). Jo and Mario’s plan is to smash and grab some rocks in the window of the infamous Mappin and Webb Ltd. Jewelry store located in the film’s setting of Paris. Tony dismisses the idea and declines the offer by interjecting, “Mappin and Webb, you’re nuts. Why not the bank of France?” adding, “I don’t run so fast anymore.”

While passing on the prospect of some new business, Tony has the unfinished kind with his old flame Mado les Grand Bras (Marie Sabouret). She quickly hooked up with another underworld player, and nightclub owner, named Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici) after Tony was incarcerated. Mado had also pawned all of Tony’s possessions ‘to survive’ before meeting Pierre. As much as Tony feels betrayed by her, Mado is equally surprised when Tony unexpectedly shows up at her door. Mado was unaware of his release and nervously asks about his new freedom. With a foreboding nod to what will happen next Tony tells Mado, “They let me out, for good behavior.” Motivated by Mado moving on with her life while his stagnated in the pen, Tony orders Mado to strip out of her clothing, jewels and furs she claims some of which she earned. Most likely though we glean Pierre provided her with the lion’s share. Tony forces her in the bedroom, grabs a belt off the door and we hear him quickly beat her with it while the camera zooms in on a picture tacked to the wall. The photo shows Mado and Tony in happier times, drinking champagne at a nightclub, looking suave and unaffected; a lifetime away from this present scene of brutality. There seems to be no joy for Tony in giving Mado five belt lashes on her back judging from his wrought look afterward while throwing her clothes back at her. Dassin is sure to interject ambiguity as he consciously contains the act of violence off screen. Tony strongly feels he was not only robbed, but is owed something and leaves the marks on Mado’s back as a violent symbol for Pierre Grutter and Mado to fathom his rancor.

Tony’s acrimonious action functions as a catalyst: immediately he tells Jo that he’s in on the Mappin and Webb caper. “A mans gotta live” he reasons when asked why he changed his mind. Tony agrees to the Mappin and Webb job with Jo and Mario but the conditions must change: he wants the big haul, namely the safe inside the store full of millions in diamond jewelry. For the specialty work the safe requires they call in Mario’s friend Cesar le Milanais (Played by Jules Dassin himself under the pseudonym Perlo Vita) from Italy. Mario concisely attests to Cesar’s strengths and weaknesses by informing Tony and Jo, “They say there’s not a safe that can resist Cesar, and not a woman that Cesar can resist.”

When we are finally introduced to Pierre Grutter at his nightclub, he is smacking around his younger brother Remi, a junkie who is so desperate for heroin he pulls a straight razor on his older brother in a feeble attempt to threaten him for some. A hardened Pierre doesn’t seem fazed at the sight of the blade. Pierre’s unyielding manner stems from having his hands in many nefarious pies; the night club is merely a front for his other lucrative illegal activities. Tony, still carrying a chip on his shoulder for Grutter, goes to his club to confront him. Jo, Mario and even Cesar show up to watch Tony’s back. Anticipating a confrontation with Pierre after leaving his calling card all over Mado’s back, Tony initially scoffs at his three friend’s protectiveness. Mario tells Tony, “He says (Cesar) we should stick together on everything.” Tony calls him a St. Bernard, alluding to his loyalty but ironically foreshadowing Cesar’s eventual betrayal. The confrontation with Pierre is a dud. Pierre is in the dark as to Mado’s whereabouts. Perplexed, Tony learns Mado left town the previous night after being ‘marked’ by Tony and didn’t run to Pierre for protection. At this development Jo states that Tony, “Just learned some women have guts.”

Before the previously described scene unfolds, a musical number by the club’s leading attraction Viviane (Federico Fellini favorite Magali Noel) is performed. Viviane sings about her ne’er-do-well gangster boyfriend being so “rififi” as the song she sings is the basis of the film’s title (the word “rififi” in Parisian slang translates to ‘rough n’ tumble’). She performs the fantastic number in front of a stage of silhouetted figures: noir archetypes in suits, fedoras, brandishing guns, smoking cigarettes, while slapping their molls around and so forth. The number serves not only as a point where an enraptured Cesar falls hard for Viviane, but the accompanying exaggerated visuals to Viviane’s number are a clever meta-noir moment and wink from Dassin.The second act of the film consists of the four men preparing and executing the heist. Our four protagonists manage to get a hold of the same alarm system Mappin and Webb uses in order to study it in their underground ‘workshop.’ The four spend a bit of time testing its limits (slight levels of sound set it off for example) and figuring out how to neutralize it. This scene not only shows their ingenuity, but also gives us a tantalizing idea of how they plan to break into the jewelers and execute the job; the meticulous teamwork we will witness during the heist is being cultivated.

’s infamous heist scene is nothing short of a masterpiece second act for an entire thirty-three dialogue free minutes. Our men break in to the apartment above Mappin and Webb, where Webb himself lives, chloroform him and tie him up. The crew then proceeds to chisel their way down into the jewelry store through the apartment floor. All this is done with near utter silence as to not trip the alarm or alert any outside variables. With the nerve wracking exception of Jo accidentally touching a piano key on the baby grand in Webb’s flat, Dassin opts for sans music during this extended sequence. The effect draws the viewer in closer to the physicality of the heist, as if they were in the room with the thieves themselves. The little touches Dassin incorporates for the robbers to remain stealthy are ingenious (placing a thick sock over a hammer’s head to reduce the clanking between it and the chisel used to go through the floor) and humorous (Dassin’s recherch√© character Cesar ops for ballet slippers instead of his crew’s preferred tennis sneakers when they clandestinely move about the store). The heist must be seen to be appreciated for not only Dassin’s wonderful choices in filming the process, but the wit in which our larcenous leads execute the robbery. One noteworthy aspect Dassin conveys so well is the amount of physical labor and eventual exhaustion the caper demands from these men. By the end of the sequence the audience feels they too may have sweat a liter and are drained from the amazing pressure they witnessed the protagonists operate under for hours. We, as the audience, bond with Tony, Jo, Mario and Cesar because we’ve shared an extraordinary experience together; like combat or childbirth. We’re all much closer now through their sustained felonious toil.

The haul is spectacular, netting them millions of francs worth of jewelry which they stash at Mario’s apartment. Of course human fallibility will impede this as Cesar’s Achilles heel is women, namely Viviane. A brilliant diamond ring Cesar noticed earlier while casing the Mappin and Webb store was irresistible. After the loot was obtained, Cesar quickly goes back for the ring unbeknown to the rest of his crew. Post caper, he places the ring on Viviane’s finger as an opulent way of wooing her. A rock worth a million francs is hard to miss however and her boss at the club, Pierre Grutter, is no exception. After asking her some questions about where she obtained such a ring, he learns Viviane is Cesar’s paramour. Pierre also determines Cesar works with Mario who in turn runs with Jo and Tony. As the heist has become all the news in Paris, Pierre realizes the four did the job. Determined to find and keep the jewels for himself, he tortures Cesar and murders Mario and his girlfriend. Mario’s girlfriend Ida (Claude Sylvian) warns Tony just before Pierre snuffs her out that Pierre is on to him and looking for the loot.

The ethics of Rififi’s underworld and the people operating within develops into an integral part of the narrative at this point, transcending the foundation of this theme Dassin had been establishing during the film. Despite the unsavory business these people practice, there is a code of honor between our anti-hero thieves. When Pierre and his goons hold Mario and his girlfriend Ida captive in an attempt to get the diamonds, the scene is heart wrenching as the couple both know that they will die. Their loyalty to Tony however, is paramount over the drowning fear they must have experienced in the fatal moment. They give up their lives instead of the diamonds while simultaneously protecting Tony and Jo with their sacrifice. Tony later recovers the diamonds from Mario’s when the coast is clear and stashes them with Jo. Le Stephanois then heads to Grutter’s nightclub to exact revenge from the man who murdered his friend. The club is empty with the exception of a tied up Cesar who asks Tony about Mario. Tony informs him he’s dead. Cesar’s strained expression tips Tony off: Cesar gave up Mario to Grutter. Pained at this development, Tony explains to Cesar while raising his gun, “I liked you, I really liked you Macaroni, but you know the rules.” In an exceptionally emotional twist due to Dassin casting himself, Cesar (Dassin) barely manages his solemn explanation, “Forgive me. I was afraid” just before Tony backs up and deposits several slugs in him. In an interview on the Criterion edition of the DVD, when describing his thought process while writing this scene, Dassin said, “I was just thinking of all my friends who at that moment during that McCarthy era, betrayed other friends.” Dassin being one of the aforementioned betrayed and playing the betrayer in his film gives the scene an eerie and tangible power.

Meanwhile the tension of this last act is ratcheted up even further as Pierre and little brother Remi kidnap Jo’s son Tonio as ransom for the jewels. The desperation of Jo and his wife Louise mounts as they cannot inform the police of the kidnapping as per Grutter’s instructions (and obviously the fact they have stolen 240 million francs worth of diamonds), but they’re willing to hand over the loot to Pierre. Tony le Stephanois knows better and puts the kibosh on that idea. The kid is a witness and Grutter won’t let him live as soon as they get the jewels. Tony knows the only option is to go after Grutter and his goons to snatch the kid back before they know what hit them. Tony calls upon his network of hoods and their streetwise knowledge to find Grutter’s hideout. Mado eventually returns and plays the most crucial role in helping Tony find and recover little Tonio. Despite what Tony put Mado through, she is faithful to a moral benchmark above her ambivalent feelings toward Tony. Lines of loyalty continue to fortify in this third act as Jo must trust Tony to get back his son even when he has the capability to give up the loot as ransom while Tony is out chasing down leads as to his son’s whereabouts. Solidarity is paramount between these characters and when it is broken (Cesar) chaos ensues and innocence along with weakness is exploited by the morally devoid. These motifs are a wise guy’s credo in the film but also beliefs straight from Dassin’s own heart.

The film ends in a violent flurry and race against time. Dassin conveys this in a beautifully edited, stylistically staccato way that I would bet inspired Godard’s jump cuts when he made Breathless five years later. Visually the conclusion is a departure from the rest of the film where his use of the gorgeous Parisian streets at night and overcast damp sidewalks during the day make for a cohesive and memorable aesthetic. The Director of photography Philippe Agostini also had a knack for framing the wonderful streets, bridges and staircases of Paris in such a way that from the camera’s perspective, produce an elongated effect giving the shots a wonderful stylized depth. The film looks amazing and is assembled in a crisp, intelligent and daring fashion.

Rififi’s cast is very solid overall with Jean Servais as Tony leading the memorable ensemble. His worn and sorrowful look is perfect as he is also able to convey a steely toughness when necessary. The standouts are the actors playing Italians namely Robert Manuel as Mario and I would argue that Dassin nearly steals his own film as Cesar le Milanais. He’s quite good in the role as he is able to mix in humor and sell the dramatic final scene between Cesar and Tony (Dassin however is not as good in a straight man comedic role in his otherwise charming 1960 film Never on Sunday)

Rififi is bold, imaginative and near flawless filmmaking. The exposition and characters are so well crafted that Dassin’s many subtle and daring directorial touches only contribute to the aggregate of an outstanding work of art. Rififi’s heist scene has been copied and imitated repeatedly over the years and is the jump-off point in most discussions regarding the film, but surrounding that brilliant nucleus is a network of wonderful acting, cinematography, music, editing and writing which make the overall cell of Rififi fortified and resilient to time. But beyond the biology of the film its turbulent emotional content of loyalty and betrayal is what makes Rififi truly sing. Like the lyrics from the film’s song declares, “All it means is rough n’ tumble” and you will not want the ride any other way.