Jules Dassin dazzles with double bill in Hollywood Exiles series

Jules Dassin’s ‘Rififi,’ a heist film set in Paris, is a cinematic masterpiece.

Jules Dassin’s ‘Rififi,’ a heist film set in Paris, is a cinematic masterpiece.

Paranoia marks many a film noir masterpiece. One reason in particular is that in the late 1940s, Hollywood directors, writers and actors faced political persecution as a result of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his harrowing witch hunt to uncover Communists. One of his most damning tools was a blacklist of people thought to be active in the Communist party, which, in his mind, was tantamount to threatening democracy and the American way.

Many of those under fire became voluntary exiles, hoping to rebuild their lives and careers abroad. While some left for Mexico, others, including Jules Dassin, Joseph Losey, Cy Endfield, Ben and Norma Barzman, and Donald Ogden Stewart, relocated in London, Paris and Rome. Drawing on film noir, neo-realism and modernist art cinema influences, Dassin and Losey were standout success stories. But, still hounded by the U.S. government and exploited by European producers looking for Hollywood talent on the cheap, the exiles found it was not an easy road.

To explore this unique era of filmmaking, UCLA is hosting the series Hollywood Exiles in Europe, which opens Friday, July 25, and runs to Sunday, Aug. 17. This series was co-curated by Rebecca Prime, author of the book “Hollywood Exiles in Europe: The Blacklist and Cold War Film Culture.” Prime and Norma Barzman will attend Friday’s opening feature: Christ in Concrete (1950, UK/US, Edward Dmytryk), a depiction of hardships endured by Italian-American construction workers.

On Saturday, July 26, there’s a top-notch film noir offering from Dassin: “Rififi” (France, 1955) and “Night and the City” (UK/US, 1950). In shadow-drenched, dangerous London, crooked fight promoter Harry Fabian (Richard Widmark) double-crosses everyone he encounters as he tries to outrace the night. The night is faster. This is a top film noir, a stunning achievement of style and suspense. From Gerald Kersh’s novel; with Gene Tierney, Herbert Lom, Francis L. Sullivan and Googie Withers.

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Noir City returns; program includes French, British, Italian films

Rififi posterIt’s almost time to take one of our favorite trips of the year: A one-way ticket to Noir City at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood!

Starting Friday, the American Cinematheque and the Film Noir Foundation will present their 16th annual festival of film noir. Jaded gumshoes, femmes fatale and menacing heavies will reign supreme in gloriously gritty black and white. The fest runs through April 6, with a stand-out celebration on April 5.

We at FNB are especially excited to see the fest expand to include film noir from abroad with evenings devoted to French (“Two Men in Manhattan,” “Rififi,” “Jenny Lamour), British (“It Always Rains on Sunday,” “Brighton Rock”) and Italian (“Ossessione”) noir.

Ossessione posterThe program pays tribute to a trio of talented actresses who died in 2013 with noir nights devoted to Joan Fontaine (“Born to Be Bad”, “Ivy”), Eleanor Parker (“Caged,” “Detective Story”) and Audrey Totter (“Tension,” “Alias Nick Beal”).

Actor Dan Duryea will be honored on opening night, March 21, with this enticing double feature: “Too Late for Tears” (a new 35mm restoration) and “Larceny.” Also to be honored (on other nights): writer David Goodis and director Hugo Fregonese.

Be sure to join FNF co-directors Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode as they host another exciting excursion into the dark recesses of Hollywood’s most lasting artistic movement, film noir.

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The Noir File: Truffaut’s choice as the greatest film noir: ‘Rififi’

By Michael Wilmington & Film Noir Blonde

The Noir File is FNB’s guide to classic film noir, neo-noir and pre-noir on cable TV. All movies below are from the schedule of Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which broadcasts them uncut and uninterrupted. The times are Eastern Standard and (Pacific Standard). This week, there’s a trio of great heist films on Tuesday, starting at 10 p.m. Eastern (7 p.m. Pacific): “The Asphalt Jungle,” “Rififi” and “Big Deal on Madonna Street.”

PICK OF THE WEEK

Rififi” (1954, Jules Dassin). Tuesday, Jan. 1, 12 a.m. (9 p.m.). Midway through director Jules Dassin’s French crime classic “Rififi” (“Trouble”), Dassin stages a 33-minute-long masterpiece of suspense: a sequence the most critics regard as the most perfect of all movie heist scenes. It’s a brilliantly designed set-piece of excruciating tension and the only sound is the thieves at work.

Probably no one who sees that scene ever forgets it. Here it is: In the early morning hours, a small band of crooks – which include legendary bank robber Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais), his young married friend Jo Jo (Carl Mohner), a good thief named Mario (Robert Manuel) and the loose-lipped safecracker Cesar (played by Dassin himself, under the stage name Perlo Vita) – break into an exclusive Parisian jewelry store by drilling though the floor of the room above. They work carefully, quietly, methodically. For the entire scene, there is not a word of dialogue, not a note of background music. A tour de force of moviemaking technique, it helped win Dassin the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Later, François Truffaut called “Rififi” the greatest of all film noirs.

That heist scene also sets up the grim, fatalistic last act of “Rififi,” which is about how thieves fall apart, set in a Paris that seems shrouded in perpetual clouds and drizzling rain. “Rififi” was regarded as an almost instant classic, and it wiped out the stigma of Dassin’s blacklisting by Hollywood. If you’ve never seen this movie and that scene, you won’t forget them either. (In French, with subtitles.)

Tuesday, Jan. 1

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “The Asphalt Jungle” (1950, John Huston). With Sterling Hayden and Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn in one of her first important roles.

2:15 a.m. (11:15 p.m.): “Big Deal on Madonna Street” (1958, Mario Monicelli). An inept gang of burglars, played by front-rank Italian movie stars Vittorio Gassmann, Marcello Mastroianni, Renato Salvatori and Toto, try in vain to break into and rob a store. This is perhaps, along with the Alec Guinness-Peter Sellers “The Ladykillers,” the funniest crime comedy ever made: often remade, endlessly copied, never equaled. (In Italian, with subtitles.)

Saturday, Jan. 5

8 p.m. (5 p.m.): “To Have and Have Not” (1944, Howard Hawks). With Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.

10 p.m. (7 p.m.): “The Whistler” (1944, William Castle). The first and probably best of the macabre “Whistler” series, based on the popular radio program. Richard Dix, as The Whistler, tries desperately to call off the hit men (Including J. Carroll Naish) he’s hired to kill himself.

2:45 a.m. (11:45 a.m.): “M” (1931, Fritz Lang). With Peter Lorre and Gustaf Grundgens.

Sunday, Jan. 6

4 p.m. (1 p.m.): “The Wrong Man” (1957, Alfred Hitchcock). With Henry Fonda and Vera Miles.

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Kubrick creates his defining template with ‘The Killing’

The Killing/1956/United Artists/85 min.

A DVD copy of ”The Killing” from Criterion is this month’s Film Noir Blonde reader giveaway. Newly digitally restored, the two-disc set contains many extras, including Kubrick’s 1955 noir, “Killer’s Kiss,” also reviewed below.

By Michael Wilmington

It takes guts and brains to pull the perfect heist. Or to shoot the perfect heist movie.

In 1956, at the age of 28, Stanley Kubrick, a New Yorker who grew up in the Bronx, traveled to Hollywood and San Francisco to direct the movie that would not only make his reputation but would provide the template – the clockwork nightmare with humans caught in the machinery – that defines most of the films he made from then on.

A Kubrick self-portrait, 1950

Those later films include acknowledged masterpieces: “Paths of Glory” (1957), “Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964), “2001: a Space Odyssey” (1968), “A Clockwork Orange” (1971). But none of them is more brilliantly designed or more perfectly executed than that inexpensive film, “The Killing.”

Kubrick and nonpareil pulp novelist Jim Thompson (“The Killer Inside Me”) wrote the script, based on Lionel White’s neatly plotted crime novel “Clean Break.” The great cinematographer Lucien Ballard (“The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond”) photographed the film.

That cast – a Who’s Who of noir types – includes Sterling Hayden (“The Asphalt Jungle”), Coleen Gray (“Kiss of Death”), Elisha Cook, Jr. (“The Maltese Falcon”), Marie Windsor (“The Narrow Margin”), Ted De Corsia (“The Naked City”), Timothy Carey (“Crime Wave”), James Edwards (“The Phenix City Story”), Joe Sawyer (“Deadline at Dawn”), Vince Edwards (“Murder by Contract”), Jay Adler (“Sweet Smell of Success”) and Jay C. Flippen (“They Live By Night”).

Perhaps inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 art-house classic “Rashomon,” Kubrick’s movie repeatedly circles back to the fictional Lansdowne race track (actually the Bay Meadows in San Francisco) during a fictional race. It’s a “jumbled jigsaw puzzle,” as one character calls it, that will supposedly end with a $2 million score of Lansdowne’s Saturday gambling receipts.

Immaculately orchestrated by a brusque criminal mastermind named Johnny Clay (Hayden), the heist kicks off when crack rifleman Nikki Arcane (Carey), shoots the favorite, Red Lightning, from a parking lot outside the track, at one of the turns. Thanks to Johnny, the robbery has been cleverly designed and planned to the last detail with each of the participants keenly aware of his part, executing it with precision and together getting away with the cash.

But like almost all great movie heists, like the robberies in “Rififi” and “The Asphalt Jungle” and “Le Cercle Rouge,” the one in “The Killing” has to unravel. And it does. The flaw in this system is the dysfunctional marriage between mousy cashier George (Cook, Jr., in his archetypal role) and George’s lazily sexy, unfaithful wife Sherry (Windsor, in hers).

Vince Edwards and Marie Windsor as the lovers.

George, desperate to keep his wayward wife interested, hints at an upcoming windfall. Sherry shares the leak with loverboy Val Cannon (Vince Edwards) – that has to be one of the great adulterous boyfriend movie names – and we can feel doom coming up fast on the outside.

The show clicked. It conquered audiences, especially critics. “The Killing” was immediately hailed by many as a classic of its kind, the very model of a high-style, low-budget thriller. “Kubrick is a giant,” said Orson Welles and it was the young Welles, of “Citizen Kane,” to whom the young Kubrick was most often compared.

If anything, his third feature’s reputation has grown over the years, as has the stature of the type of movie it embodies: the lean, swift, shadowy, cynical, hard-boiled crime genre we call film noir.

Also includes: “Killer’s Kiss”/1955/United Artists/67 min. This was Kubrick’s second feature and his first collaboration with producer James Harris. One of the most gorgeous-looking B movies ever, Kubrick shot in a style that effortlessly mixes the street-scene poetic realism of movies like “Little Fugitive” and “On the Waterfront” with film noir expressionism.

Jamie Smith plays a boxer in "Killer's Kiss."

But Kubrick’s script is subpar, mostly in the dialogue. It creaks, while his cinematography soars. A nearly washed-up boxer (Jamie Smith) falls in love with the woman across the courtyard (Irene Kane, aka Chris Chase), a dance hall girl who’s tyrannized by her obsessively smitten gangster boss (Frank Silvera).

The story sounds trite and that’s how it plays. But Silvera is good and the classy visuals give “Killer’s Kiss” a power that holds you. All Kubrick needed was a writer and a cast, and in “The Killing,” he got them.

Stanley Kubrick photo from Vanity Fair, courtesy of the Look Magazine Photograph Collection/The Library of Congress.

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Huston explores ‘Asphalt Jungle’ with an unflinching eye

The Asphalt Jungle/1950/MGM/112 min.

Marilyn Monroe

“The Asphalt Jungle” from 1950 by director John Huston is rightly considered a masterpiece. Excellent storytelling and an outstanding cast, including Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Sam Jaffe, Jean Hagen and Marilyn Monroe, have helped it stand the test of time.

But its stark, unwavering realism is not for everyone. Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, where Huston made the movie, had this to say about the flick: “That ‘Asphalt Pavement’ thing is full of nasty, ugly people doing nasty things. I wouldn’t walk across the room to see a thing like that.”

Um, did he not see luminous and fragile Monroe as mistress Angela Phinlay? Huston portrays a gang of thieves as flawed humans trying to make a living. “We all work for our vice,” explains menschlike mastermind Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Jaffe). Recently released from jail, Doc has planned every detail of a $1 million jewel robbery and seeks to round up the best craftsmen he can find for one last heist.

A fat wallet means Doc can head to Mexico and court all the nubile girls he can handle. Dix Handley (Hayden), a tough guy with swagger to spare, hopes to pay his debts and return to his beloved horses in Kentucky. Getaway driver Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) is sick of running his dingy diner. Bookie ‘Cobby’ Cobb (Marc Lawrence) covets booze. Safecracker Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) has a wife and kid to support. Alonzo ‘Lon’ Emmerich (Calhern) is a wealthy but overspent lawyer who wants to be solvent again.

“You may not admire these people, but I think they’ll fascinate you,” says Huston in an archive clip included on the DVD. They pull it off, but what heist would be complete without a doublecross and crossing paths with the police?

In this macho, man’s-world movie, there is alas no femme fatale. But rest assured there are flawed women aplenty. Hagen plays the neurotic Doll, a struggling performer, and her vice is Dix. Monroe, as Lon’s barely legal girlfriend, orders mackerel for his breakfast, flips through travel magazines and is fond of saying, “Yipes!” Lon’s bed-ridden wife May (Dorothy Tree) wishes Lon were home more often. Teresa Celli plays dutiful wife Maria Ciavelli.

The actors complement each other deftly. Jaffe, both sage and seedy (when he lusts after pretty young things) is particularly entertaining; he nabbed an Oscar nom for best supporting actor. Helping his rich characterization is the fact that he gets some terrific lines, for instance: “Just when you think you can trust a cop, he goes legit.” [Read more...]

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