Qt3 Movie Club #39: Rififi (1955)
The phrase "Film Noir" conjures up many images. To me it brings up one movie: Rififi.
I went on a "cultured film" kick about a decade ago when I was on a business trip in California, and I picked up a bunch of Criterion Collection DVDs to watch - the Hidden Fortress, Insomina, The Vanishing... and Rififi. I watched all of them right away except Rififi. Eventually I got to this one, and once I finished watching I realized I had saved the best for last.
Shot in black and white, Rififi is overflowing with hard-boiled gangsters, unlucky dames, tough choices, gritty violence, and one of the best robbery scenes ever. EVER! If the robbery scene doesn't keep you on the edge of your seat, I will refund your admission price. I don't want to give away too much, because I think it's best experienced fresh if you haven't seen it.
Rififi was directed and written by Jules Dassin, shortly after being driven out of America by the Un-American Activities Committee hearings. Francois Truffaut (apparently) considered Rififi one of the greatest crime dramas ever made.
Who am I to argue with him?
Rififi is available from Netflix. No instant streaming, sadly.
I hope you enjoy it as much as I did (and as much as I will, as I'm off to watch it again).
As always, please put the phrase "WATCHED IT" in the body of your post so our faithful Movie Club staff can appropriately credit your participation.
I haven't seen this in a couple years, but I'll chime in to second the recommendation. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's better than Hidden Fortress, but then, I am a Kurosawa fanboi.
If you like the noir aspects of Rififi, try Dassin's Naked City or Night and the City. If the heist bit was more up your alley, try his Tokapi, with Peter Ustinov.
(Or try John Huston's earlier Asphalt Jungle for the perfect mix of noir and heist.)
Just completed my second viewing of Rififi. Another movie club title sitting on the shelves in my collection, and those are hard to ignore. Criterion collection, like Charlatan, from a time when I bought every movie that smelled interesting.
I enjoyed the film overall, and particularly the heist itself. I found it intriguing how, after the job and our lovable gang of hoods are ogling their loot, my brain expected them to fall on each other, backstabbing their way to the ultimate pyrrhic victory. So many modern films condition you to expect the “no honor among thieves” message that it was a little jarring to see these guys cooperating so completely. Even Cesar the safecracker is just sad and resigned that he must be shot for rolling on poor Mario under torture. He broke the code, and he knows it.
The heist is definitely the high point of this movie. It is in love with showing the mechanics of the job. Their method for defeating the alarm is ingenious. And what a joy it is to see them defeat the security system without waving their hands and claiming that they’d “hacked the system” as would happen in a modern heist movie. Our boys get ahold of a replica of the system and run attacks until they find one that works. Problem solved.
How about the safe? Why were they less concerned about cracking that one? Because Cesar’s can opener method is fool proof. This was apparently invented by Dassin. In an interview with him included on the DVD, he says that criminals started using techniques from the film in real heists, and I would be surprised if the safe cracking tool wasn’t among those.
So impressed is this movie with the heist that other characters cooperate with the criminals by staying wordless during the event. At first, it was jarring, like with the gagged and blindfolded tenants of the house above. They are the calmest captives since Bonnie joined Clyde. But soon I accepted it. It’s like the whole movie was holding its breath during this sequence, helping the hoods stay alert and low profile. It’s a virtuoso stylistic choice, like the occasional wordless comic book or the “Aw fuck” crime scene investigation in The Wire. I am happy to watch a master of their craft reduce themselves to a single tool. The best art rises from limitations.
My biggest hangup is that I simply never understood what Mado was doing in the movie. Just as the characters are surprised that she doesn’t tell her mobster boyfriend about the savage beating administered to her by Tony, so am I. Clearly there is some history between them, but that didn’t do it for me. Whatever she owes him, or guilt she feels, I don’t think explains protecting him after he broke out that belt and threw her out of her own house.
I was also curious while watching it whether this counted as noir. I came to the conclusion that it probably was, but that I didn’t know exactly what that meant. I felt the same way when Night of the Hunter was described as noir. Does this just mean that the blacks are very dark? Or is there a thematic element that unifies them?
When Charlatan described the movie, and its notorious heist scene, my mind leaped to the wrong thing. I pictured a heist from below with a telescoping pressure bar. I believe that movie is Big Deal on Madonna Street, which the back cover describes as a satire of Rififi. I’ve added that to my watch queue. I remember getting a big kick out of that one.
The one-sentence definition of noir, courtesy of James Ellroy, is: You are fucked.
Originally Posted by baren
It doesn't matter whether you have a plan to avoid being fucked. It doesn't even matter how well you can execute on the plan. You are fucked, and the only thing you can do is choose how you are going to go down.
(The extreme case of this would be the original DOA where a man is dying and has to solve his own murder.)
Night of the Hunter is a very odd movie, which doesn't neatly fit into genre categories. Certainly the Shelley Winters part of the movie is noir.
But ultimately Night of the Hunter is a fairy tale, which throws two young children into the deep, dark wilderness pursued by an unstoppable monster ... and then, just when it seems nothing can stop the monster, the storyteller imagines a magical fairy godmother who can make the monster goes away.
Yeah, that's as good a definition as any. I'd add to that that the difference between noir and neo-noir is that in a noir, you're fucked because the world is horribly corrupt and poisons you, no matter -- sometimes because of -- how ethical you are. In a neo-noir, you're fucked because you thought you were smarter than you are. You had a plan, but you don't have the chops to get away with it.
Originally Posted by HumanTon
Anyway, Rififi. It's aces. It's one of the movies I picked up up because of qt3, back in my lurking days. I'll definitely be digging out the dvd for a rewatch.
Yeah, I guess I thought the volition aspect was always important. That someone's greed or hubris led them into their inescapable doom. But then I started with the neo-noirs, all Linda Fiorentino, and then backtracked to the original stuff.
Question: Does Witness for the Prosecution count?
Watching this film is such a pleasure. I really should own it. This was only my second viewing, and I'm glad you picked it because all I recalled from the first time I saw it (in a little art theater in Pasadena years ago) was the umbrella and the very ending. I somehow had forgotten what a bastard Tony is at the beginning of the film, and I'm appalled and fascinated at how interesting that makes him as the hero of the movie. One of his first acts is to beat a woman, for goodness sakes. Wow.
What an incredible scene that is; I'm just crazy about the way Jean Servais plays the character. "The rest of it...All of it." I thought he was coming there to have sex with her, because the scene reminds me a bit of the "let's get stinko"/"let's do plenty" scene in Miller's Crossing until it crosses into something else. I love the way Tony looks. Old and weathered and sick, but not frail. Hard. That moment when he ignores the hat-check girl...
Here's a question for you guys, though: does the kid ruin the film, or make it?
I knew little about the history of the film or about Jules Dassin before this viewing, but the great interview section on the Criterion edition from Netflix remedied that. I'd always assumed he was French. Wrong. His story is heartbreaking, and infuriating. It reminds me of all we lost because of the time of the Black List. How many classic films did we lose?
This is a goofy observation, but I always love watching films from these earlier periods and seeing how many things would be different because of modern technology and sensibilities. The way not being able to get to a phone figures in the ending, and dropping into shops to use the phone (by the cops, too). Leaving the kid in the care of the random sandwich shop lady. The cop with his little notebook of handwritten license plate numbers.
Finally, another question: would a modern version of this movie make the same final choice about the suitcase of money?
Oh, one more finally: watch for Jo's eye-flinch at around 1:54.
Great choice. Thanks Charlatan.
"He's sorry but he don't yak in French."
This is the sort of thing that really makes the movie club for me. A really well done film I had quite honestly never heard of, and of an era I don't generally go back to of my own accord. Not to say that there weren't plenty of great movies before, oh, 1980 or so...but having never lived during those times, I can find the style and culture of those past eras a bit difficult to get into, especially once we get back before the era of color. That said, this is exactly the right sort of movie to get me to go there, as was Out of the Past. Heist films and noir both are favorites of mine and this executes excellently on both while not invoking things that have become cliche in the later films I'm more familiar with. (The way John Carpenter's Halloween has so much in it that may have been startling, fresh and original at the time but has been done to death in other movies since then. Movies that, nonetheless, -I- had watched prior to Halloween.)
I think the thing that most struck me was the way Joe's son was so happy and innocent, completely unaware of the darkness unfolding around him even in the last scene with Tony's mad, dying drive across the city.
WATCHED IT, and very glad I got around to it finally.
The heist was indeed something truly special. The dead silence, the ratcheting tension without any of the cheap escalations of it that pretty much every other movie has conditioned me to expect and sigh at. The gang has a plan that they know will be cutting it close even if they all execute flawlessly--and they execute flawlessly. Just beautiful. Granted, there was a bit of an ad lib to the plan with the bike cops finding the parked car, but even that wasn't played for cheap escalation--the cops were clearly competent (itself fantastically unique in such bit parts), but so was he, and quick decisive action resolved the situation. Decisive violent action, that didn't dwell or revel in the violence; it was just perfunctory to get the job done and no more.
I'll echo the above that I was also fully conditioned to expect them all to turn on one another what with all the money in play, and then was very pleasantly surprised when that didn't happen that way. Even the kidnapping and its resolution felt like a breath of fresh air--no gratuitous menacings, no shots of weeping scared child to establish just how bad the bad guys are, no dramatic confrontations and tauntings and muahaha monologues. Guys got good enough angle and line of fire, they shot.
Great pick, that I'm confident I never would have seen without the movie club.