Tuesday, April 26, 2005

terRIFIFIc!


[Pic Courtesy IMDb]

Based solely on recommendations from readers Vijays and Victor(both of whom seemed very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the heist genre) in the comments section of the After the Sunset review, I rented Rififi from Netflix. The movie is a cross between a heist movie and a film noir and zoomed right to the top of my list of favorite heist movies.

The four participants in the heist are Tony, Jo, Mario and Cesar. The last mentioned, a safe-cracker, has a weakness for women and that eventually leads to Pierre, a club owner, learning about the men behind the robbery. So he kidnaps Jo's son, promising to return him in exchange for the loot.

The first half of Rififi proceeds like a regular heist movie with the 3 standard story arc components - the participants getting together, planning the crime and executing it. The planning is meticulous and detailed and covers the biggest and most important items(the alarm and the motion detectors) but leaves the smaller details out. The blanks are ofcourse filled in during the heist, allowing us to be surprised the way small things are taken care of. The heist itself qualifies as probably the best picturized heist sequence I have ever seen on film. It is painstaking and hard and those aspects are conveyed very well. Most stunning is the fact that there no background music for the entire half hour. We get to hear every sound that is made by the thieves and their instruments and this gives us the feeling of being actual witnesses to a robbery in progress.

But the heist is not the climax as in most movies in the heist genre but just the midpoint. The movie then shifts into noir as Jo's son is kidnapped. We are completely hooked as Tony tries to track down the boy while Jo is caught between ensuring the safety of his son and parting with the money. The suspense is kept at an incredibly high level throughout and we are never sure how the movie will eventually play out. The climax proves the old adage that crime never pays but also manages to be poignant.

Rififi is an old movie(it was released in 1955), it is in a foreign language(French) with subtitles and is filmed in black and white. These would have probably kept me from watching it if not for the strong recommendations. But at the end, it was exactly those elements that made the movie work. It is precisely because it is set in those days that the movie is realistic and believable. The obstacles the thieves have to surmount(a persistent alarm, motion-sensitive ceiling, etc.) are believable and not complicated and obviously cinematic. Similarly, the props they use(I loved the way they use the umbrella) and the way they use them(hammer wrapped in a towel) in the heist are everyday items and not complicated gadgets that are obviously artificial (Ebert mentioned in his After the Sunset review that the gadgets used are so expensive that there would be no ROI on the heist!). Every step of the heist is logical and well-thought out without any inconsistencies or contrivances. The B&W cinematography enhances the serious nature of the crimes and eventually, of the film itself.

Movies in the heist genre have become fantasies of late. They have protagonists who lead romantic lifestyles, embark upon unrealistically complicated heists to meet challenges, emerge victorious over predictable double and triple crosses and eventually, redeem themselves. Rififi is a stark film where even the main characters have their positives and negatives and we are never sure if they will eventually win. That makes it stand out from the crowd.

Rififi is definitely Terrifific!

PS: Ebert's review in his Great Movies section has some fascinating behind-the-scene details about the film. Most intriguing is the fact that a ban was considered on the film since the incredibly detailed heist sequence would have served as a guide for aspiring crooks!

12 Comments:

At 5:17 AM, Anonymous Vijays said...

Glad you liked the film Balaji..Very nice review..Yes, it's inarguably one of the best Heist films ever made, and pulls no punches whatsoever in it's somber depiction of crime and consequences.
An enthusiastic word of appreciation has to go to Criterion and Janus films who released Rififi on dvd, and are still doing an outstanding job in restoration of obscure foreign film classics.

 
At 9:18 AM, Blogger Munimma said...

I guess I gotta see this. I cancelled netflix because I couldn't watch PG13 movies during normal hours :-)
Talking about French movies, 2 that I really enjoyed not too long ago, were Amelie and Chocolat (Johnny Depp in this one - was this one French?)
I will have to blog my thots on them soon.

 
At 2:25 PM, Anonymous ram said...

hey, on an unrelated note-- the post on Song Picturizations made me go real crazy over the absence of Raja Parvai in my 'collection.' bought it and watched it yesterday...what a sweet, delightful romance...the two songs-- Andhi Mazhai and Azhagil Azhagu-- are CLASSICS, man...the next time u see the movie, also play close attn to the pic. of the second song...kannadasan in peak form describing the ethereal beauty Madhavi...
beautiful the way a blind man compares the ear of a lady to a "?" mark...what fertile imagination!

 
At 3:04 PM, Anonymous vic said...

"an old movie(it was released in 1955), it is in a foreign language(French) with subtitles and is filmed in black and white. These would have probably kept me from watching it if not for the strong recommendations."

that’s disappointing to hear bj

you are not into black&white films?

b&w is where its at! esp if you are a huge noir fan like myself

I would say - if I were to list my top 20 films they probably would all be in b&w and all before ‘55

and not into foreign films either?

bj, esp recently there have been some great foreign films…esp asian

kitano’s ‘zatoichi’ (japan), ‘infernal affairs’ (china) and park’s ‘oldboy’ (korea) - the thriller to end all thrillers!!

and a whole host of others

bj, you are missing out on a bunch of good stuff

though on the topic of ‘rififi’, dassin had also done a few hw noir’s before he got blacklisted… like ‘brute force’ and ‘naked city’ among others… they are not as good as ‘rififi’ though ‘naked city’ is somewhat of a cult classic

I often wonder what dassin’s Hollywood cast would have been for ‘rififi’, had he not been blacklisted

any thoughts bj, vij??

btw, bj have you checked out ‘the killing’ yet.. imo the greatest heist film of all time!!

victor

 
At 4:36 PM, Anonymous Vijays said...

Victor, as far as one of the casting choices is concerned, Dassin would have surely chosen Robert Mitchum For the central protagonist's(Tony) role. I am sure he would have done a great job! As for the rest, Dassin, Tony Curtis maybe and any other contemporary actor...What do you think?

 
At 5:38 PM, Blogger Balaji said...

munimma, yeah i would say 'rififi' is a must-see.
"couldnt watch pg13 movies during normal hrs"? u mean with kids around?
i've seen amelie but not chocolat. liked it too, esp. the imaginative visuals.

vic, yeah i know that sounds odd for a movie lover like me. i think i've probably enjoyed all the B&W movies I've seen but i still have a mental block when renting not just B&W movies but older movies in general. I think it had more to do with paying close to $5 at Blockbuster for an older movie that only I would watch, without knowing if I would even like it. But Netflix is really helping clear the block! I've just rented 'The Killing' and am planning to watch it over the weekend.

 
At 5:46 PM, Blogger Balaji said...

ram, u 'bought' it yesterday? on dvd?

 
At 6:11 PM, Anonymous ram said...

if it was a DVD quality print, i wouldve gone bonkers coz apart from aishwarya rai, i dont think i've gone this "nuts" over someone...still, madhavi would look good even on a "thaenju pona record" (how do I translate that into English?!).

sorry, got a bit distracted...i ordered the NTSC tape (pretty good quality for an '81 movie) on store.anytamil.com and got it in the mail yday...

will add it to my classics list (reviews) sometime...

 
At 7:34 PM, Anonymous Vijays said...

I bought the raja parvai vcd released by Pyramid. The print is okay quality but definitely watchable.

 
At 10:29 PM, Anonymous vic said...

vij, as far as guys that dassin had already worked w/, lancaster was really good in ‘brute force’ and he would be the perfect age to play tony in ’55 - I think he would do a great job!

though if we were talking abt dream casts - I would definitely go w/ sterling hayden... he would have been great as tony and he practically played the same part in ‘asphalt jungle’

bj, looking forward to your ‘the killing’ review

victor

 
At 11:03 PM, Blogger Balaji said...

vijays/vic, u guys r real movie buffs. haven't even heard of most of the actors' names you 2 r throwing around!

'the killing' dvd from netflix came broken today :( first time this has happened with a non-indian dvd. so watching it(and ofcourse the review) will be delayed a few days

 
At 12:36 PM, Anonymous vic said...

bj you know sterling hayden, you probably just don’t know him by name… he was the police captain in ‘godfather’ remember

anyways, if you don’t know him by now, you will never forget him after ‘the killing’… though too bad you’re the dvd was broken

as for burt lancaster and robert mitchum, you probably know those guys also, they were around for a long time

victor

 

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