Monday, August 11, 2008

Movies: Du rififi chez les hommes (Rififi)

If your mouth isn't big enough to fit all ten fingers in up to the knuckle, it will be by the end of this spectacularly suspenseful kickoff to Film Forum's French Crime Wave festival. Rififi is a jewel heist movie that offers up the traditional morals of the 1950s noir: Crime doesn't pay and Never trust a dame, but director Jules Dassin draws out a lengthy, technical middle that tailspins into a drunken, pre-psychedelic, nerve-frying ending to deepen our investment in the plot to a degree that a movie, particularly a gimmick-ridden noir, rarely does.

Le Stéphanois (basically the best name for a French criminal ever) has just gotten out of jail at the film's opening, and has reunited with his old friends who, despite being thieves, are very likable family men (not unlike Clooney's Oceans Eleven, Twelve, Thirteen crew). The group of four (le Stéphanois, his younger buddy Jo (the father of his godson), Mario Ferrati (basically the most delightful caricature of an Italian man ever), and his safe-cracking buddy César imported from Milan just for the job) decide to steal the jewels from the (not very impressive, by contemporary American standards) Mappin & Webb, a corner shop above which the owner makes his home in a sumptuous apartment. Their plan, which they follow precisely, involves breaking into the old man's home while he's on a weekend hunting trip, and cutting a hole in the floor through which they can drop into the store. The best moment of ingenuity is when they use an inverted umbrella to catch the falling bits of masonry whilst cutting (any piece that hit the floor would create a vibration that would trip the alarm), and their silencing the alarm's ringing bell with the viscous foam of a fire extinguisher is equally delightful in its embrasure of the analog.

Meanwhile, le Stéphanois has a grudge to settle with a club-owner, Grutter, who's been dating his woman while he was inside. That grudge turns ugly when Grutter gets wind of le Stéphanois windfall (César, unable to resist the sensual charms of the club's resident chanteuse, gave her an enormous diamond ring he secretly pocketed during the heist, and the club-owner recognizes it, adding two and two for four, trussing up the Italian, and then killing Feratti, who won't disclose the jewels hiding spot). To get the goods, he kidnaps Jo's son for ransom, and Jo, sitting at home by the telephone, his wife in a faint, finally decides to take the suitcase of cash (the jewels have already been sold off to the fence) to the club-owner's villa, without knowing that le Stéphanois has already been there and rescued his son. When Jo arrives with the money, le Stéphanois is on his way back, but he's too late: the money has been turned over and Jo has been shot dead. Grutter shoots Le Stéphanois down too, and we chew our nails to the quick until we see him, le Stéphanois, stand up again, and shoot Grutter dead, grab the suitcase of money, and stumble back to the car. Here begins his mad drive, back to the cafe where he left his godson, and then back to Jo's house, with the boy and the money. He's bleeding and reeling and we're certain that he'll drive off the road. All the while, the boy, unawares of the emergency, is standing in the backseat of the convertible, wearing le Stéphanois' coat, waving a plastic gun that, at one moment of brilliant irony, he holds to le Stéphanois' head. Le Stéphanois collapses just as he pulls up to Jo's house, and the boy's mother runs out and snatches him up, leaving the dead Stéphanois and the suitcase of millions behind for the police to mull over.

That always gets me down—these poor criminals work so hard, and are so likeable (Ferrati who transfers good luck kisses via his fingertip onto everything from the jewels' secret hiding place to his girlfriend's sweatered nipple, Jo who sweats like a chiseled, homoerotic Vulcan as he bears the weight of the safe on his back when they ease it to the floor, even the old and tired Stéphanois, who seems to be living for little more than revenge, but only half-heartedly, without much bloodlust (though he does kill César for snitching out Ferrati's address. . . yet another noir moral: Always kill a rat). Always, always, I want them to win, to get their take, to keep it, to quit crime and live comfortably on the sum, but Hollywood never lets it happen. Even in France.

No comments: