Jules Dassin

I came to Jules Dassin‘s work relatively recently, when I was researching heist movies and rented a dub-of-a-dub videotape of his French gangster classic Rififi. I knew nothing about the movie before watching it, only that it was supposed to be a classic and have a good heist in it. The tape I was watching was such a bad dub of such a bad print that the movie looked like it took place in the middle of the night in a Paris submerged under 50 feet of water. In those circumstances, the 25-minute silent heist sequence that forms the centerpiece of the movie took on an air of deep mystery and a kind of solemn strangeness. It felt weird and transgressive and dangerous, like I was watching a snuff movie or something.

Many years later I saw Rififi courtesy of one of Criterion’s typically pristine transfers and saw that there is nothing particularly weird or mysterious about the movie, except that it’s always weird and mysterious when a good movie gets made. The lighting in Rififi is crisp and lush, even occasionally pedestrian. The difference with the new transfer was that I could see the faces of the people in the narrative and witness the director’s skill with actors. With a name like Jules Dassin, I assumed that the director was an off-brand French gangster-movie director, the guy French producers went to when they couldn’t get Jean-Pierre Melville. I was wrong — Dassin was an American, working in France when the McCarthyites chased him out. Rififi remains a classic, and I have also hugely enjoyed Brute Force and Naked City. Topkapi is a movie whose charms elude me, but I look forward to watching Night and the City, starring the just-now-deceased Richard Widmark. I don’t necessarily believe in an afterlife, but it comforts me to think of Heaven like a kind of Valhalla, where whatever you were good at on Earth you get to do forever in the next world. In this case, I assume that Widmark, having signed on to star in some afterworld production, requested his favorite director or threatened to cross the street to make the movie with the competing studio.


Brute Force

I’d never heard of this movie before the Criterion folk released their sparkling new transfer of it on DVD, another reason to say “God bless and keep the Criterion Collection.”

Jules Dassin, of course, in addition to this, directed the heist classic Rififi, one of the movies I watched in regard to Heist Movie, the maguffin of yesterday’s entry. Like Brute Force, Rififi was not available on DVD in 1997 — I had to watch a VHS copy of a transfer from a 16mm print. The copy I saw made Rififi look like it took place underwater, at night. Imagine my surprise when I saw the Criterion edition — it was bright, clear, dazzling — a completely different movie.

In any case, Brute Force is a stunner of a prison movie, with Burt Lancaster leading a crew of men on a massive, all-or-nothing prison break. Hume Cronyn is the smug, supercilious head guard who’s angling to replace the weak, hand-wringing warden.

Every now and then the narrative stops so that the main characters can sit and think about the women they’ve left behind. They’re all good eggs, you see, all led astray by scheming dames or by the vagaries of love. These scenes are comical in their compression and melodrama, trying to explain in a minute or less the whys and wherefores of the mens’ betrayals and weaknesses, but otherwise the tone is grim, blunt and bitter — they called the movie Brute Force and they weren’t kidding around.

Some points about the “issue” of prison reform are occasionally overstated, but then the final act comes along, forty solid minutes of suspense and action, stuffed with craven violence, noble sacrifice, righteous vengeance, kickass fights and stuff blowing up, an extended masterwork set-piece that compares favorably to the classic 25-minute silent heist in Rififi.

The theme of “society as prison,” where no one “deserves” to be there, the prisoners or the guards, remains as powerful as ever.  And the central drama of Brute Force, where a smug, sniggering lackey cynically manipulates events so that people get killed and he gains power, to better feed his fascist desires and lust for torture, is far more resonant today than it could have been in 1947.

Regarding The Wilhelm Scream: it is so-called because it is generally recognized that its first appearance is in 1953’s The Charge at Feather River, as screamed by a character named Wilhelm, but I could swear I heard a convict named Wilson use the same scream in Brute Force when his hands are blasted by a welding torch. Perhaps it should be called “The Wilson.”

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1964. Directed by Jules Dassin.

Dassin, of course, directed the taut, grim classic Rififi.  This is not that.

THE SHOT: Maximilian Schell et alia plot to steal an emerald-encrusted dagger from a museum in Istanbul.

TONE: Amused, playful, smug.

Like many artifacts from the 1960s, what was once carefree, daring and liberated now seems curdled, bloated and dull.  Melina Mercouri is meant to be sexy, coqettish and exotic, but comes off as haggard, embalmed and iguana-like.  Peter Ustinov is a bumbling idiot who — excuse me, Peter Ustinov plays a bumbling idiot who unwittingly becomes a key member of the crew.  His performance is cutesy, busy and condescending; naturally, he won an Oscar for it (as a friend of mine once remarked, the Oscar is awarded for most acting).  Maximilian Schell comes off as a bizarre mix of Daniel Day Lewis, Ben Stiller and Ralph Fiennes.

The movie starts quite slowly.  Nothing happens for fifty whole paint-drying minutes, as the cast romps and poses in exotic locations.

PLEASANT SURPRISE: The heist, which, like the one in Rififi nine years earlier, is played in real time and near-total silence, is still gripping and enveloping cinema 40 years later.

DOES CRIME PAY? Oh, so close.  But this movie is too cute for its own good to let our heroes suffer long.

NB: Currently being remade as a sequel to The Thomas Crown Affair.  I can’t wait.  That’s not sarcasm.
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