Jules Dassin died earlier this week at the age of 96. The ink was barely dry on my tribute to Richard Widmark, and two days later the actor's Night & the City director passed away. Both had lived a long, long time, but it doesn't quell the suspicion that the world is cruel and indifferent after all. The universe has no need for these connections, it takes from us what it wants. In fact, I am even more shocked to learn from the Criterion blog's obituary for Dassin that Malvin Wald, screenwriter on The Naked City, also died earlier this year. It's like all of the voices that were part of these great films are going silent.
Dassin is an interesting person, equally as interesting as any of the characters in his films. He knew a little bit about the indifference of the universe, and despite being an expert purveyor of the cruel worldview of film noir, he never was a fellow to let things beat him. He had already made several classic genre films when Daryl F. Zanuck sent him overseas in 1950. On paper, it was to make Night & the City, but in reality, Dassin was being sold out to HUAC by fellow directors Edward Dmytryk and Frank Tuttle and was being shipped out before scumbag Joe McCarthy could rake him over the coals for alleged connections to the communist party. The down-and-out urgency and paranoia of Richard Widmark on the run in Night must have had an eerie familiarity for Dassin. In many ways, the world really was against him, and the outsider community he was a part of (Hollywood) was betraying him. Well, everyone but Zanuck, who at least tried.
Five years would pass between Night & the City and 1955's Rififi. For all the wonderful culture France has given to the world, including cinematic greats like Renoir, Godard, and Truffaut, how funny that the quintessential film from their noir catalogue was made by a Russian Jew ex-pat from Connecticut.
Rififi is the story of Tony le Stephanois, played with hangdog fatalism by Jean Servais, probably best known to American audiences for his small role in The Longest Day. Tony is freshly out of jail, where he spent five years taking the rap for a jewel heist all by his lonesome, never selling out his crew. For his troubles, he has emerged with a bad cough, the outward symptom of his failing health. His girlfriend, Mado (Marie Sabouret), also hooked up with a new beau while Tony was inside--a cold-blooded hood (Marcel Lupovici) who runs the nightclub L'Age d'Or. Despite having regained his freedom, Tony seems to be moving farther and farther away from his own Golden Age. When we first meet him, he is losing a poker game. He is out of chips and all of his cards are played. It's almost a case of fortune telling.
Knowing he is at the end of the road, Tony wants one last score. When asked what he will do with his take of the jewels, he confesses to having no idea. Given that he may not have that long to actually ponder the situation, this would lead us to believe that the robbery is more about the action, of doing something to prove that he can. He originally refused to be a part of a smash-and-grab job, but after it's clear Mado is no longer his, he throws in with the other guys only after upping the plan to a full-on heist. Certainly that has to count for something. The meeting with Mado is the most brutal scene in the film, with Tony taking a strap to her and marking her before sending her back to her new boyfriend. Dassin treads that line of showing a bad dude for what he really is, even as he is the de facto hero of Rififi. But then, that's what the title refers to, a slang term for the rough business that tough guys get into. In a memorable scene at the L'Age d'Or, the nightclub's singer (Magali Noël) performs a ballad that both explains and glorifies the lifestyle, laying bare the filthy business while also romanticizing its kinky thrills.
(Sorry, I couldn't find it subtitled.)
The scene between Tony and Mado is also an occasion to illustrate Tony's shift to the other side of life. As the violence explodes, the couple moves off screen while Dassin's camera goes in the opposite direction, zooming in on a photo of days gone by, of the lovers enjoying champagne long before this dirty business separated them. Like a standard noir anti-hero, Tony is cut off from his past even as it continues to dog him. The future is also beyond him, as represented by the godson, Tonio (Dominique Morin), who is named for the gangster. Little Tony represents the hope of the future, of having the option to be whoever he will be. Big Tony is already who he is, he can be nothing else. All he has then, is the present. Do what can be done now, cry about what is lost to you some other time.
That present makes the creamy filling of Rififi. The late-night robbery of the jewelry store is a stunning sequence. Shown in meticulous detail, and in absolute silence--no speaking, no music, only the ambient noise of the thievery--it is a truly genius exercise in story and style. If your concentration breaks during this portion of Rififi and you actually become aware that you are watching a DVD, check yourself. You're probably inhaling, as you almost literally are coming up for air, having been holding your breath to see if the guys succeed. Your heart will be in your throat when they crank their tools to break through the back of the safe, believe me. It's such an impressive sequence, Jean-Pierre Melville practically lifted the idea wholesale for his 1970 heist picture Le cercle rouge.
Knocking over the jewelry store is not the finale of the film, it's more like the fulcrum. From there, wheels are tipped and come rolling down to push Tony and his gang toward their final fate. This is noir at its finest, grisly and unforgiving. There is no escaping one's past, and there is no stopping the oncoming future.
And yet, this certainly can't be Jules Dassin's point of view. If it was, it was temporary, as he was only a couple of years away from meeting the love of his life, Melina Mercouri, the star of his international hit Never on Sunday. He settled with her in Greece and immersed himself in the culture. Their political activities, and the work he did in tribute to her after her death in 1994 would be testament to a life well lived even without the movies. (The BBC obit gives a concise summary of that story.)
This makes it all the more fitting that Dassin cast himself as the ladies man Cesar le Milanais in Rififi. Crediting himself as Perlo Vita, Dassin played the most light-hearted character in the movie, a clotheshorse who enjoyed the finer things. As the safecracker, Cesar was the essential component of the job, and much like a film director, the one who breaks through to the good stuff. There is also some irony that it's Cesar who sells his fellows out to their enemies. When Tony finds him tied up at the L'Age d'Or, he asks the Milanais why he turned rat. Cesar replies that he was scared, he had to. Coldly, Tony informs the turncoat that he regrets having to do what he's going to do, but Cesar knew the consequences when he chose to break the rules. In an existential noir world, the rules are everything. Cesar is gunned down for not being able to keep his mouth shut.
As Issa Clubb mentions in her piece on the Criterion blog, talking ill of others was something that Dassin never did, not even about people whose past misdeeds left them open to being publicly vilified. It was done to him, and he would never do it to anyone else. That was his code, and another in the long list of reasons why the man deserves our lingering respect.