Noir is Hell

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Two French crime stories. I first wrote about THE SLEEPING CAR MURDERS, Costa-Gavras’ directorial debut, when it was only available to me as a pan-and-scan off-air recording from Scottish Television, dubbed into English. Now seeing it in widescreen and French and decent definition, its youthful vivacity combines nicely with its dark sensibility. But it’s far from nihilistic — Costa-Gavras clearly loves his naïve young couple, and his sniffle-afflicted detective (Yves Montand gets to be a handkerchief actor). It goes like a train. The novel by Sebastien Japrisot is also excellent but the solution to the mystery involves a fairly wild coincidence of murderers, if I recall it aright. CG changes the ending and it makes more sense. Probably his least political film for years but it does slip in some social comment, however maybe it’s highest achievement outside of the kinetic thriller dynamic is the miniature character portraits it offers en route.

RIFIFI is of course too famous to require comment on its spectacular cinematic merits, particularly the 45-minute (can this be right? It isn’t: see comments) silent heist. What makes it so tense and exhilarating IS the quietude. Director Jules Dassin’s European comeback after the blacklist, it shows his willingness to let the bad guy heroes BE bad guys, until the third act, when he gives anti-hero Jean Servais something noble to do, and includes a speech about how the real tough guys are those born to poverty who nevertheless go straight. He couldn’t help himself — Dassin needed some nobility to get behind.

Servais, visibly dying, is a magnificently raddled central figure (you can see him as a fresh-faced juvie lead in LES MISERABLES 20-something years earlier), shrivelled in his baggy suit. During the feverish final journey by convertible through Paris, he’s accompanied by a little boy with a toy cowboy pistol, draped in an adult coat to keep warm, who comes to seem like a crazy parody of him. Dassin, working with editor Roger Dwyre for the first time, creates a sequence of pure rhythm — from his very first short, Dassin has a heightened sense of visual and aural rhythm. If you start to notice it, even his supposed “worst” films become impressive.

4 Responses to “Noir is Hell”

  1. Simon Fraser Says:

    We watched Rififi again recently. The Film Forum let us watch it at home for 10 bucks. I’d have preferred to watch it at the Film Forum of course, but it’s touch and go whether there will even be a Film Forum at this stage.

  2. I’d love to see it on the big screen.

    A correction: the robbery is about 25 mins with no music or dialogue. The getaway takes it up to 31 minutes, but that has music.

  3. David Ehrenstein Says:

    I saw it when it first came out and quite enjoyed it. The U.S. critics were over the moon in their praise. But to me it was just a nice no-frills entertainment. At the same time, however, Jean-Pierre Melville ws reinventing the crime thriller in very radical ways that haven’t been topped. Melville adored heists ,, especially when they fail. his fatalism stands n marked contrast to Dassin’s mere pessimism.

  4. I think, in a way, while The Asphalt Jungle proved that you could make a heist film, Rififi proved that you could KEEP making it, and Melville took that idea and ran with it, immediately.

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