In the late 1940's, American director Jules Dassin, having made the famous Charles Laughton vehicle The Canterville Ghost (1944) and six other less memorable films, seemed to find his subject and his style with a trio of unflinching tough-guy melodramas: Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948, the basis for the later landmark TV series) and Thieves’ Highway (1949). But his career momentum was abruptly curtailed when the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee witch hunts led to his being a political exile.
In England he made the United States-English co-production Night and the City (1950), his masterpiece, with Richard Widmark as a hustler promoting wrestling matches in a poetically shabby London. Now effectively blacklisted, it was five years until his next job, when a French producer offered him Rififi, which would become his second-best film.
Based on a novel by Auguste Le Breton, and with a script by Dassin, Le Breton and Rene Wheeler, Rififi (the word was coined by Le Breton and means, roughly, a gangland free-for-all) is the classic model of the heist movie, its only serious predecessor being John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950), which it resembles in some respects.
The movie neatly divides into three parts. The first and most dated part introduces us to the principals and their milieu. Hardboiled Tony (Jean Servais), freshly sprung from prison, proceeds to humiliate and beat his mistress (Marie Sabouret) for taking up with the seedy Remi Grutter (Robert Hussein, who recently showed up as the romantic widower in Venus Beauty Institute). Grutter runs L’Age d’Or, one of those atrocious nightclubs found only in gangster films and where the entertainment includes a painfully inane song about the film’s title.
Once Tony has gathered his crew — which includes Dassin as a suave safecracker — the movie reaches part two, literally its centerpiece, a nearly 30-minute bank job done sans dialogue. This stretch of “pure” cinema is Rififi’s claim to fame, but while it’s as engrossing as ever, the movie really kicks into gear during its third part, with the robbery’s chaotic aftermath leading to a desolate finale. Apparently, crime doesn’t pay.
After Rififi, Dassin settled in Greece, his subsequent and spotty career being highlighted by the much lighter heist film Topkapi (1964) and Never on Sunday (1960, a great scandal in its day for its comic treatment of prostitution) which he made with his wife Melina Mercouri. But his best work remains his early artful genre pieces, with Rififi offering one of those basic movie pleasures, the grim satisfaction of watching imaginary characters come to a bad end.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].