The Perfect Caper 

On the big screen, Jules Dassin's 'Rififi' is as tough as movies get

On the big screen, Jules Dassin's 'Rififi' is as tough as movies get

Rififi

dir.: Jules Dassin

NR, 118 min.

Opens Friday at the Belcourt Theatre

At Cheekwood now, there's an exhibit of photographs by Arthur Fellig, a.k.a. Weegee, the shutterbug whose stark, brazen black-and-whites of crumpled bodies and crime scenes were splashed across New York newspapers in the 1930s and '40s. By a fortuitous fluke of timing, the Belcourt this week is opening the restored print of Rififi, a legendary 1955 crime drama from France directed by an American expatriate, Jules Dassin. The two events would seem to have little in common, but they're connected in at least one tenuous but interesting way.

In 1948, Dassin directed The Naked City, a film inspired by Weegee's 1945 book of the same title. It was the latest in a then-flourishing subgenre of pseudo-documentary police procedurals. These movies abandoned the rat-a-tat glamour of the earlier Warner Bros. gangster flicks for the law's just-the-facts POV—the call comes in to headquarters, the boys pound the pavement, etc. What set apart Dassin's film, which used Weegee as a consultant, was the ground-breaking extensiveness of its location shooting. Cops chased crooks down actual city streets, not backlot boulevards. The interweaving of a fictional story with real city color gave the movie authentic grit, even when overlaid with hard-boiled palaver. ("There are 8 million stories in the naked city!")

Ironically, Weegee the demimonde chronicler went to Hollywood. Dassin, the Connecticut-born son of an immigrant Russian barber, was hounded out of the country by the Red Scare. He went to London, where he made the tip-top Richard Widmark noir Night and the City in 1950. But when fellow director Edward Dmytryk fingered him as a Commie in 1952, the blacklist pursued him overseas, all the way to his new home in France. He didn't work again until 1954, when he got the chance to direct the movie version of Du rififi chez les hommes, a slangy French pulp novel by a colorful, self-styled tough guy named Auguste Le Breton.

That helps explain why Rififi the movie is a kind of taut tone poem about work and camaraderie, in which loyalty to one's colleagues is supreme and betrayal is a capital offense. But Rififi, made by a man in transition between two cultures, is fascinating as a kind of "between film"—caught between American genre conventions and French character study, between the stylized, mostly indoor film noir and the neorealist, location-shot procedural. It doesn't fit any of those categories precisely, which may be why it became a blueprint for so many other movies.

In French underworld argot, "rififi" means "trouble," and so does Dassin's hero, an aging ex-con nicknamed Tony le Stephanois. Just back from a stretch in the pen—five years, roughly the same as Dassin's exile from America—Tony emerges to find his girl, Mado (Marie Sabouret), has taken up with a rival thug. Worse, except for his comrade Jo the Swede (Carl Mñhner), for whom Tony took the rap, the Parisian mob regards him as a has-been. (That Jean Servais, the coolly weary actor playing Tony, was supposedly considered washed up at the time gives the situation added poignancy.) When Jo and a buddy, Mario (Robert Manuel), approach him about a jewelry-store smash-and-grab for quick cash, Tony agrees—but on one condition. He wants to go for the works: the store's impregnable safe, which will require hair-trigger timing and expert teamwork.

This safe-cracking sequence—nearly a half-hour long, and filmed in gut-wrenching near-silence—is the most famous heist in movie history. Without a word to each other, the men, rounded out by a fourth conspirator, systematically break through the ceiling and the store's hair-trigger alarm, using such unorthodox tools as an umbrella and a fire extinguisher. (The scene has been copied now for almost 50 years, from Dassin's own caper comedy Topkapi to the break-in set piece of Mission: Impossible.) Dassin maintains an incredible amount of tension by focusing on the particulars of work, and what it means to these men to rely on each other's professionalism and loyalty. But the suspense takes a queasy turn when Tony's rival tortures one of the gang members into giving up the others. Instead of diamonds, the stakes are now cut throats and dead girlfriends.

The brutality in Rififi is alarming even today, especially an ugly scene in which Tony strips and whips Mado for her infidelity. But compare the point-blank violence in Rififi with 1955's great American noir, Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me, Deadly, and it's the difference between bloodshed as business and as pointless destruction. Aldrich's hero, Mike Hammer, is a meathead with atom-bomb fists who wrecks stuff and people for the hell of it. But when Tony picks up a gun, it's a cold transaction: to protect the loot and his men, or to settle a score. "I liked you," Tony tells the stoolie, "but you know the rules"; the rules reward a rat with a cocked hammer and lead slugs. Intriguingly, the informer is played by an actor named Perlo Vita—a pseudonym for none other than director Dassin. He gives himself a fitting death: painful and undignified.

Rififi holds up worst in the moments when it's most self-conscious, as in a silly nightclub number that's an inadvertent parody of tough-guy posturing. (It was apparently added to explain the title to non-grifters.) What hasn't aged a bit is the gritty location shooting; the attention given to the particulars of cracking a safe; the emphasis on the squashed, creased, rumpled mugs of the various criminals, whose faces are road maps to different routes of corruption. Any attempt to inflate the grandeur of these gangland mopes gets popped. Nearly 50 years after its release, Rififi remains a viciously effective thriller. But it's perhaps most affecting as a response to the McCarthy years—a tale of blood and treachery in which the heroes stay true to themselves and their comrades, and they burn for it.

—Jim Ridley

The sound of silence

Some documentaries dazzle the viewer with comprehensiveness, insight, or the forthrightness of their subjects. And some, like Sound and Fury, are amazing simply because the filmmakers found and interviewed a handful of unforgettable people whose dilemmas and viewpoints encapsulate every side of a difficult issue. Sound and Fury, which opens Friday at Regal's Green Hills 16, is about the debate surrounding cochlear implants—the internal hearing aid that enables some deaf people to hear sounds and even to interpret speech. Documentarian Josh Aronson spends the full 80 minutes of his absorbing, thought-provoking film following the crisis of one extended family, whose opinions about the cochlear run the gamut.

Peter Artinian is the deaf son of hearing parents, and he has a deaf wife, Nita, and three deaf children; his brother Chris is hearing, as is Chris' wife Mari, but her parents are deaf, and one of Chris and Mari's newborn twins has been born deaf. As the film opens, Peter's 5-year-old daughter is pushing her parents to get her an implant, and the Artinians decide to research the procedure and its outcome, and to face their fears that converting their daughter into a hearing person will pull her away from her family and her deaf culture. Meanwhile, Chris and Mari have no qualms about getting a cochlear for their baby, although their decision enrages Mari's parents, who were looking forward to sharing the gift of silence with their grandchild.

The idea that deafness may be a gift is an odd one, but in a world where being "normal" grants a person no special sense of belonging, being in a minority can provide instant access to a rich subculture. At least, that's the argument of the hearing-impaired branch of the Artinian family, and it's a hard argument to dispute. (Ask a homosexual if he'd like to take a pill to become straight, or a member of a racial minority if he'd like a skin transplant.) On the other hand, it's difficult to disagree with the strong feeling of the hearing Artinians that Peter choosing not to implant his kids would be tantamount to not giving a child medicine when she's sick—child abuse, in other words. Peter counters that he'd rather wait and let his children decide when they're old enough to understand what they'd be losing; but for the cochlear to be fully effective, it has to be implanted when the receiver is as young as possible.

There are no easy answers in this debate, especially when the people making the choices have such a personal stake in the outcome. As for the film itself, Aronson's own choice to use dubbed voices rather than subtitles for the people speaking in sign language is questionable—especially when it obscures natural vocal expressions—but it's a choice that keeps the film moving briskly, and it isn't distracting for long. A more relevant decision by the filmmaker was the choice to exclude all experts beyond the Artinians and the people they consult, which puts the audience in the maddening but fair position of having to grapple with the same painful repercussions that gradually, over the course of Sound and Fury, tear a family apart.

—Noel Murray

Six cans of crud

The slobbish, unfunny Saving Silverman costars Steve Zahn and Jack Black, playing low-class buddies Wayne and J.D., whose third musketeer Darren Silverman (played by Jason Biggs) is about to be married to a shrewish psychologist named Judith (Amanda Peet). Since Judith doesn't want the old gang hanging around Darren anymore, Wayne and J.D. kidnap her and recruit their pal's childhood crush Sandy (played by Amanda Detmer) to woo him, even though she's days away from taking her vows and becoming a nun. Then Neil Diamond gets involved, for some reason.

The humor in Saving Silverman is a hash of Farrelly Brothers gross-out, Bill and Ted slackery, and beer-commercial-ready visual stingers. In fact, the whole ethos of the film springs from what seems to be an omnipresent paradigm in contemporary advertising—the triumph of the lumpy common man over the pretty-but-uptight career woman. That's always been a standard component of beer ads, but in the past year or two the trend has extended to dot-com spots, Taco Bell promos, even plugs for Wonder Bread. Guys with untucked T-shirts and overshirts are this year's model. And although unimaginative stereotypes can be funny in a 30-second TV commercial—and at that, just barely—they're not enough to sustain a 90-minute film. It's like the difference between a catchy jingle and a fully realized pop song with a killer bridge and an evocative lyric.

Saving Silverman was directed by former Adam Sandler fave Dennis Dugan, shooting a script by novices Hank Nelken and Greg DePaul, and although none of them have demonstrated that they know better, all of these usually engaging young actors should have. Instead, Zahn and company act as though determined to play down to the material, giving their one-note characters an alarming density. So Biggs and Detmer are ridiculously naive, Zahn and Black are so dumb it's literally not funny, and Peet makes the skin crawl as a castrating bitch. They all seem just about as miserable as their audience.

—Noel Murray

Cannibalized

Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs had a lot of problems—mainly, a creepy sort of hero worship for Anthony Hopkins' implausibly suave serial killer Hannibal Lecter. But at least Demme spent much of the movie undoing the work of his main villain: restoring the identity and personality of a girl introduced to us as a corpse. In Ridley Scott's odious, irrelevant sequel Hannibal, the director is plainly on the side of the killer, and we're supposed to react with glee every time he carves up another victim. Hopkins is now Freddy Krueger in tailored suits, and in the Clarice Starling role made indelible by Jodie Foster, Julianne Moore has so little to do that for a long stretch of the movie she literally phones in her part.

There's no reason to waste much breath on a grab for cash as perfunctory as Hannibal, which muffles all the virtues of Demme's film and cranks all its ruinous flaws to 11. As an Italian detective on Lecter's trail, Giancarlo Giannini gives a surprisingly strong performance, and Gary Oldman camps it up under a landslide of latex as a scarred victim who plans to serve Lecter to his man-eating hogs. (There is the hope this is meant as comedy.) But Scott hustles along the slasher-movie plotting without developing an iota of suspense. The movie degenerates into a series of silly gross-outs, capped (shall we say) by a dinner-table denouement that's as disgusting as its special effects are laughable. Many years ago, Scott made movies like Blade Runner, The Duellists, and Thelma & Louise, which evinced an active mind behind Scott's impeccable eye. After watching Hannibal, you'd think it was his brain that got sautéed.

—Jim Ridley

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