Rififi: A Global Caper
We speak of national cinemas, but, at least since the 1950s, there has been something else—movies that are not simply international coproductions but the work of transnational filmmakers. The key figure in this hybrid mode is Akira Kurosawa, who drew on Hollywood and Soviet models to create a new Japanese cinema that crossed national boundaries while appealing to both popular audiences and cinephiles. But Seven Samurai was not the only harbinger of cine-globalization. There was also Du rififi chez les hommes, known in English as simply Rififi.
Jules Dassin’s fatalistic caper flick, shot on the cheap on the streets of Paris in 1954, was the international success of 1955–56. Given his first opportunity to make a movie in five years, the blacklisted American director with the French-sounding name, considered by some to be Hollywood’s leading neorealist for his use of gritty urban locations, capped the four English-language crime films that had made his reputation, shared the prize for direction at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival with the Soviet Union’s Sergei Vasilyev, and reestablished himself as a European auteur.
Rififi did not invent the idea of French film noir. It was Jacques Becker’s Touchez pas au grisbi, released around the time that Rififi went into production, that provided a new model for the French crime film with its pungent evocation of a Montmartre criminal demimonde; another postneorealist noir, Bob le flambeur, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville from a script by Auguste Le Breton, whose argot-drenched novel provided the basis for Rififi, was released the same year as Dassin’s film.
Indeed, Melville was originally slated to direct Rififi, but producer Henri Bérard saw the opportunity to employ a known Hollywood director who was already a cause célèbre in France. (In the spring of 1953, with Dassin set to direct his first French film, a vehicle for the beloved comic actor Fernandel, red-baiting Hollywood labor leader Roy Brewer had teamed with the FBI to intimidate the film’s producer and costar, Zsa Zsa Gabor. Dassin was fired, prompting widespread protest among French directors and screenwriters.) But if Rififi did not invent a genre, it was nevertheless, thanks to Dassin, a unique synthesis. For the French, Rififi had Hollywood pizzazz; for Americans, it exuded continental sophistication; for both, it possessed an authoritative naturalism, albeit one suffused with a sort of American-in-Paris enthusiasm for Pigalle after dark. For the rest of the world, it had all of the above.
Jules Dassin (1911–2008) was a filmmaker who thrived in exile but never lost his American identity. “It is easier to drive a director out of Hollywood than to drive Hollywood out of a director,” Andrew Sarris noted in reflecting on Dassin’s particular odyssey. This urban, urbane artist might be called a rootless cosmopolitan, were he not so rooted in the movies and theater of the 1930s. The son of an immigrant barber, Dassin grew up in Harlem and got his professional start during the Depression, with the Yiddish workers’ theater the Artef (which, tellingly, he learned Yiddish to join).
Moving to Hollywood in the early forties, Dassin helped establish the Actors Laboratory (a West Coast corollary of the Actors Studio) and worked at MGM (directing Conrad Veidt in the 1942 antifascist thriller Nazi Agent) before teaming up with the newspaperman turned producer Mark Hellinger at Universal. His promising Hollywood career ended in 1951, when his fellow directors Edward Dmytryk and Frank Tuttle named him as a Communist before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Dassin never testified; he left to find work in Europe.
Dassin’s Hollywood reputation rests on the foundation of his four postwar, pre-blacklist movies: the grimly overwrought Brute Force (1947), part antifascist tract, part existential allegory; The Naked City (1948), distinguished mainly by its Lower East Side of New York locations and what James Agee called the “majestic finish” of its chase across the Williamsburg Bridge; the remarkably tough Thieves’ Highway (1949), with its hallucinated social realism, adapted by A. I. Bezzerides from his novel about California teamsters; and the fantastic and stylized Night and the City (1950), filmed on location in London with Richard Widmark as a doomed hustler in an expressionistic urban underworld. (To these I would add Dassin’s 1968 American comeback, Up Tight, a flawed but compelling movie that boldly transposes John Ford’s The Informer to a Cleveland ghetto, substituting a Black Panther–like revolutionary cadre for the Irish Republican Army.)
And then there is Rififi, the most stylish, cine-savvy, and studiously copied movie in the Dassin oeuvre—a potent blend of inside dope and outside exoticism. The title was Le Breton’s invented argot for a crazy mess (if Rififi had been made in the Yiddish theater where Dassin got his start, it might have been called Tzimmes), a word figuring only in the song that a sensuous chanteuse and unwitting femme fatale (Magali Noël) performs twice in the gangster-run nightclub called, in honor of the Buñuel-Dalí film on which Rififi’s art director, Alexandre Trauner, had also worked, L’Age d’Or.
Wildly atmospheric, populated by many mugs with tilted fedoras, drooping Gauloises, and names like Teddy the Levantine, Rififi features posturing aplenty—particularly if you include the climactic gunfire arabesques in the movie’s unrestrained final reel. No one, however, has anything like the doomed glamour of the tight-lipped, gimlet-eyed, consumptive Tony le Stéphanois (the Belgian-born Jean Servais), back in Montmartre after five years in prison, having taken the fall to protect his young protégé Jo le Suédois (the Austrian actor Carl Möhner, who, despite his relative inexperience, was the highest-paid performer).
Servais’s Tony is as cold as a corpse, part desiccated Jean Gabin, part deadpan Count Dracula. Too tough to check his hat when he descends into the hell of L’Age d’Or to find his old flame Mado (Marie Sabouret), Tony discovers that she has taken up with the joint’s sinister owner (played, in keeping with the movie’s internationalist subtext, by a Romanian émigré, Marcel Lupovici). He establishes himself as the apache dancer’s apache dancer when he collects Mado mid-assignation and, in the movie’s most shocking scene, takes her back to his fleabag, where he orders her to strip, starting with her jewels, then beats her up and tosses her out—keeping the rocks but not the mink, which he hurls contemptuously after her down the stairs.
Tony is persuaded to join Jo and an ebullient Italian pimp (Robert Manuel) in robbing the Paris equivalent of Tiffany’s, the British-owned, luxury-trade jewelry store Mappin & Webb, in the heartof the city, just off place Vendôme. Their fourth partner, a dapper safecracker imported from Milan, is played by Dassin himself, under the name Perlo Vita. John Huston had established the rules of the caper film with 1950’s The Asphalt Jungle; Dassin put greater emphasis on the process. The gang spends much time studiously casing the joint and the apartment upstairs, then doing meticulous research on the store’s hypersensitive alarm system.
The actual burglary—Dassin’s major addition to the screenplay— is an unforgettable half-hour tour de force. Employing an umbrella and a fire extinguisher among its tools, the heist involves commando-raid timing and brain-surgery precision. Tony’s tubercular hack notwithstanding, he and his confreres exhibit the wordless teamwork of astronauts in deep space. The only thing to break the silence is the musique concrète of clinking tools, a humming drill, gently falling plaster, the quickly muffled alarm, and occasional footsteps in the street.
Jewels taken or, one might say, earned by the mental and physical labor of Tony and his crew, it’s then a matter of waiting for the inevitable payoff, as the rival L’Age d’Or gang (North Africans in Le Breton’s novel but not, per Dassin’s revisions, in the movie) gets wind of the heist. The subplots come to a boil amid Dassin’s fondness for grotesque, expressionistic touches (here mostly deriving from the backstage mise-en-scène at the L’Age d’Or and the playthings that belong to Tony’s godson). And it seems scarcely coincidental that Dassin makes informing the movie’s cardinal sin.
Cahiers du cinèma accorded Dassin a two-part interview, conducted by the young Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut, when Rififi opened in Paris in April 1955; Truffaut later gave the movie two rave reviews, noting that “out of the worst crime novel I have ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best film noir I have ever seen.” This early use of the term film noir preceded by a few months the publication of Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton’s influential Panorama du film noir américain, 1941–1953, which, in addition to extolling Dassin’s Hollywood movies, praises Rififi as “a film in which Paris is constantly present, not the Paris of smart comedies but a mist-shrouded and hostile big city.” Dassin, Borde and Chaumeton note, had made “the only ‘authentic’ film in the French noir series.”
One of the top ten grossing films in France in 1955, Rififi received sensational notices when it opened in the U.S. a year later, initially as a subtitled art film, before a dubbed version went into general release as Rififi Means Trouble!. New York’s Fine Arts Theatre, where Rififi ran for twenty weeks, anticipated Psycho by four years in stipulating that the movie had to be seen from the beginning: “Because of the extraordinary nature of Rififi, no one will be seated once this film has begun.”
New York Times critic Bosley Crowther was so impressed with the movie’s atmosphere that he thought he could smell the funky dives, adding, “Boy, what would they have done to this picture if it had been put up to Hollywood’s Production Code?” In fact, Rififi was initially condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency, while Crowther’s enthusiasm did not pass unnoticed. The red-baiting Motion Picture Herald attacked the critic for praising a known Communist who “escaped subpoena service” by fleeing abroad. (Because the film’s distributor, United Artists, acting through a front company, refused to remove Dassin’s name from the credits, Rififi can also be considered the first movie to break the blacklist.)
One of the few pans appeared in the fledgling Village Voice, where novelist Vance Bourjaily dismissed Rififi as a “gentle fraud” perpetrated by “uptown critics,” and mocked the crowds queuing outside the Fine Arts on East Fifty-Eighth Street to watch The Asphalt Jungle in French. But not even Bourjaily could deny the authority of the heist—“a beautifully detailed exposition of how to conduct a jewel robbery . . . impeccably convincing and thoroughly exciting both in event and in atmosphere.”
This great sequence is rendered all the more self-reflexive (and triumphant) by the suave hamminess of Dassin’s own performance and the way he places himself, dressed in formal attire, at the emotional center of the film. He is in essence announcing to the world that he has cracked the code and come away with a gem.