Aug 11, 2008

Classics: Rififi!

Wow. They don't make them like they used to.
We caught the wonderful
Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955) yesterday at the Film Forum. I think it's the best movie I've seen all year.
I cannot recall any recent movie that is more beautiful, more smart, more wise, more lovely, more fun and more heartbreaking than
Movies like this just make you think that cinema today is a heap of garbage.
Rififi is a French film noir and the mother of all heist films, about Tony le Stephanois, a sad, somber man who gets out of jail, having taken the rap for a younger protegé and because of pride and greed and plain flawed human nature, he decides to participate in the heist of a jewelry store off the Place Vendome. The actor Jean Servais has a face sculpted in grief and hard knocks. He is the epitome of the noir anti-hero. He is a tough, tough guy. But he is wounded by love and seeking redress. He is sick and old and broken by his stint in jail. So he is a real interesting character: loyal to his closest associates but bent on self-destruction; guilty of the sin of pride.
He has a "family" of hoodlums who are so endearing you want them to teach you how to rob jewelry stores so you can be just like them. Their lives seem like fun. You root for them from the start. I just learned that the guy who plays Cesare the Milanese, a suave, charming Italian with a weakness for women, is none other than Jules Dassin, who is not French, as his name sounds, but a Yiddish actor from Connecticut, who had to leave the US because of McCarthyism. He is delightful as Cesare, funny and heartbreaking. Please read about Jules Dassin's improbable, amazing life here.
Now, the preparations for the heist, and the heist itself, are a poem to professionalism and team work. The heist is a fabled long sequence without dialogue or music where you see the loving, tender concentration with which the robbers do their work, their patience, their talent, their artistry.
It works as a metaphor for filmmaking, where everybody collaborates their expertise to achieve a beautiful result.
But what makes it even more beautiful, this tough as nails yet tender caper, is that you know that it's going to end in tears. As does life.
Rififi there are good bad guys and bad bad guys. The good bad guys steal jewels. Their relationships are warm, loyal, decent. The bad bad guys deal drugs, pimp women and have no scruples. But since they all live in the underworld, that's where they settle their scores and doom themselves to grief. The well behaved world is irrelevant to them. It's as if it was another planet.
Throughout the movie, Dassin sustains increasing tension and excitement, with many inspired, delicious touches. And the end is a classic.
I will not tell you more except that many of us in the audience burst out in applause.
Rififi is a masterpiece. You have to see it.
(Be forewarned that a remake is apparently slated for 2009 with none other than Al Pacino in the title role, as per IMDb Pro.) All I can say (besides how dare they) is I wouldn't want to be in their shoes.

Du Rififi Chez les Hommes
cannot be topped.

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