Friday, January 9, 2009

Movies I see: Rififi

(Note: I've made it one of my New Year's resolutions to see more films, especially classics that I've missed, in an effort to broaden my pool of inspiration for writing. I figure it also makes sense to write down some thoughts about them as I see them. Here's the first.)

Rififi (1955, France, directed by Jules Dassin, written by Dassin, Rene Wheeler, and Auguste Le Breton, based on the novel by Le Breton)

It's astonishing to think that this movie was made 54 years ago. It feels so current, so in touch with modern schools of writing and directing, that it must have been shocking (if not downright baffling) to audiences in its day. No exaggeration here: 10 or 20 years from now, if someone sits down and watches Rififi and Ocean's Eleven back-to-back, Ocean's Eleven will be the one that looks dated.

In fact, the only difficulty in absorbing many useful lessons from this film lies in the fact that virtually every other movie of its type has appropriated most of its best techniques. The CIA break-in in Mission: Impossible is probably the most commonly cited beneficiary, and even that scene isn't anywhere near as clever as its counterpart in Rififi; Tom Cruise and company are victorious basically because they have all this sexy technology that's apparently eluded the CIA itself. In Rififi, the guys pull off the heist through planning, ingenuity, and a lot of hard manual labor. The sequence is cool and sexy precisely because of how unsexy it all is.

Where Rififi most sharply deviates from its cinematic progeny, though, is in its moral compass. In modern heist/caper films, thieves are generally allowed to be "good guys" as long as they don't hurt or kill innocent people, and as good guys they're entitled to some kind of happy ending. The protagonists in Rififi are afforded no such luxury. Spoiler alert -- they all die. Even the guy with the wife and five-year-old son. Pretty strong "crime doesn't pay" message embedded in this one, I'd say. Admittedly, I was taken aback. I figured at least the two leads, Jo and Tony, would live. But no. There's no way out for any of them. The path they've chosen leads straight to the grave.

Could you do this in a mainstream movie today? Kill off all your main characters as punishment for pulling off a really clever jewel heist that didn't involve hurting or killing anyone? I don't think so -- not even if they were the villains (and nothing any of them does, with the exception of Tony's belt-whipping of his ex-girlfriend, would qualify them for that label today. There's even a nice little "Save the Cat"-type moment during the heist when one of the thieves puts a pillow behind the head of the jewelry store owner's wife whom they're holding hostage). Does this say something about how our moral and ethical standards have shifted over the years? I think it might.

According to IMDb, Al Pacino is slated to star in an upcoming remake of Rififi. Seems like a silly thing to do after the dozens upon dozens of quasi-remakes that have been spawned in the intervening years, but here we are. In any case, I have no doubt that the story will be changed significantly. For one thing, the new version will take great pains to portray the jewelry store owner (or whomever he's replaced by) as a Bad Guy, thus fully justifying taking him down. (They did this in Ocean's Eleven, although Andy Garcia was never really shown as evil, just kind of a douchebag with too much money.) For another thing, Pacino and his ragtag band of criminals will all be really great, awesome, lovable guys who just happen to steal stuff for a living. If one of them has a son, then the son will probably need some kind of expensive medical treatment that his father couldn't pay for without pulling off the heist. That's how things are done these days. (I'm not even necessarily passing judgment on that approach, because it could probably be quite effective if done well. A story cliche only looks like a story cliche if it's badly executed.)

This is not a movie you need to put into context to enjoy. Fancy technology -- especially made-up fancy technology -- dates a movie within minutes these days, not that that generally stops filmmakers from weaving stories around it. Interesting characters who survive on their wits and cunning alone, on the other hand, are timeless. Definitely something for me to keep in mind as I write.

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