Master of the Heist

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Hulton / Getty

Marie Sabouret and Jean Servais star in the French heist film Rififi, directed Jules Dassin.

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Dassin had a lucky bounce when producer Mark Hellinger hired him to direct Brute Force, and the director rose to the challenge with one of the boldest, tautest films of the postwar crime cycle. Finally, he was in the gnarled noir territory that suited him. The story of a vicious prison guard (Hume Cronyn) and the angry cons under his boot, Brute Force is a sharp evocation of unrest in a totalitarian state. It also set up motifs Dassin would keep returning to. Here, as in Rififi, the lead character (Burt Lancaster) is a criminal who has our sympathy, and at the end, pocked with bullets, must complete one magnificent exploit before life seeps out of him. Visually, here as in Night and the City and Rififi, the murk of men's lives is illuminated only by the beads of sweat on their straining faces, whether the guys are trying to bust out of prison, win a wrestle match or simply the death that's staring at them through the barrel of a pistol.

For a decade — from Bruce Force through his next film, the Hellinger-produced police procedural The Naked City, and up to the Christ allegory He Who Must Die in 1957 — Dassin's world is a man's world, and he focuses on it admiringly, avidly. The interest in male flesh was unusual for those sexually timorous times. Back then, seeing actors like Barry Fitzgerald and Hume Cronyn in sleeveless undershirts carried the jolt of nudity, as did the sight of bulky wrestler types (Ted de Corsia in The Naked City, Stanislaus Zbyszko and Mike Mazurki in Night and the City), or Brute Force's lusciously muscled John Hoyt with no shirt at all. Dassin's appreciation of topless torsos give a special piquancy to the last line of Hellinger's narration in his docu-drama: "There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them."

Often in Dassin films, eroticism shades into sadism. Brute Force and Night and the City have violent thrashings. In The Law, released in the States as Where the Hot Wind Blows, Gina Lollobrigida is strapped down and whipped by her mother. Jean Servais, the honcho of the Rififi heist, commands his ex-girlfriend to strip and then whips her with a belt; later in the film, Dassin, playing one of the hoods, is lashed to a pillar and shot.

It's possible that this gentle, charming man had a hankering to spice up his movies with beefcake and beatings. But it's more likely that Dassin saw similarities between the wielders of the whips and his own bosses in Hollywood, or was finding objective correlatives for his own victimization by the blacklist. Informers, toxic whisperers and people who just can't keep a secret are everywhere in his films, from the gossiping cons in Brute Force to the main character in his U.S. comeback movie Up Tight!, a remake of the John Ford drama The Informer.


When called by Congress to testify about his early membership in the Communist Party, Dassin skipped to London, where Fox production chief Darryl Zanuck let him shoot the Brit-noir Night and the City. It stars Richard Widmark (who died, also in his 90s, a week before Dassin) as an American tout aiming for the big score, then fleeing from its consequences. In his goon period, with that weird smile (his upper lip raised as if by invisible fish hooks), and outfitted in a checkered jacket so loud it practically barks, Widmark is the perfect sucker in a nightscape made for entrapment. The titanic figure of night-club owner Francis L. Sullivan is just one of the menacing clowns in this nutty noir's sideshow of gargoyle grotesques. This time, instead of borrowing from Orson Welles, Dassin seems to be prefiguring him. Night and the City, made in 1950, is five years ahead of Welles' even more outrageously mannered Mr. Arkadin.

This was also Dassin's first displaced-person movie; you'll understand why, seeing as how the directed was essentially deported from his native country and home industry. He would keep convening foreigners — American, Italian, German, Swiss, Russian — to make mischief in exotic locales: in London (Night and the City), Paris (Rififi), Athens (Never on Sunday), Istanbul (Topkapi). These films were the fictionalized diary of a wandering soul; for Dassin, geography was autobiography.

Rififi was a trend-setter but not a total original. John Huston's heist movie The Asphalt Jungle came out in 1950. And two years before Rififi, Henri-Georges Clouzot's The Wages of Fear sent crooks from several nations on a desperate mission: driving trucks loaded with dynamite across treacherous South America roads, with death waiting at each hairpin turn. (Bosley Crowther in The New York Times: "You sit there waiting for the theatre to explode.")

But Rififi, in which four men break into a jewelry store through the ceiling, codified the caper plot: it shows how they plan to do it, then shows how they do it, then shows how they get caught. Except for the gimmick of the silent half-hour, and broad comic turns from a few supporting players, the film plays the material straight. Epiphanies emerge naturally, like the moments when the gang, in the apartment above the shop, chisels a hole in the floor, and we get our first, eerily surreal view of the jewelry premises, as an umbrella is lowered through a ceiling hole and slowly opens (to catch the debris). Formidable!

The Rififi scenario was replayed, more for laughs than for suspense, in Topkapi. The gang comprises not the standard tough guys but con artistes on a lark, to steal a jewel-encrusted scimitar from a hall in the Topkapi museum. Maximilian Schell leads a troupe of some of the major muggers of international cinema: Mercouri, Akim Tamiroff, Peter Ustinov (who won an Oscar), Titos Vandis and Robert Morley. But the more valuable member is the muscular Gilles Segal, as the acrobat whose job is to be lowered by rope into the hall from a high window, then remove the case, nick the scimitar and replace the case, all without touching the electronically sensitive floor. It's a swell exercise in suspense, and one of Dassin's finest illustrations of men at work, but it doesn't come till 85 mins. into the movie. Most of the rest is airy banter, suggesting that Dassin & Co.had a better time making Topkapi than most people do watching it. Sober.

Dassin made another seven movies, including Survival 1967, a documentary on the Arab-Israeli war. He did a flaccid adaptation off a Marguerite Duras novel, 10:30 P.M. Summer, and returned to the U.S. for Up Tight! (written by its costar, Ruby Dee). His last film was the preposterous Circle of Two, with Tatum O'Neal, then 16, and a dissipated Richard Burton, then 54, as lovers so mismatched they could be in the Guinness Book. It was 1980, and Dassin had outlived his craft. More sadly, he outlived his son, Joe Dassin, a top-of-the-pops Euro-singer, who died, that same year, at 41.

The nice thing about movie careers, unlike movie obits, is that they don't have to be considered chronologically. DVD connoisseurs can play a director's films in any order, skipping the rhinestones, replaying the jewels. Jules Dassin had enough of those — The Tell-Tale Heart, Brute Force, Thieves' Highway, Rififi — as well as moments in many other films that shine like sapphires. And since this is a tribute to an unfashionable director, I'll end with an awkward confession, courtesy of my 17-year-old self. Once upon a time, I loved Phaedra.

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