Film Review: Rififi (1955)

Also known as: Du rififi chez les hommes (original French title)
Release Date: April 13th, 1955 (France)
Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: Auguste Le Breton, Jules Dassin, Rene Wheeler
Music by: Georges Auric
Cast: Jean Servais, Robert Hossein, Magali Noël, Janine Darcey, Pierre Grasset, Marcel Lupovici, Robert Manuel, Carl Möhner, Marie Sabouret, Claude Sylvain, Jules Dassin (credited as Perlo Vita)

Pathé, 118 Minutes

Review:

“[to Tony about Cesar] For a job with you he’ll come. Cesar! There’s not a safe that can resist Cesar and not a woman that Cesar can resist.” – Mario Ferrati

Jules Dassin, a maestro of film-noir, was blacklisted from Hollywood. So he took his talents to France and made Du rififi chez les hommes or just Rififi.

Other Dassin fans have told me to watch this for quite a while now but I just got around to it because I have a giant laundry list of stuff that I need to watch. But I am glad that I did as this is now my favorite of Dassin’s crime pictures.

I think that this benefited from Dassin not being under the controlling eye of Hollywood execs. It felt more personal, much more gritty and allowed Dassin some creative freedom in an era where it didn’t really exist, at least in the United States.

The big heist sequence in this film was fantastic and one of the best I’ve ever seen. It takes up a big chunk of the second act of the picture but each shot was well crafted and every moment served a purpose and was interesting.

Seeing heists in film is really common nowadays but back in the mid-’50s it wasn’t. Dassin put great detail into this sequence and what makes it cool, seeing it all these years later, is that it isn’t high tech, it is much more hands on and displayed real cunning, as opposed to just some boffin on a laptop hacking cameras, lasers and safe codes.

I also thought that the acting in this was really good. All of the key players were able to express themselves without a lot of dialogue. You could read things on their face, which also made the experience more effective for English speaking audiences that have to see this film with subtitles.

The cinematography was top notch and a lot of that can be credited to the lighting. But ultimately, it was Dassin’s directorial prowess that brought all the pieces together in the right way, visually.

Between this film and Le Samouraï, I’m really digging French film-noir. For other fans of noir out there, or just Jules Dassin fans, this is certainly not a waste of your time and is pretty close to being a film-noir masterpiece.

Rating: 9/10
Pairs well with: Other noir pictures by Jules Dassin: The Naked CityNight and the CityThieves’ Highway and Brute Force. Also, the French neo-noir Le Samouraï.

Film Review: The Naked City (1948)

Also known as: Homicide (working title)
Release Date: March 4th, 1948
Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: Albert Maltz, Malvin Wald
Music by: Miklós Rózsa, Frank Skinner
Cast: Barry Fitzgerald, Howard Duff, Dorothy Hart, Don Taylor

Mark Hellinger Productions, Universal Pictures, 96 Minutes

Review:

“There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” – Narrator

The Naked City is a really important film in history for how it popularized the police procedural story in fiction. It’s not the first but it is the most popular of the procedural films at the time. The genre style was alive in the literature of the time but it hadn’t quite taken off in film before this picture. Plus, this sort of marries the police procedural drama with film-noir.

Directed by noir giant Jules Dassin, who was also behind the camera on Brute ForceThieves’ HighwayNight and the City and Rififi, this is probably his best known picture. In fact, it’s popularity spun off into a television series. It even went on to inspire some DLC content for the 2011 video game L.A. Noire, seven decades later.

The movie is partially told in a semidocumentary style, similar to noir pictures like T-Men and He Walked by Night. This helped with the police procedural narrative and kept things feeling pretty authenitc and real, well as authentic and real as a Hollywood picture could be at that time.

In this film, we follow around a veteran cop and a young cop, as they try and solve the murder of a young model. We go through all their procedures and see how they use their intuition, science and detective skills to catch the killer.

While this is probably the most highly regarded of Dassin’s films, it’s not my favorite. I actually prefer Brute Force and Night and the City more. I also think that Thieves’ Highway is on par with this, if not slightly better because of how good the performances were. The Naked City is still darn good, however.

The cinematography is exceptional, especially in regards to how New York City was shot. I was really impressed with the scene where the two men ride the construction elevator up the side of a building, as the backdrop of the city behind them drops. There is a lot of energy just from how certain things in this film were captured when it would have been much easier for Dassin and his cinematographer, William H. Daniels, to have shot things much simpler or on closed sets. They really brought New York City alive, though. In the end, they won the Academy Award for Black and White Cinematography.

The Naked City is a pivotal film in history because it popularized a narrative style that might even be at its strongest now, in the 2010s. How many procedural cop shows are there now? Many of them have been on for over a decade and had spin-offs and spin-offs of their spin-offs.

Rating: 7/10
Pairs well with: Other Dassin film-noirs: Brute ForceNight and the City, Thieves’ Highway, etc. Also T-Men and He Walked by Night.

Film Review: Thieves’ Highway (1949)

Release Date: October 10th, 1949
Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: A. I. Bezzerides
Based on: Thieves’ Market by A. I. Bezzerides
Music by: Alfred Newman
Cast: Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb, Barbara Lawrence

20th Century Fox, 94 Minutes

Review:

“Do you know what it takes to get an apple so you can sink your beautiful teeth in it? You gotta stuff rags up tailpipes, farmers gotta get gypped, you jack up trucks with the back of your neck, universals conk out…” – Nico ‘Nick’ Garcos

Who knew that a film-noir about apples could be so entertaining?

Okay, the film has more going on than just apples but they play a big part, as an angry war veteran wants revenge for what a gangster-like produce tyrant did to his father: robbing him and crippling him.

Jules Dassin is becoming a director whose work I really appreciate after seeing this, as well as Brute ForceNaked City and Night and the City, all film-noir pictures that could be considered classics. I still haven’t seen Rififi but it’s high on my list.

The film stars Richard Conte, an actor I have enjoyed in several films. You also get a solid performance by Lee J. Cobb, who plays the evil and amoral produce king.

All in all, this is a pretty good picture and it had me engaged from start to finish. I didn’t know what to expect but it was a film that was high up on a lot of people’s top film-noir lists. Would it crack my top twenty? Probably not and I’d say that it’s my least favorite of the Dassin noirs I’ve seen but Dassin is still quite accomplished behind the camera and delivered a one-of-a-kind noir tale.

Apparently, Dana Andrews and Victor Mature were both announced as the film’s lead during different points of pre-production. Ultimately, Conte got the role, which I feel was the best choice, even though I like those other guys. Conte made this his role and it’s hard to see the character of Garcos performed differently. The character was very much Conte and while the man has a charismatic coolness and toughness like those other guys, his is a unique kind of cool.

Thieves’ Highway is solid, through and through. There’s nothing here to really disappoint a film-noir aficionado.

Rating: 7.25/10

Film Review: Night and the City (1950)

Release Date: June 9th, 1950 (New York City premiere)
Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: Austin Dempster, William E. Watts
Based on: Night and the City by Gerald Kersh
Music by: Franz Waxman
Cast: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Herbert Lom, Stanislaus Zbyszko, Mike Mazurki

20th Century Fox, 96 Minutes

Review:

“Harry. Harry. You could have been anything. Anything. You had brains… ambition. You worked harder than any 10 men. But the wrong things. Always the wrong things… ” – Mary Bristol

I was glad that I got to catch this on a recent episode of TCM’s Noir Alley. I wasn’t really familiar with Jules Dassin’s work until recently, while delving deep into the vast ocean that is film-noir.

This film, among the seemingly endless noir-scape, stands out, stands strong and hell, it’s got professional wrestling in it: giving Mike Mazurki a character close to who he actually was and providing a great role for wrestling legend (and former world champion) Stanislaus Zbyszko of the famous Zbyszko wrestling family.

The film primarily stars Richard Widmark and man is he a friggin’ entertaining weasel in this. He is also accompanied by one of the queens of film-noir, Gene Tierney. Unfortunately, she isn’t in this film as much as I would have liked because she is truly an enchantress of the silver screen.

Night and the City follows Widmark’s Harry Fabian, a hustling con man type that is always looking for a way to get to the top, regardless of who he has to screw over in the process. Obviously, he’s a man in over his head, barking up all the wrong trees while digging his own eventual grave. When he starts a scheme involving professional wrestlers, he is in deeper water than he can even fathom.

The film takes place in London and was filmed there due to director Jules Dassin moving to the UK after being blacklisted over communist fears. His career still flourished, even if he had to escape Hollywood and Night and the City is a great example of how the director didn’t miss a beat, despite his misfortune during the McCarthy era witch hunts.

Widmark’s performance is tremendous as he traverses through all the twists and turns in the film’s plot. He has a charm and an insane enthusiasm that almost feels like the gangster version of the comic book Joker before he fell into that vat of acid. Hell, he could have been a great Jack Napier and Joker had they made a Batman film in the 1950s with a serious tone.

The highlight of this film for me was seeing the two wrestling legends square off: Mazurki and Zbyszko. Their physical fight in the film was pretty damn realistic and grueling as hell to witness. It was well shot, well executed and certainly effective.

The cinematography was handled by Max Greene, who had a lot of experience with his work on dozens of films before this. His visuals were accompanied by the great music of Franz Waxman. With Dassin’s direction, we had a Holy Trinity of cinematic masters combining their best efforts on a film that should probably be better remembered than it is, at least outside of film-noir fan circles.

Rating: 8.25/10

Film Review: Brute Force (1947)

Release Date: June 30th, 1947
Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: Richard Brooks, Robert Patterson
Music by: Miklós Rózsa
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Hume Cronyn, Charles Bickford, Sam Levene, Charles McGraw (uncredited)

Universal Pictures, 98 Minutes

Review:

“[to Captain Munsey] That’s why you’d never resign from this prison. Where else whould you find so many helpless flies to stick pins into?” – Dr. Walters

Brute Force was directed by Jules Dassin, who did a hamdful of noir pictures, all of them pretty interesting in their own regard. He always brought a sense of authenticity and realism to his pictures. This one is unusual, as it takes place in a prison and the only time we really leave the confines of the cold walls and steel bars is through flashbacks of life before incarceration.

The film starts off with a bang, as we are treated to ominous shots of the prison and a pounding yet beautiful score by Miklós Rózsa. The whole vibe in the first few shots reminds me a lot of the experience of playing the first Batman: Arkham Asylum video game, except shown in a film-noir visual style.

Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn both star in this and both actors are absolutely magnificent. Lancaster plays a prisoner that wants to escape, as his wife is dying of cancer. Cronyn plays the head prison guard and truly is the embodiment of evil, as he is a power hungry maniac ruling over the men in the penitentiary with a strong arm and a heavy club.

Ultimately, I thought that this film would defy the morality censors of the time but the old adage that crime doesn’t pay is still made very apparent in this picture. I wouldn’t say that the film has a predictable ending and for something from the 1940s it has a much harder edge than  you might expect. The big finale is especially satisfying for those wanting a film-noir with serious gravitas and without fear of pushing the envelope too far.

The characters are well written with diverse personalities that make each one stand out in their own way. The camaraderie between the prisoners feels genuine and you care about Lancaster’s criminal crew more intimately than you would background players in other films from this era.

The movie is well shot with nice cinematography by William Daniels, who also worked on the underrated Lured, as well as Naked City, which was also directed by Jules Dassin. He gave the prison life, even if it felt dead, cold and overbearing.

Brute Force was a surprise for me. I expected something fairly decent with Dassin at the helm and with Lancaster and Cronyn in front of the camera. What I experienced was something much better than the norm with bigger balls than the 1940s typically allowed on the silver screen.

Rating: 8/10