Rififi (1955, Jules Dassin)
The film noir that sprang up in Hollywood in the 1940s and ’50s — hard-boiled fiction transferred to cinema with a gargantuan, Biblical moralism attached — could encompass much that was repugnant as often as alluring, sometimes in the same picture. Lust leads to protracted murder-suicide in Double Indemnity, which is nonetheless enveloping because we witness each step of its doomed protagonist’s psychic collapse and all of them are crushingly believable. The central romance in Gun Crazy is sparkling enough in its lust that the viciousness of the violence it courts feels like a gradually warming bath that we only belatedly realize has become intolerable. In Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, the thrill of watching an intricately planned ripoff spring into action is a momentary but exhilarating distraction from the oppressive bleakness of the lives surrounding the event.
More typical, however, are the noirs in which nihilism rules the day. In Out of the Past, the entire world conspires against one who believed he “got out,” the implication being that one toe stepped out of saintliness is enough to permanently wreck a life; and in The Maltese Falcon, murder itself becomes so casual an occurrence that the characters and film come to treat it as window dressing, puzzle pieces in a convoluted narrative. Everything is card sharks, smoked-out hallways and clubs, pop-up diners and service stations, dank alleyways and slimy apartments, the symbols of poverty that mainstream American cinema only acknowledges in order to conflate with banal, quick-buck evil.
American director Jules Dassin’s French noir Rififi seems at first glance to belong in the latter category; unlike Kubrick a year later, Dassin finds no perverse pleasure or humor in the company he keeps during this two-hour descent into Hell, even if Hell in this case is just the wrong side of picturesque downtown Paris, into the gutter of the bottom-of-the-barrel sleaze that the heavens spit out. It is absolutely not attractive or inviting, nor is there any yearning for a palpable world beyond this dead end that you sense in something like The Asphalt Jungle (at least in the novel by W.R. Burnett). The crooks that populate Rififi are seemingly beyond redemption; there is even scorn to cast upon the amiable family man Jo, played by Carl Möhner, whose miraculous avoidance of prison for an extravagant theft, thanks to a buddy who took the rap, has done nothing to dissuade him from risking his wife and kid’s lives for the sake of another big score. That Tony, “le Stéphanois,” the ride-or-die who went down for Jo and is now fresh out of prison, isn’t meant to glean our good graces is unmistakable — he’s a nasty, sadistic motherfucker whose beating of an ex-girlfriend rather starkly dominates one of the first scenes in the film. For all the dignity and regret cast all over Jean Servais’ wearied face, he isn’t even an anti-hero, he’s unambiguously villainous — capable of unforgivable, unglamorous hatred — while feeling more like an actual lifer than the half-baked gangsters populating so much American noir. We’re thankfully never asked to believe in some sort of hidden gold in Tony’s heart, only that there is a certain perverse integrity, or at least consistency, to his outlook — and therein lies the real essence of the story here.
It may or may not be beside the point that there’s also something weirdly intoxicating about all this misery, in the same way that the despair in an early Ingmar Bergman picture such as Prison can become curiously comforting. Quite apart from the elevated visuals — that tauntingly doomed Third Man-like shot of a tied-up body being regretfully finished off then left behind, for instance, outlines the potential emotional range of a story like this in seconds — Dassin’s story makes no secret of its contempt for its unscrupulous central figures; but in contrast to the Hollywood pictures that delve this unapologetically into the underworld, there’s a certain empathy here toward forbidden emotions: greed is not treated as a source of shame, but the virtually inevitable outgrowth of human nature — we’re not expected here to scold ourselves for being somewhat aroused at the thought of an illicit life on easy street, or the directionless, smoky lust of a dim nightclub, or the empty possessiveness of the most toxic kind of love affair. It is rather the weakness of those men who succumb to these basic, seemingly inevitable elements of their nature that Dassin serves up to rebuke.
What’s not beside the point is that the real subject of Rififi, apart from the sheer outrageous dramatics of the central heist scene, of which more shortly, is the idea of moral relativism within the underworld: the “criminal code,” so to speak. It is a given that an above-board existence is either impossible or out of the question for the four highly skilled architects of this film’s big jewel robbery — theirs is life on an entirely different plane, one in which things look and sound different and the boundaries vary wildly from those of the seldom-glimpsed straight world. But throughout the final third of Rififi, starting at the point when our hoods become dogged by an even more ruthless set of hoods who’ve stumbled on the truth about the recent operation, we gradually discover where almost everyone’s limits are: for multiple characters, the involvement of a child is beyond the pale, sloppy and underhanded and vile in a way that casts the gamesmanship of mere ordinary con artistry into stark relief.
One is reminded, inevitably, of the kangaroo court in Fritz Lang’s M, in which the whole of Berlin’s illegitimate underclass becomes vigilante and takes Peter Lorre’s child molester to task out of both moral outrage and self-interest. And in a way, it can all still be read as self-interest: Jo finds his commitments impossible to keep when confronted with the loss of the child for whom he claimed he was fighting in the first place. Tony’s own specific protectiveness of Jo makes him dedicated to the rescue of the child but he’s also invested in the recovery of the operation’s stability, so it’s more telling that his most decisive action in the ugly aftermath of the crime is to murder the Italian safecracker (played by the director himself) who gave the game away and informed on his partners. But simultaneously, it casts a fascinating divide, again, between “our” hoods and the “other” hoods — and Dassin challenges us to examine and question the depth of the differences. Much as each character has his or her definition of “too far,” we are meant to locate our own. (The script is adapted from a novel by Auguste Le Breton, written in dialect and apparently very difficult to translate; Dassin disliked the book, largely due to the racist characterization of the “villain” gang as Arab and African criminals exclusively, and removed this offensive undertone. At least one French critic, François Truffaut, commented upon the immensity of the improvements Dassin and his cowriters made to the novel.)
Dassin had been an assistant to Alfred Hitchcock during one of his earliest American films, the screwball comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith, before moving on to direct shorts then features at MGM. There and at Fox he would become one of the accidental architects of noir; then, like so many other Hollywood filmmakers and performers with leftist or communist sympathies, he was blacklisted in the late 1940s and forced to exile himself to Europe, where he would make Rififi — his first picture outside Hollywood — and became so renowned in France he would for the rest of his career be frequently mistaken for a native director. There is a certain catharsis to the film’s absolutely unwavering cynicism, but also a feeling of profound loss and pointlessness; in some ways it resembles a picture like Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko or Renoir’s La Bête humaine, even Hitchcock’s 1936 pre-Hollywood Sabotage, more than any American thriller of its era, because there is no compensatory sense of iconography to avoid a sensation of falling into the abyss. No Bogie, no Edward G. Robinson, no lovable lug of a Cagney, just regular people who’ve already fucked themselves over fucking themselves over more.
But there is one important difference; Renoir, Hitchcock and Duvivier’s films were stark and unsentimental in their examination of amoral or misguided lives falling apart. Dassin takes a rather surprisingly gleeful pleasure in it; like Henri-Georges Clouzot, who was in the midst of his artistic peak around this time, he isn’t exactly cold-blooded in his treatment of his hopeless characters, but he does receive an unmistakable joy from the deliciousness of a narrative that functions in the end as a perfectly formed trap for its occupants. Beginning at the halfway point, there is something uncomfortably fun about watching all of this go awry. The first half of the film shows Tony only reluctantly agreeing to interrupt his gambling activities to participate in the big heist; he’s already physically and emotionally in the dregs, unforgivable, and the robbery is essentially an act of final, writhing desperation. Once the crime is underway, however, and as soon as we let ourselves forget the poor elderly upstairs neighbors knocked out and tied up in chairs, it’s thrilling to watch the pattern of grand theft and grander comeuppance pay off. There are scattered hints of a certain smug pleasure in play during the slowly paced first act — the unexpectedly stylish song sequence, for example, which feels like something out of The Pink Panther in all its phony jet-set decadence — but the latter half of the picture harnesses unpleasant characters and dread-ridden situations for a purely thrilling exercise in capital-c Cinema.
The most famous card up Rififi‘s sleeve, and really one of the centerpieces of film noir (ceaselessly imitated forever after, including by Dassin himself), is its thirty-minute burglary scene, played fully without dialogue and with few sound effects, as intricate and painstakingly detailed as A Man Escaped and as nail-bitingly intense as the drive across the mud pits in The Wages of Fear; there’s even a somewhat tragic hint of the male camarederie that surrounds the wild scheme in the Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob. All this for a bag of jewels that must be filtered through a fence, divided up and scattered — it’s no accident that the act of retrieval is more exciting than the actual goal, certainly for us and maybe even for these career criminals. Over the course of an entire intense night, the jewelry shop must be invaded from above, the safe must be cracked meticulously, which takes hours, and everyone has to make their escape under cover of dawn. Every moment seems poised to make your breath catch or your heart sink.
Whenever a film is structurally dependent on a showstopping sequence like this — take The Red Shoes to name one — there is the risk that everything afterward, everything required to actually resolve the story, is going to be hung over and sickly in comparison and will make its denouement a chore. But Rififi remains energized up to its conclusion; the heist is a success, and it’s only some time later after a bit of loose-lipped philandering by one of the involved parties that everything begins to unravel, but it does so spectacularly, giving us even lower rungs of bestial dirt to sift through. It eventually falls upon Tony to deliver us back out of the fantasy in which all this could somehow end in something harmonious, literally dying during a chaotic drive through Paris with a jolly shouting child (whose demonic presence calls forward to Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook) that ends in an anticlimactic one-car collision. All of which hits very differently from the Hollywood fantasy in which no crime goes unpunished — the tone here is not of moral righteousness but of philosophical silence at the pointlessness of it all, as in Renoir’s La Chienne: it all just adds up to nothing. The money will offer no deliverance, will go nowhere, and life will continue in its endless, useless circle.
But Dassin does let a sliver of judgment show when he briefly gives the floor to Jo’s wife, who provides this incendiary monologue: “There’s something I always wanted to tell you. There are kids, millions of kids, who’ve grown up poor like you. How did it happen? What difference was there between them and you, that you became a hood, a tough guy, and not them? Know what I think, Jo? They’re the tough guys, not you.” For all its detail and danger and intrigue, Rififi dismisses the illusory toughness of its characters — the gritty real world its characters inhabit is more of a fantasy than the private one in which the little boy lives during that final car ride, gazing at the sky and the trees and his toy plane. He’s more alive than any of them.