Tag Archives: heist

Crime #4: Rififi

Rififi, Jules Dassin’s 1955 masterpiece, has been called the greatest example of the heist genre and one of the finest French noirs. It’s perfect, the kind of movie that makes people love film – wonderfully written, edited and acted. A diamond, Peter Bradshaw calls it, and he’s right.

Dassin was a successful director of noir thrillers, most famously Naked City, in the 1940s. In 1950, he fell victim, along with many others, to McCarthyism. Unable to work in the USA or abroad – American companies would refuse to distribute his films – he finally managed to get hired to make Rififi – a project he was singularly uninterested in – in France, after five years of unemployed frustration. Whether his recent history influenced the making or tone of the film, and given what he had been through it’s probably best to assume that it did, he ended up producing a film which is as violent and dark as any of the great noirs (Truffaut himself called this the greatest noir he had ever seen.)

The film revolves around Tony le Stéphanois, a bank robber freshly out of prison. A young friend, Jo, offers him the chance to do one last job, at a jeweller’s store, and after initially refusing he is soon involved. Tony is a classic noir anti-hero – a character blended of equal parts light and dark (and lit the same way.) He risks his life to save Jo’s son, but also brutally beats an ex-girlfriend. He is absolutely faithful to his friends, but will kill those he thinks have betrayed the criminal code. The character, of course, reflect the film’s world; once again, we’re in familiar crime scene territory, wherein morality is relative and there are no reliable definitions of good and bad to cling to.

As ever in crime drama, the film is in large part a study of male relationships. Most obviously, this is done through the characters of Tony, Jo and Jo’s son (and Tony’s godson) Tonio. We see how Jo dotes on his boy, and how, for him, crime is a way to provide for his son. Tony too is devoted to the boy and it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the two of them see in the boy some innocence which they have lost. But we see Tonio’s love of toy guns and fast cars, his desire to always be with his father and godfather; it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to see that the boy may well continue in their footsteps one day. The darker side of these relationships are also shown; when one of the men crosses the line and gives away information, there is only one possible ending for him. ‘You know the rules,’ Tony tells him, immediately before regretfully executing him. Those rules, the mechanics of male relationships, are the real theme of crime drama and of this film. As such, it’s largely a film about and for men; the women in the film are wives and girlfriends or prostitutes and victims. 

The film, then, is largely about relationships. But it’s also about crime, and ‘the job’ itself is shown in the famous central segment; 30 minute of almost complete silence, during which Tony and his three accomplices drill through the roof to the store, disable the alarm, crack the safe and escape. It’s a superb sequence, almost unbearably tense, and clearly the model for every complex, nerve-wracking heist scene since. We are firmly on the side of the criminals; we have seen their lives, met their families and grown to like them (especially the romantic Italian safecracker, César le Milanais, played under an assumed name by Dassin himself.) We want them to succeed. But the heist is in the middle of the film, not at the end, and we realise that this is not to be an Ocean’s Eleven deal where the men walk away rich and happy; the film is too honest, to real to give them that sort of easy ending.

rififi2big

There is too much to say about this film; the cinematography is beautiful (Paris in the wintertime looks moody and beautiful) and the editing is excellent (particularly in the last race against time in Tony’s car. Jumpy, disorientating, this reminds me strongly of later New Wave scenes, such as the opening of Breathless.) Suffice it to say that it does what all the best noir and crime drama does; it makes us care about and feel sorry for men who are not immediately or easily sympathetic, and it makes us think a little more about what it means to be heroic. As such, it began a tradition which found perhaps its best expression in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Go and watch it. (I know, I know, I always say that. But you HAVE to watch this one!)

Rififi tenderness

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Crime #3: The Town

Ben Affleck’s Boston roots loom large in his body of work – in Good Will Hunting, or Gone Baby Gone, he shows us his city, and in particular he shows what sort of people, especially men, it produces. And as the title of his 2010 crime flick, The Town suggests, this time it’s Boston itself that is the subject of the film.

One blue-collar Boston neighborhood has produced more bank robbers and armored car thieves than anywhere in the world.

The movie is about a gang of armed robbers, led by Affleck’s Doug. His childhood friend Jem, very well played by Jeremy Renner, is the gang’s resident loose cannon and the foil to Doug’s comparatively calm, clear-sighted character. The film starts with a bank robbery during which Jem takes an employee, Claire, hostage; the gang later find out that she lives in their neighborhood. In a plot device which stretches credibility almost too far, Doug meets and starts a relationship with Claire. You can probably guess what Jem thinks of that.

The Town fight

The best heist movies aren’t about heists. Although the actual crime scenes in The Town are exceptionally well realised – among other things, this is a very exciting crime thriller – the majority of the film is about the relationships between the main players – Doug, Claire and Jem. Jem is by far the most interesting character, and it’s his need for Doug to validate him, to stay in Boston, to keep going along with the heists, which is the single most interesting thing in the film. In one scene, just as Doug is making clear his decision to leave Boston and their shared life of crime, their shared history, Jem attacks him, and after the fight we see his vulnerability, his love for his friend, his inability to express himself in any way except violently. Crime movies deal with male relationships, and this is Affleck’s favourite theme also; look at the two of them, constrained by the bars, metaphorical and literal, sprawled at opposite ends of the screen, trying to bridge the gap between them.

Crime drama often extends this analysis of male relationships into the father / son relationship, and Affleck uses this convention to offer some comment on the roots of the movie’s criminality. We hear how Jem’s father died in prison, and we see Doug visit his own father, an apparently unrepentant bank robber and murderer, who is serving life. His father expects his son to be involved in crime; there appears to be nothing else for him to do. Boston is shown as a hard, brutal place where options are limited; we hear about the racial problems (Jem’s sister Krista complains about the black people who ‘thinks there’s no more serious white people in Charlestown.’) Drugs, too, of course; Krista seems to live permanently on the edge of losing her child (who may or may not be Doug’s baby) due to her Oxy addiction. Clearly, and admirably, Affleck wants to make a comment about the social causes of crime and addiction. Roger Ebert praises the effort, but isn’t convinced of its success.

town lads

Crime itself is  represented as brutal and uncompromising; this is not Nine Queens with its likeable and relatively harmless rogues. We see multiple extended scenes of the gang at work, and there’s no shortage of blood and gunfire. The film is non-judgmental about this violence, but does make a point of showing how the police at work are pretty much as brutal as the criminals. Again, as is common in crime drama, the line between good and bad, good guys and bad guys, is not as clear as it might be.

Affleck gets a lot of criticism, but it’s largely undeserved. He’s an okay actor and a good director, and he’s trying to make serious, albeit unoriginal,  points. The Town is a very good film with some outstanding performances and, particularly, a fantastic rendering of Boston as a cold, hard place, not much different from the prison which casts such a shadow across the lives of the men in the film.

Crime #2: Nine Queens

Argentina’s Fabian Bielensky only made two features before his death at the age of 47 in 2006. Nine Queens (2000) was his first (followed by the noirish The Aura in 2005.) Both films were critically acclaimed, and Nine Queens certainly impresses as a tightly-plotted, well-performed take on the heist or sting sub-genre.

As a fairly recent film, we expect to see some development of the genre conventions laid down in earlier crime and heist movies like The Public Enemy and Rififi. Equally, of course, we expect to see many of those conventions in place, and they are in plain view here. As ever, we are situated with the criminals; we follow Juan and Marcos about their day as they meet, then stumble across the opportunity of a lifetime – the chance to sell the fabled Nine Queens (a sheet of rare stamps) for a small fortune. Both of them, largely thanks to the charisma of the actors (Ricardo Darin is particularly good as the older of the two, Marcos), are likeable even though they are engaged in reprehensible behaviour and contemptibly small-scale crime (ripping off small stores, stealing from old ladies, thieving newspapers.) They are made more sympathetic by virtue of their backstories – Juan is trying to raise money to help his father escape a lengthy prison term, Marcos is tangled up in a complex court case with his brother and sister. As ever in the heist, we’re forced to identify with the bad guys.

We saw this also, of course, in those earlier films. In The Public Enemy we saw how Tom Powers was affected by troubled relationships with his brother and mother; even in Rififi, not as reliant on backstory, we were made to sympathise with Jo in particular when we see his closeness to his son. Even Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs shows us just enough of Mr Orange’s background – the sparse apartment, the wedding ring – to raise interest and sympathy. In his Guardian review of Nine Queens, Joe Queenan points out that ‘scam movies always trick us into identifying with the criminals, and never sympathising with their victims’ and says that, as a result, such films ‘are almost completely devoid of moral content.’ While I don’t quite agree with this, it’s clear that there is moral ambiguity, inherited from noir, at the heart of these movies; we’re dealing with antiheroes, not heroes.

In terms of representations, Juan and Marcos seem to have the relationship we’ve already seen between Mr Orange and Mr White, or Tom Powers and Paddy Ryan – a younger man, often alienated from his own father, seeking a new mentor. Marcos takes Juan under his wing and starts to teach him how to survive as a conman; as we’ve seen, these are extremely gendered texts and the informing theme is, arguably, masculine relationships. In many ways, the narrative arc which interests us is watching a younger man learn to navigate the criminal world and his own lie, alway sunder the guidance of his surrogate father figure.

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Given the masculinity of these films, female representations also seem predictable. While the women in the film seem at first glance stronger than those in older examples – at least twice, the success of the central scam depends on decisions made by women, and the female characters in the film are as well-drawn as the men – they are ultimately secondary characters, and the plot is entirely dependent on the men for development. The film is about men struggling against other men for the upper hand and the ‘prize’; it could even be argued that one of the female characters (Valeria, Marcos’ sister) is the real ‘queen’, the actual prize being contested. Such representations – men helping women, then being rewarded by being ‘given’ the woman – are often identified in fairy tales, but they are common in crime fiction also.

So far, so familiar. Does the film go beyond genre convention? Perhaps, a  little. There is a degree of social commentary; Marcos points out at one point that criminality is rife in Argentina and it’s telling that many of the characters, all of whom are involved in crime of one sort or another, point out that they aren’t crooks. Perhaps, in this world, their criminality is the norm. That seems to be supported at the end of the film when Argentina’s financial collapse of 2000 plays a part in the plot; everyone’s getting ripped off here, not just the victims of the two central characters. The system, it is suggested, is in some way complicit in all this criminality, most clearly seen in the (possible) fact that Juan needs the money from the scam to bribe a judge to help his father. Such bribery is represented as an unexceptional part of the legal system in Argentina. This, perhaps, pushes it beyond straight genre imitation a little.

Also, the plot is more complex than those earlier films. There’s a touch of Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in the twists and turns, although it has none of that film’s narrative daring. The plot twists are driven by treachery, incompetence and coincidence; all features which play a common part in the genre. There’s a lovely symmetry to the narrative, in the way the younger Juan seems to take some control away from the older Marcos. Where Marcos leads Juan into criminality by the arm at the start, the situation is reversed (and the shot mirrored) by the end.

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9 Queens End

So, not the world’s most original movie, but a very, very good one; the twist is cleverly handled (you always know someone’s being swindled; working out who is not so straightforward) and the genre conventions, while clearly in play, are well handled and used.