RIFIFI: THE GREAT NOIR CAPER

 

RIFIFI has been called the best French crime drama ever made, and  the best French film noir. When Francois Truffaut was still a film critic, he said Rififi was the best film noir he had ever seen. And although its director’s name sounds French, Jules Dassin was an American, blacklisted and forced to work in France and Europe.

This blog post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Banned and Blacklisted Blogathon.

After leaving MGM, Dassin worked with Mark Hellinger on the noir classic Brute Force, (1947) starring Burt Lancaster, Ann Blyth, Hume Cronyn, and Yvonne De Carlo. By 1949 the House Un-American Activities Committee was looking for communists in the movie business. Daryl Zanuck at Universal purposefully sent Dassin to London to work on his noir masterpiece Night and the City in 1950, where he missed being called to testify to the Committee. Nonetheless, he was named by two others as a former communist and was blacklisted. Unable to find work, he moved to France, although he could not speak French. He was set to direct a movie starring the French comedian Fernandel, titled Public Enemy No. 1, but was fired after his blacklisting caught up to him. This caused a furor in France, with French director Jacques Becker (Touchez Pas le Grisbi) leading the protest. After a rough few years, he was hired by producer Henri Berard to direct a low-budget crime drama based on the book, Du Rififi chez les Hommes (Some Wrangling Among Men), by Auguste le Breton. The story involves a jewelry heist in Paris,  the dialogue heavy with French slang and underworld lingo. Dassin immediately began a script rewrite of the story, but still using le Bretton’s dialogue. Dassin made a big change, the jewelry heist caper involving a gang of professional criminals became the central scene in the movie. The heist lasted a fuIl 30 minutes, a quarter of the film’s length. If you’re thinking this sounds like the plot of Asphalt Jungle, you’re right, though Dassin said this was accidental as he hadn’t seen the film at that pont. There are several similarities, but in Rififi Dassin extracts every bit of tension and friction out of the characters and their endeavors, and in this low-budget film, he made every detail count in furthering the plot. Fortunately, he also had a superb crew, with Philippe Agostini as cinmatographer, Alexandre Trauner as Production Designer, and music by Georges Auric. The Paris setting was also key, especially with Dassin’s insistence on filming during cloudy days. He used the atmosphere of Paris as he had London in Night and the City, and New York in The Naked City, this becoming a stylistic hallmark of film noir.  “I remember walking the streets of Paris and dictating to a secretary,” Dassin said. “We’ll do this scene here and this scene there. Just really improvising as we walked. When you make a picture, and you do locations, you gotta walk.”

The lead character, played by Jean Servais,  is Tony le Stephanois (many characters have such monikers) who just got out of prison and is mad at his old flame “Mado.” She has taken up with gangster and nightclub owner Louis Grutter. Tony meets his two old pals, Jo le Suedois (the Swede) and Mario Ferrati at a cafe. They look over at a Jewelry store, where the two friends propose a quick window heist. Tony wants nothing to do with it or the chance of going back to prison. But he can’t resist checking on Mado at the “L’Age D’Or” nightclub. He sees her and emphatically asks her to his room. After some comparison of their lives over the last 5 years when he was in prison and she sold their flat and took up with Grutter, he takes her jewelry and fur coat. He gives her some pretty rough treatment and throws her out of his ratty apartment, then throws out her coat and jewelry. He doesn’t feel any better about himself, though he’s changed his mind about the jewelry heist. Servais as Tony le Stephanois is the picture of a hang-dog criminal with nothing left to lose. His only moment of joy is playing with Jo’s young son Tonio, for whom “Uncle Tony” makes sure Jo buys the toy the kid had wanted.

The idea of getting into the safe through the back like using a “can opener” was Dassin’s. His technician came up with the exact method. From L to R characters Jo le Suedois, Mario Ferrati, Tony le Stephanois, and Cesar le Milanais (played by Jules Dassin)

Tony now tells his two pals he’s in – only this should be for the whole store inventory that’s in the safe – not just a window job. It should be planned to the minute, but now a safe-cracker will be needed. Mario has an Italian compatriot and pro who could do the job – Cesar le Milanais (the Milanese), played by no other than Jules Dassin himself. Their plan is to break through the roof on a Sunday night. A couple lives there, but they’ll be gagged and tied. The large portable safe will be moved and lowered – to drill through the back. The entire operation is shown in a tight wordless choreography with no music. Each slight noise of tool or bump only amplifies the tension of the scene. Cesar the safecracker wears ballet slippers during the job. The 30 minutes of screen time represents several hours, until finally the job is done.

This is film noir, however, and things can’t continue to run smoothly. The men in this caper may be professionals, but flaws in character are always prone to interfere, as does fate. (Some spoilers follow) Cesar’s weakness is his desire to impress women. As he escapes the jewelry store he can’t resist stealing one expensive ring that he does not combine with the shared loot. This ring, that he gives his mistress, will lead to him being pegged for the heist by Louis Grutter, after news of the robbery hits the streets. And when he is captured by Grutter and his men, he rats out the others in his group, which leads to disaster.  Jules Dassin wanted to make a statement about his being ratted and blacklisted with the character he played. Tony catches up to him in a later scene and tells Cesar, “You broke the rules,” this before he shoots him.

Jules Dassin as Cesar, who rats and pays the price – a symbolic death for those who ratted him out in Hollywood

A downward spiral of events follow, as dramatic as the heist. The last long scene is itself a masterpiece, a “lyrical documentary,” as Truffaut called it. Watching little Tonio wearing Tony’s trenchcoat and a fedora hat, waiving a toy gun as Tony drives madly through the streets of Paris, the life ebbing out of him, racing for safety.  This last redemptive effort is a movie scene not soon forgotten.

Marie Sabouret and Jean Servais as Mado and Tony. Courtesy: Rialto Pictures / Gaumont

Dassin won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1955. At the festival, Gene Kelly was the only American who would be seen publicly with Dassin. United Artist wanted to distribute the film in the U.S., but only if he would remove his name from the credits as director and writer. He refused. So UA set up a dummy corporation and distributed the film in 1956, with Dassin’s credits preserved. As such, he became the first of the blacklisted to be publicly credited in the U.S.

Yet it was rarely seen in the U.S., and not until it was licensed by Rialto and re-released in 2000 did it have public screenings. But even so, before and since, it influenced many heist movies, including: Ocean’s Eleven; The Italian Job, Reservoir Dogs, and The Town. 

I saw Rififi on the big screen at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2015. Eddie Muller introduced the film, congratulating the audience for having picked the best movie of the whole festival to attend. He stated that Rififi was ,”as perfect a movie as you can get.” I agree.

FRED ASTAIRE: HIS DANCE PARTNERS AND THEIR COSTUMES Part II

 

Fred Astaire’s amazing career and his talented dance partners as dressed by the great Hollywood costume designers  is reviewed in this post, continued from Part I. We left off with the movie You Were Never Lovelier with Rita Hayworth in 1942.  One of his next big films was done at his new studio: MGM. The studio was still pumping life into the Ziegfeld legend by making a third movie about Florence Ziegfeld, this time with Ziegfeld looking down from on high to the creation of a new revue.  In Ziegfeld Follies, a great cast was assembled including: Lucille Ball, Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Kathryn Grayson,  Esther Williams, Fanny Brice, Red Skelton and William Powell. Fred Astaire had two dance partners, Lucille Bremer, and for the first time, the great Gene Kelly himself. The movie is worth watching if only for Gene Kelly/ Fred Astaire number. Fred dances  with Lucille Bremer, a good dancer but not in the league of Ginger Rogers, Eleanor Powell or Cyd Charisse. Their two numbers were a Chinese inspired “Limehouse Blues,” and “This Heart of Mine,” In the latter he plays a jewel thief trying to seduce Bremer to get her jewels, but gets seduced himself. Irene Lentz Gibbons designed the beautiful white embroidered gown she wore. Irene Sharaff designed the Chinese-themed costume for the other number, but Lucille Bremer did not get along with her.

 

 

The next two movies Fred made were not very successfull. He partnered again with Lucille Bremer in Vincente Minnelli’s Yolanda and the Thief, in 1945, and in Stuart Heisler’s Blue Skies, in 1946 along with Bing Crosby and Joan Caulfield, a sort of Holiday Inn take-off. In the later movie Fred dances mostly solo. At this point in his career Fred was preparing for his retirement.

In 1948 MGM was making the big musical Easter Parade when Gene Kelly broke his ankle. Kelly suggested that Fred Astaire replace him. Fred was surprised but accepted. The movie was directed by Charles Walters and co-starred Judy Garland, Ann Miller, and Peter Lawford. Ann Miller was herself replacing Cyd Charisse, who had pulled a tendon. The movie’s plot complications are that Fred went from his regular stage and dance partner (and flame) played by Ann Miller to a new one played by Judy Garland (and back and forth). The movie was a huge costume production. The principals, cast, and extras in their 1912 finery was a big designing  job for Irene Lentz Gibbons. Some 700 extras were used. The long hobble-skirts and big picture hats cast a distinctive silhouette that was the big attraction for the “Easter Parade” scene on New York’s “5th Avenue.” Below is a costume sketch designed by Irene for one of the walkers on 5th Avenue.

Irving Berlin provided the compositions, many from decades earlier, but some written just for the movie. The musical numbers incuded some of Fred’s finest work, especially with Judy Garland. The Vaudeville number, “A couple of Swells” is pure joy in watching how much fun Judy Garland is having in this silly routine. “It Only Happens When I Dance With You” is the most beatiful song, sung by Fred to Judy, and the “Steppin’ Out with My Baby” number by Fred has to be seen. Easter Parade was MGM’s highest grossing film of 1948.

 

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were teamed – for the last time – in The Barkleys of Broadway in 1949. The movie was supposed to star Judy Garland, but she suffered a nervous breakdown and was replaced. The story is about a husband and wife musical comedy team. A French playright convinces Ginger’s character that she should be doing serious theater roles, and accordingly she starts rehearsing – to Fred the husband’s irritation and jealousy. Things siral downward until she takes to the stage separately, and we wonder if their team will ever re-unite. The working title of the film had been, You Made me Love You.

Irene Lentz Gibbons designed the costumes. Below is a costume sketch for Ginger Rogers

 

Ginger’s gold lame gown below had plenty of fabric at the skirt to swirl as she danced with Fred in their opening number in the film.

While Royal Wedding (1951) is not as well known and is lightweight as far as story goes, it contains some of Fred’s most well-known solo dance numbers – and some nice ones with partner Jane Powell too. It was also historic in other ways. The movie rode on the popularity of the  earlier royal wedding of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip. Judy Garland was supposed to star along with Fred Astaire, but after missing three rehearsals she was suspended for her third and final time from MGM, her studio for 14 years and where she had grown up.  The end of an era had come.

The story is about brother and sister Broadway stars taking a ship to England, played by Fred Astaire and Jane Powell. They are to play in the Mayfair theater during the feativites around the royal wedding. But of course they each meet and fall for a Londoner – she with an English  lord played by Peter Lawford, he to  an auditioner played by Sarah Churchill (Winston’s daughter). The movie is filled with clever dance acts, starting off with the Fred and Jane dancing on a rocking ship deck.

This is also the movie where Fred dances with a coat rack because his sister is not available at a reahearsal, and late in his bedroom imagines himself dancing on his walls and ceiling after staring at a photo of Anne (Sarah Churchill).

No costume design credit is given for the film. Normally Helen Rose would have been assigned the costume design, but with the troubles Judy Garland was having at the studio, Rose had made the mistake of siding with Judy. The studio bosses didn’t appreciate that and took her off the movie, and significantly, Band Wagon that followed was assigned to another designer.

Many fans consider Band Wagon to be Astaire’s best film. The film was directed by Vincente Minnelli and it pairs Astaire with the great Cyd Charisse. The plot parallels and was partially inspired by his own career. At that stage Astaire and the protagonist are facing a waning audience and with their best days behind him. Fred plays Tony Hunter, talked into making a stage musical by his friends as a comeback, the duo played by Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant (passing as Comden and Green). The director Jeffrey Cordoba, played by Jack Buchanan turns the play into a dark modern hot mess, complicated by adding ballerina Gabrielle Gerard, played by Cyd Charisse into the cast. Tony and Gabrielle get off on the wrong foot from the beginning. Rehearsals are a shambles and it’s only after Tony and Gabrielle get to talking and later take an evening buggy ride to Central Park that the chemistry ignites. The musical number and dance, “Dancing in the Dark,” takes place as one of the highlights of the film, From there, one entertaining musical number after another takes place. Astaire and Cyd Charisse’s “Girl Hunt Ballet,” is particularly noteworthy.

 

The costumes were designed by Mary Ann Nyberg. She had few film costume design credits to her name, though A Star is Born with Judy Garland was one of them. She served as a sketch artist for Jean Louis and later a fashion designer. The costume sketch above is for Cyd Charisse in the wonderful “Dancing in the Dark” number. It is a simple but beautiful dancing outfit, its pleated skirt flowing to her every move with Fred.

The “Girl Hunt Ballet” scene with Cyd Charisse begins with Fred entering a bar where she sits, wearing a dark green coat. A quick removal of the coat reveals her bright red sequined dress – showing lots of leg through a 3/4 surround skirt and narrow front panel. This makes for a stunning dance number with Fred shown below.

 

 

Mary Ann Nyberg’s costume sketch above was for a Cyd Charisse costume in the “Girl Hunt Ballet” scene. For whatever reason, it was never used in the film.

Fred Astaire’s last full musical dance movie was Finian’s Rainbow, based on the 1947 stage play and directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It was released in 1968 and co-starred Petula Clark playing Fred’s daughter Sharon. The costumes were designed by Dorothy Jeakins.

 

The movie has a fanciful plot, where Fred and his daughter travel to a fictional Southern state and burying stolen leprechaun gold believing it will multiply. But then a bigoted local senator, Billboard Rawkins, tries to foreclose on the young and popular Woody Mahoney’s tobacco land. So Finian pays the balance of Woody’s debt and he and Sharon become loved by the sharecroppers of the valley. Things are not settled however and Rawkins is not finished with his schemes before Finian’s work is done and he can leave the valley to seek his fortunes elsewhere.

 

Finian’s Rainbow is a movie that as a whole is not s good as its parts. No matter, as Fred Astaire’s last full musical role, it is worth seeing. Thereafter, he could be seen in various bit roles and TV parts. And of course, was re-discovered in That’s Entertainment! in 1974. We are fortunate to Have Turner Classic Movies where so many of the movies of his prime are shown regularly, along with his marvelous dancing partners and the wonderful costumes they wore.