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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