Dark Side of the Men

While hardly an example of “nearly-unseen” cinema, at long last I finally watched Raging Bull yesterday, a film many consider to represent Martin Scorsese's cinematic high-water mark. Hard to disagree with that. It's also a movie that's been analyzed, dissected and written about countless times and I've got nothing to add that hasn't been said about it 1000 times before. Coincidentally, Nick and I watched (rewatched, in my case) Du Rififi chez les hommes, a remarkable and influential 1955 French crime film by blacklisted director Jules Dassin. As I reflected on Raging Bull and Rififi (a personal favourite of mine that in no small way, more than a decade ago now, contributed to the birth of the Film Buff), something about the themes they shared got my thinking about the influences and connections between these two films and the styles they represent.

The now-nearly-forgotten Jules Dassin was a victim of the McCarthy-era communist witch-hunts that occurred in Hollywood around 1950. He was one of those named by Elia Kazan, which effectively ended his career in Hollywood and severely undermined his later efforts to get work in Europe, where he fled after the HUAC trials. Rififi was his first film after leaving the U.S. five years earlier, which he grudgingly directed for a flat fee of $8,000, mostly because he was broke. He hated the book it was based on and significantly revised the script to include the now-famous heist scene. What started as an unwanted project landed Dassin a Best Director prize at Cannes, and although most Hollywood types continued to shun him, the film became a critical and commercial success, putting Dassin on the list of important directors working in Europe at the time. Sidebar....Gene Kelly was one of the few American stars who openly engaged with Dassin in public at Cannes that year, a testament to both Kelly's class act qualities and how the blacklisting stain stayed with people like Dassin.

While not the first true heist film (that honour probably goes to John Huston's 1950 Asphalt Jungle), Rififi is the first caper film to deal in detail with the planning and execution of the “perfect” heist. It is the film that almost all subsequent heist films can be traced back to. Rififi is best remembered today for its signature scene (the nighttime theft of millions in jewels), shot with minimal sound, no music or dialogue and lasting 20+ minutes, but what rarely gets mentioned is just how downbeat, fatalist and just plain mean the balance of the film is. The characters are mostly reprehensible criminals, living by some twisted code of ethics, a misplaced honour-among-thieves edict that brings on the inevitable downfall of each of them. Rififi represents the end of a mini-cycle of Dassin's that started with Brute Force and continued through The Naked City, Thieves Highway and his other masterpiece, Night in the City, the film he was in the middle of editing when Kazan named him to the committee. This cycle includes several points that connect them, not the least of which is their decidedly anti-capitalist bent, which likely contributed to his being blacklisting.

But what does all this have to do with Raging Bull? Dassin was one of the earliest directors to consistently work stories around characters with less-than-redeeming qualities. Scorsese's La Mota can trace a direct lineage to Dassin's underworld prisoners and mobsters – flawed protagonists whose actions were selfish and often destructive. Dassin didn't shy away from the underbelly of the human condition and made films about our weaknesses instead of our strengths. These themes put him at odds with the mom-and-apple-pie version of America that it liked (and still prefers) to hide behind. Even though the noir canon is filled with flawed characters, none were as consistently pitch black as Dassin's rogues gallery of ne'er'-do-wells. The 5 films he made from Brute Force (in 1947) to Rififi (in '55) became trailblazing signposts for an entire generation of film makers that followed, allowing young directors like Scorsese the latitude to expand and rework these themes. Like Rififi was for Dassin, Raging Bull would be the culmination of Scorsese's early exploration of humanity's dark side. Neither would return to the raw, self-destructive, single-character dramas they peaked with in both Rififi and Raging Bull. Dassin ended up in Greece and made mostly forgettable pictures thereafter. Scorsese's work became arguably more complex but he never quite recaptured the brutal realism of his earlier works. Connecting these two filmmakers might be a bit of a stretch but, particularly during these respective periods, they both seemed to be exploring similar themes. Two parts the flip side of the American dream and one part the evil that men do.

Post Script.....

I've fallen behind a little on my reports from SNUFF - what with all the gala openings and crazy parties that invariably accompany it - so I may try to shoehorn in another report later today on yesterday's stellar return to the unknown world of B-movies. On tap was the revenge flick Rolling Thunder (1977) with William Devane, Sam Fuller's delirious and rarely seen Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street (1972) and universally-despised Warren Oates neo-noir vehicle, Chandler (1971).

1 comment:

Britarded said...

Very interesting post, I didn't really know about the blacklist drama. I tracked down that clip you mentioned of Elia Kazan's stoney reception at the oscars in '99, Ouch!