Pop culture is often a matter of instant tradition. Take the once famous Rififi. A low-budget thriller that became an international success during the mid 1950s, Jules Dassin’s existential caper flick is a vivid exercise in hokum that more or less invented the idea of French film noir—and not just for Americans.
Rififi, back for two weeks at Film Forum, was a favorite not just of the young Quentin Tarantino (who borrowed a few ideas for Reservoir Dogs) but of the young François Truffaut (who gave Rififi a quintessential Cahiers du Cinéma rave, noting that “out of the worst crime novel I have ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best Film Noir I have ever seen”). For the French, Rififi had Hollywood pizzazz; for Americans, it had continental sophistication; for both, it seemed to possess an authoritative naturalism.
Having directed the location-heavy noirs Brute Force, Thieves’ Highway, and The Naked City before the blacklist terminated his Hollywood career, Dassin had a reputation as an American neorealist. Rififi was gritty, if suffused with a sort of American-in-Paris enthusiasm for Pigalle after dark. But then, the atmosphere was part of the package. Even the movie’s title was hard-boiled novelist Auguste Le Breton’s invented argot for a crazy mess. (If Rififi had been transposed to the Yiddish theater where writer-director-supporting actor Dassin got his start, it might have been called Tsimmes.)
Populated by many mugs with tilted fedoras, drooping Gaulois, and names like Teddy the Levantine, Rififi features posturing aplenty—particularly if you include the climactic gunfire arabesques. No one, however, has nearly the doomed glamour of the tight-lipped, gimlet-eyed, consumptive Tony Le Stéphanois (Jean Servais), who’s just out of prison, having taken the fall to protect his young protégé Jo the Swede. Too tough to check his hat when he descends into the gangster hell called L’age d’Or to find an old flame (Marie Sabouret), Tony establishes himself as the Apache dancer’s Apache dancer when he collects the doll mid-assignation and, in the movie’s most brutal scene, brings her back to his fleabag, where he orders her to strip, starting with her jewels, then beats her up and tosses her out (keeping the rocks but not the mink).
Tony is persuaded to join Jo and an ebullient Italian pimp in robbing the Paris equivalent of Tiffany’s. Their fourth partner, a safecracker imported from Milan, is played, appropriately enough, by the dapper Dassin (under the name Perlo Vita). John Huston established the rules of the caper film with his 1950 Asphalt Jungle; Dassin put greater emphasis on the process. The gang spends much time studiously casing the joint (and the apartment upstairs), then doing rocket-science research on the hypersensitive alarm system. The actual burglary—a half-hour tour de force that includes an umbrella and a fire extinguisher among its props—requires commando-raid timing and brain-surgery precision. Tony’s tubercular hack notwithstanding, he and his formally attired confreres exhibit the wordless teamwork of astronauts in deep space.
Thereafter it’s a matter of waiting for the fuckup as a rival gang gets wind of the heist and the film’s various foibles and subplots come to a boil. Crime doesn’t pay, but it seems scarcely coincidental that Dassin, who was named as a Communist before HUAC, makes informing the movie’s cardinal sin. To add to the theatricality of the situation, the hapless rat is shot (many times) while trussed up backstage at L’age d’Or. Rififi had an influence on Jean-Pierre Melville, who was evidently supposed to direct and soon after worked with Le Breton on his caper film Bob Le Flambeur. Despite a fondness for grotesque, expressionistic touches (most deriving from the playthings that belong to Tony’s godson), Dassin lacks Melville’s metaphysical love of tough-guy grace—even if the overwrought ending leaves bodies strewn all over town.
Although Dassin would kiss off the urban crime films that represent his best work, Rififi won him the prize for direction at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival and received sensational reviews when it opened in the U.S. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther thought he could smell the funky dives, adding, “Boy what would they have done to this picture if it had been put up to Hollywood’s Production Code?” (This rave did not pass unnoticed by the red-baiting Motion Picture Herald.) One of the few pans appeared in the fledgling Village Voice, where novelist Vance Bourjaily dismissed Rififi as a “gentle fraud” perpetrated by “uptown critics” and mocked the crowds lined up outside the Fine Arts to watch The Asphalt Jungle in French.
Now Rififi is downtown—the latest re-release from Rialto, an outfit that has managed to make the black-and-white art-house hits of the ’50s look better than new. The 35mm print is splendid and the retranslated subtitles are flavorsome. In my favorite, a friendly thug welcomes a B-girl to his table with an expansive, “Bonjour kid, sit your moneymaker down.”
Like Rififi‘s central scene, François Ozon’s Criminal Lovers is a smoothly calculated piece of work—and a nasty one too.
This may be Ozon’s moment, in lower Manhattan at least. His third feature—Water Drops on Burning Rocks, reviewed here last week—is installed at the Film Forum. His second opens Friday at the Quad. The 32-year-old former Super-8 filmmaker is a cool customer with a taste for kinky provocation, and, true to form, Criminal Lovers opens creepy with teenage Alice performing a mock striptease for her blindfolded admirer and classmate Luc.
Initially, Criminal Lovers seems like a Gallic Natural Born Killers, as Alice and Luc butcher a fellow student who has provoked Alice’s interest. The gradual disclosure of the couple’s sexual pathology makes their act less irrational but also weirder. As these remorseless thrill killers drive off into the countryside to dispose of their victim’s corpse, Alice becomes upset when Luc runs over a rabbit: “We have to bury it.” It’s not long before the quarrelsome children are lost in the forest and stumble across a version of the witch’s gingerbread house. In Water Drops, Ozon donned the mantle of R.W. Fassbinder. Here, he does something at least as tricky in creating a contemporary, tabloid Hansel and Gretel.
Criminal Lovers may be as gimmicky as Ozon’s other features, but it’s also more resonant and even haunting. Natacha Regnier, last seen here in The Dreamlife of Angels, is bizarrely confident and mercurial as the disturbed Alice. Her nerdy accomplice, as hypnotized by her bare legs as he is repulsed by her sexual bravado, is played by Jeremie Renier, the boy in La Promesse. (Both are Belgian; that Renier is about a decade Regnier’s junior provides additional subtext.) The ogre in the woods is embodied by the terrific, and here terrifying, Yugoslav actor Miki Manojlovic.
The pair’s fairy-tale captivity is interspersed with flashbacks so that the initial murder is replayed mid-film to even more disturbing effect. Some of the revelations are overdetermined, as in Alice’s enthusiasm for Rimbaud and the visual references to Psycho that introduce Luc. If the most Hitchcockian aspect of the movie is the way Ozon exploits and confounds spectator sympathies, the most Ozonian is its movement from claustrophobic nightmare to pure dream state. Down to Luc’s dog collar, the climactic love scene might have been swiped from an X-rated Bambi.
It ain’t saying much but, when it comes to stoopid fun, X-Men could be the summer movie to beat—it’s nearly as enjoyable as avoiding The Patriot and The Perfect Storm. The running time is compact, the action is acrobatic rather than explosive, and the adolescent rage is considerably more wholesome than that of Criminal Lovers.
Launched by Marvel Comics in 1963 as “The Uncanny X-Men” and initially drawn by the great Jack Kirby, the X-Men were the original teenage mutant superheroes. The movie is true to its source—at least for being comic-book snide and smoldering with high school resentment. Director Bryan Singer has found his own level. Indeed, X-Men begins more or less where his political pulp puzzler Apt Pupil left off—with Ian McKellen flashing back to the gates of Auschwitz.
So far as the mutants go, the movie spends too much time dwelling on the problems of glowering Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) and tremulous Rogue (Anna Paquin), but even here the romantic self-pity has a Cheez Doodle airiness. Ray Park’s Toad is more convincing than his Darth Maul. His intercontinental ballistic tongue brought down the house at the all-media screening, although the movie’s most alarming effect is surely Halle Berry’s white plastic wig.