John Huston knew exactly what movies he was shooting. And interviews with him and his contemporaries suggest he could transfer precisely the movie in his head to sketches and storyboards. Creating a movie in the cutting room was for other directors – Huston was accustomed to a more painter-like process. He even admitted in one interview he didn’t know his editors for most of his movies.
And with a resume of nearly all literary adaptations, Huston’s motion pictures are responsible for establishing movie genres & styles still popular today. And it’s part of Huston’s painterly trait with his understanding of composition and spatial relationships that makes his pictures so enduring.
There’s the low-key lighting and the unusual camera angles of The Maltese Falcon, a movie responsible for establishing the American film noir aesthetic. In Treasure of Sierra Madre, the characters struggle in the rise and slopes of Mexico’s topography, echoed thematically in the increase/decrease of power. Then there’s the titular boat in The African Queen and the growing relationship of its queen and captain on their never-ending obstacle course – the camera rising above the Queen’s marshy spot to reveal the sea just beyond it.
In Huston’s 1950 The Asphalt Jungle, it’s Dix (Sterling Hayden) creeping from column to column, Gus on the telephone while police officers on the window beside him, the jukebox girl dancing backwards to a window revealing officers looking in. However, as with most of Huston’s pictures, it’s a disregard for the power of montage and his stringent attachment to traditional narrative formula that weakens his pictures, particularly The Asphalt Jungle.
What we see in Huston’s pictures is a literary form translated to the screen with an eye for a consistent visual aesthetic. This is enough to make the pictures work without developing the strengths cinema, as an art form, offers. Huston was content to work within the major movie studio formula and his pictures avoid most of the contiguous flaws naively reproduced in works of filmmakers like his contemporary David Lean. But it is Lean, Huston, etc. whose films neglect to pursue the end of cinema according to its own form and not another.
Huston is far from artistically bankrupt. His command as a director, his attention to the tragedies of human nature and experience are more than sufficient reasons to regard him as an important storyteller. But his adherence to the structure of traditional narrative, stemming from the literary form most closely associated with it, limits his films.
Then, on the other hand, we have Jules Dassin who, in his 1955 Rififi, succeeds with all the strengths of Huston and more.
Jules Dassin was more than just an American filmmaker who suffered under the Hollywood blacklist during the McCarthy era. Dassin’s film noirs pushed the genre forward exploring the variety of techniques and styles afforded by cinema.
The faux-documentary style of The Naked City manipulated the conventions of film noir where in its genre fellows there was a isolated focus on an individual or on a small group of individuals. In The Naked City, Dassin creates a similar psychological enclosure by broadening the characters’ environment to include the “eight million people” in the city. The sheer abundance of people and their activities became the alleys and shadows.
In The Naked City, the portrayal of each character incorporates the aspects of their families, traditions, neighborhoods and the like. Thus the film portrays its players beyond the roles and situations provided in the confines of the movie’s plot and it is these details that give it lifeness, something similar to the effect of a novel but producing it through a different means of expression.
Another of Dassin’s film noirs, The Night and the City, turns storytelling conventions with a movie comprised of mood and thematically consistent pieces or episodes not operated by heroics or tightly-written plots. Where Huston was oblivious to his editors, Dassin was oblivious to the source material, The Night and the City being based on a novel.
Night and the City follows Richard Widmark as Henry Fabian, a scum hustler whose desperation drives the film. The various levels of manipulation and deceit among the characters make for a movie where no one can claim Hero and crimes go unpunished. No matter how noble their intentions, each character is doomed by their own nature.
These self-seeking characters deceive themselves by allowing others to deceive them to the point it becomes tragic wish-fulfillment. And Dassin captures the paradoxical way these individuals live in ignorance of the consequences and the way they grab as much of life as possible because of it.
By the time Dassin made Rififi, he had proven his aptitude for understanding the complexities of human nature and hope
less experience, manifested his ability to adapt literary sources to the unique demands and features of cinema, demonstrated a deft handling of filming technique and an aptitude for the atmospheric. In all of these ways, Dassin matches and even surpasses the strengths of director John Huston.
Rififi as Remake of The Asphalt Jungle?
The premise of Du rififi chez les hommes (Rififi), based on the novel by Auguste le Breton, centers on a jewel heist, which occupies very little space in the original novel but the heist’s planning, execution and aftermath becomes the chassis for Dassin’s film.
The film’s plot resembles The Asphalt Jungle so much it could be called an approximate remake though each film is based on a different novel (Dassin once said he had never seen Huston’s picture and was surprised to hear comparisons). The similarities in source material or whether Dassin was intentionally remaking Huston’s movie doesn’t matter to me – my aim, rather, is to discuss how Rififi plays with the same colors and canvas but exceeds The Asphalt Jungle in mastering the looseness in narrative the cinema allows.
With a large cast, both movies draw from a palette of unique characters with little distinction between major and minor. In The Asphalt Jungle, the characters are more easily pegged by each one’s unique character detail compared to the more believable characters in Rififi where adding an idiosyncrasy or two isn’t the only method of attributing lifeness.
Ciavelli, the safecracker in The Asphalt Jungle, lives under the pressure of family life and a distrusting wife, joins the heist team, performs the heist, leaves a token and is killed. But it’s in Rififi, that each one of these elements is portrayed in its own right: with Mario and his untrustworthy wife Ida, with the safecracker Cesar (played by Dassin himself) who steals a token ring beyond the heist’s goals and is killed, then with Jo trying to make something more of his family life (Jo and Dix being similar characters occupying similar functions in each heist).
But the contrast in character portrayal is easier to see when considering Asphalt Jungle‘s Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) and Rififi‘s Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais).
Once released from prison where he meticulously planned a jewel heist, Riedenschneider assembles a team of criminals, cautiously evaluating each development according to or in conflict with his plan. Riedenschneider’s punctilious comportment is often interrupted (and eventually undone) by his own proclivity in succumbing to the sexual allure of the female figure.
This is a convincing combination of a character strength and weakness, memorable even but less concerned with addressing Riedenschneider as a human being than a criminal mastermind undone by a human flaw.
In Rififi, we see Tony le Stephanois who, just released from prison and weary because of it, quickly turns to the card table and, drunk, calls his friend Jo to give him cash to continue playing. Jo pulls him from the table, then with Mario, asks Tony to help them steal the jewels from a jewel store’s window display. Tony declines, the reluctant “hero.”
When he’s not paying visits to Jo, Jo’s wife Louise and son (who he buys gifts for), he’s interested in what became of his girlfriend, Mado. Then he discovers that since imprisoned, she went to Pierre, a club owner, leader of the Grutter gang, an old rival of Tony’s. He invites Mado to his apartment, telling her to strip and then beats her. Shortly afterwards, Tony changes his mind about the heist but with the intention to rob the jewelry store’s safe, not its window.
Tony’s other character-revealing actions include inventing a method of silencing the alarm (a fantastic scene for not being “necessary” plot-wise but establishing mood and suspense all the same) and then performing the trick himself, clumsily attacking a police officer inspecting their getaway car, executing Cesar for not adhering to their “code,” his behavior towards his lover Mado, his fatherly protection of Jo and his family versus a desire to retaliate against Pierre and finally, his rescue of Jo’s son, Tonio.
Rififi is a much more compelling picture because of its reliance on Tony as the central figure and his multi-faceted human qualities and actions. Dassin achieves a more nuanced and ambiguous portrayal of the criminal underworld than Huston with The Asphalt Jungle and its heavy reliance on exposition for what little and mostly contrived character depiction it had.
At the end of The Asphalt Jungle, only the police survive and it’s the police commissioner who gives a speech to the reporters about the service and protection offered by their presence. The scene doesn’t lend much sympathy to the police and it doesn’t hold up to the procedural element mastered by Dassin in The Naked City. This scene represents the emotional distance which hurts the film, something which began with the corrupt detective in that first scene.
The jewel heist in The Asphalt Jungle functions not so much as a set piece in and of itself as it does in Rififi, but more conventionally: this heist’s suspense depends on the criminals not being caught which happens as they leave and continues to the end of the film.
Thus the heist is merely a plot point necessary for dissolving their run at things, to introduce the third act. In Rififi, the half-hour jewel heist, like the alarm scene mentioned earlier, depends on mood and suspense. Without dialogue or music, particular attention is given to any and every sound which might undo the team’s efforts.
Besides the officers by the getaway car, the heist is successful. The team applauds their victory as they inspect the spoils and it’s only Cesar’s ring gift, based in a Riedenschneider-like weakness for female affection, that leads Pierre, not the police, to pursue Tony and co.
The continued story depends on the accumulating flaws of each character requiring the sacrifice of Tony le Stephanois to redeem the son, Tonio.
When Louise finds out Tonio has been kidnapped by Pierre and his gang, she’s hysterical. Here the theme of “rififi” or “tough guy” is revisited (it comes up first as a nightclub number) as she rebukes Tony for his criminal lifestyle, for his compulsive desire to be a tough guy that negatively impacts the rest of his life and the lives of others.
This theme carries the film, even in the ending rescue with Tonio in a cowboy outfit pretending to draw and shoot his pistol – the son is already enacting the compulsive masculinity of his father. When you compare this with the film’s portrayal of female characters, there’s yet another area Rififi succeeds where The Asphalt Jungle doesn’t.
In the latter, the female characters (Ciavelli’s wife and Dix’s female clinger-on Doll – as she’s named) serve as nothing more than opportunities for exposition, for revealing their men’s inner life and becoming impediments and burdens to the men for whom they exist. In Rififi, like the portrayal of the male protagonist Tony, there’s an overload of details and actions with its female characters making it a well-rounded depiction of both sexes.
When Tony beats Mado early in the film, it’s a brutal moment the camera leaves unseen before returning to let us see Tony mercilessly kicking Mado out. Tony and Mado are never reconciled in the film as Doll and Dix are in The Asphalt Jungle. Tony “punishes” Mado for the same reasons he executes Cesar, the same reason Mario is upset with his wife when she betrays the others and Pierre kills them.
And it’s Tony’s adherence to this criminal code that requires his own blood to be shed at the film’s end. Tough guys die and the son is returned to the care of the Mother, who along with Mado and Viviane, may now live unencumbered by the domination of violent male figures in their lives.
That last scene, the “car chase” with the injured Tony driving Tonio home before he dies is paralleled by the last scene in The Asphalt Jungle, also a “car chase” with a similarly shot Dix driving to his Kentucky farm to get one last glimpse of his black stallion.
Each man is near death and equally determined to make the Return home but with Dix, the editing cuts from him behind the wheel to the car passing through this landscape and then another landscape drive-thru before stopping at the farm where he runs towards the horses and falls over. It’s an over-romanticized scene that goes too far without showing enough of the previous “going.”
Then there’s Tony’s drive where the editing conveys his impending death and his determination with cuts to Tonio playing in the car, the city landscape as an obstacle to his return, his impaired driving, etc. Like the rest of Rififi, it’s emotionally compelling because of the suspense built (will he even make it?), the layering of detail after detail and the expression of story through frame composition and editing instead of exposition.
Dassin, Rififi and cinema
John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle is visually creative but it’s Jules Dassin’s Rififi which deserves recognition for being consistent in every facet of filmmaking. What makes Rififi all the more significant today is its sync of aesthetic qualities with greater meaning. The attention to details – Stephanois buying toys for the Tonio, the foam in the alarm, etc. which insulate the characters in a believable world.
In Rififi, this world includes one particularly remarkable scene worth mentioning at the close (one often disparaged as distracting or meaningless). The nightclub number “La chanson ‘Le Rififi'” sung by Magali Noel as Viviane makes a strong impression not only because of its silhouette backdrop, the staging but also in how the camera incorporates the principal characters into the performance, revealing bits about them at their tables or as they watch.
These nightclub numbers were often toss-away scenes in the movies before and of its time. But in Rififi, it functions as neither filler nor distraction from the rest of the movie. Dassin’s Rififi testifies to the medium’s capacity to convey and compel with the unique features and opportunities only cinema can offer.