Director of Programming, Austin Film Society
Dassin was nervous about working again with a crew and a cast after such a long time away from the film industry, and the fact that he was working with an international cast in what was still to him a foreign country exacerbated his initial unease about doing justice to the project. – Alastair Phillips
The American film industry has long been accustomed to importing successful directors from all over the world, initially from Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. During the latter decade many émigré directors fled Nazi-dominated Europe to try their luck in Hollywood, all to varying degrees of success. But in the late 1940s and early 1950s the tide was reversed and Hollywood began casting off directors suspected of Communist, Socialist, or even “overly liberal” attitudes. The right-wing backlash against FDR’s New Deal was building up steam and what more glamorous, headline-winning target than Hollywood with its “un-American values”? Many writers, directors, producers, actors, and even composers were dragged before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which eventually sent some people to prison for “contempt of Congress.” But the greater damage was done by the movie moguls themselves as studio heads banded together and created a blacklist of “no hires” (with the help of the FBI and other watchdog organizations).
One successful director who was blacklisted was Jules Dassin. He received a notice that he would have to appear before the HUAC witch hunters, but then they never called him to testify about membership in the Communist party or to give names of Communist associates. No matter. Simply being on a list of potential “witnesses” was sufficient to slip on over to the black list. His critically acclaimed career in the American film industry ended in 1950, almost as quickly as it had begun less than a decade earlier.
Jules Dassin (1911-2008) was born in Middletown, Connecticut to Jewish-Russian parents who had immigrated to America at the beginning of the 20th century. Fortunately for Jules (nicknamed Julie) the family moved to New York where they lived in Harlem, while the boy was educated in the Bronx. His parents were able to send him on a tour of Europe in the 1930s, a “vacation” which would show him places of future refuge after the expulsion from Hollywood. He particularly loved France, Italy, and Greece.
Settling down in New York, Dassin went to work at the Artef Theater, the “Palace” of Yiddish theaters. Naturally, with the Great Depression in full swing, theater people for the most part were at least FDR liberals but also more committed Marxists who felt the American socio-political system was collapsing. At that time, Dassin later claimed, he joined the Communist Party USA. His liberal social views were decidedly created and fostered during that period. His radio adaptation of the great Russian writer Gogol’s The Overcoat led to an invitation to direct a play on Broadway, which in turn brought offers of work in Hollywood.
Initially he was hired to work on set design at RKO, most notably for Hitchcock’s MR AND MRS SMITH (1941). But he quickly found a better deal, a 7-year contract at MGM. Their hiring of Dassin quickly paid off with an Oscar for his short film of Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” (1941). His feature films were less stellar: NAZI AGENT (1942), REUNION IN FRANCE (1942, with John Wayne and Joan Crawford!!!), and several others.
Then came the dream job. With the MGM contract expired, Dassin quickly got a job with famed producer Mark Hellinger, a very liberal, former crime reporter, who believed postwar Hollywood films should display greater social realism in look and subject. He had already shepherded Siodmak’s great film noir, THE KILLERS (1946). For Hellinger, Dassin would make two brilliant, hard-hitting films.
To embody social realism in the films he produced, Mark Hellinger advocated more location shooting and an emphasis on greater “psychological intimacy with protagonists.” With that in mind, Dassin first made BRUTE FORCE (1947), a powerful prison film focusing on a fascist prison guard/warden battling a heroic, but impossible escape plan. Three elements in BRUTE FORCE would show up in RIFIFI: cooperation, loyalty, and betrayal among men. Dassin’s next and last film for Hellinger would be the amazing THE NAKED CITY (1948). In this New York-based crime film, Dassin would basically bring New York to the screens in ways never seen before. A beautiful model from a poor immigrant family is found murdered in her apartment, and soon members of the upper class and working class are swept into a class-conscious social drama unlike anything Hollywood had ever dared before. Iniquities in American socio-economic life were suddenly laid bare. French critics loved the film which along with various films noir seemed to indicate a new America, quickly silenced by HUAC.
With Hellinger’s sudden death, Dassin was momentarily set adrift and even returned to the New York theater world. But the success of BRUTE FORCE and THE NAKED CITY had not gone unnoticed in Hollywood. With a contract at 20th Century-Fox, Dassin returned to the West Coast to work with another fresh-minded author/screenwriter, A.I. Bezzerides. Together Dassin and the novelist adapted Bezzerides’ book Thieves Market into the film THIEVES’ HIGHWAY (1949), a drama set within the trucking industry. Again, Dassin found himself working on a film whose main themes were “cooperation, loyalty, and betrayal” within a group of men – more preparation for RIFIFI.
Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck next sent Dassin to London to direct an adaptation of Gerald Kersh’s crime novel, Night and the City. Was Dassin being sent out of the country as the HUAC onslaught rolled on? One clue is the fact that Zanuck was so afraid of losing Dassin that he instructed him to shoot the most expensive scenes first, just in case he had to be “replaced.” Even under that strain, Dassin once again turned out a powerful film nor, this time set outside America. Once back in America, though, he began his own dark night of the soul when he discovered he was no longer even allowed on the 20th Century-Fox lot. Locked out and barred from the entire film industry, he had not yet appeared before the federal “show trial” administrators. Never would.
So, he spent the rest of 1950 and ’51 trying to get jobs within the French film industry. He began work on LE PETIT MONDE DE DON CAMILLO, with the great comic Fernandel, but the French producer worried that a film directed by Dassin might not get American distribution. So, Dassin was fired – for nothing but paranoia on the part of the financial backers. Meanwhile, directors Frank Tuttle and Edward Dmytryk had testified against Dassin at the HUAC hearings. In short, they accused him of being a Communist. No matter what his current ideas might be. No matter that there is no evidence of Communist ideology in any of his films. He had once been a Communist and that was enough for eternal tarring and feathering.
Inexplicably, Dassin returned to the US with hopes of being finally called before HUAC where, naively, he thought he could explain his positions. If you have ever seen any of the infamous HUAC hearings, you know that no witness was allowed to make statements or defend oneself. Dassin did find work directing Bette Davis in Two’s Company on Broadway in 1952. HUAC summoned him but then never gave him an appearance date. So, he returned to France where he could at least begin work on a film before being fired once again. And that is indeed what happened with the next project, L’ENNEMI PUBLIC NO. 1 (THE MOST WANTED MAN, 1953, with Fernandel and Zsa Zsa Gabor). The producer got cold feet with Dassin as director, especially after a call to an American friend who worked with IATSE, the principal film crew union, and who told the producer no film directed by Dassin could get distributed in the US. French film directors were horrified by this treatment of such a respected American director. Soon all this frustration and mistreatment would be washed away when Dassin was asked to direct RIFIFI.
He was not the first choice, however. August Le Breton (1913-99), who had written the novel Du rififi chez les hommes (1954), initially convinced the producer Henri Bérard that he should hire French director Jean-Pierre Melville, who had directed LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES (1950). But the possibility of having an American director, already well known for tough crime films with a “noirish” look, was simply too tempting, so they turned to Dassin. Melville got busy on his own feature BOB LE FLAMBEUR (1955), about an old gangster who decides to rob a gambling casino. Lots of O.Gs around in Europe at this time, it seems. No doubt J-P would have done a great job with RIFIFI, but Dassin was able to make the film even more of a “transnational film noir.”
Jules Dassin accepted the job and then read the novel with the help of a friend more fluent in French. The American was horrified by the extreme violence and even more by the unapologetic racism against North Africans. Le Breton had written a work which would appeal to French nationalists upset over the uprisings in Algeria and throughout the French colonial empire. Dassin brought no such baggage and intended to change the focus if he stayed on the assignment. The underworld argot was also daunting, but he found English equivalents.
After writing his own screenplay draft in less than a week, he sat down with veteran French screenwriter Rene Wheeler, who translated Dassin’s version back into French. The changes that Dassin made to the original work were quite fundamental. He was particularly interested in emphasizing the inter-generational relationship between Tony Le Stéphanois (the sick gangster recently sprung from a five-year prison sentence) and his younger protégé Jo Le Suedois (“the Swede”), a family man with a criminal mind. Tony had taken the rap for an earlier job and had gone to prison instead of Jo. This older/younger male bond had shown up in BRUTE FORCE and THE NAKED CITY. Also missing from the novel, apparently, was much of any sense of group loyalty and betrayal, elements which Dassin introduced and highlighted.
Jules “le Americain” also replaced the North African criminals with other Parisian gang members, the Grutters, who sounded vaguely German, France’s recent enemies during World War II. In fact, the entire criminal underworld in RIFIFI would be strictly European, but with representatives of France, Italy, England, and Germany.
Dassin’s other major contribution to the transfer of the book to the screen was to make the actual heist the center-piece. Once we have gotten to know the various characters in Tony’s impromptu gang of thieves – a strong man, a lock and alarm specialist, a safecracker, and a master planner – then easily 30 minutes of the film is taken up with the meticulous preparation and execution of the jewel heist in the dead of night in the most ingenious way. It’s very difficult to breathe during that tension-filled scene. As if to emphasize the importance of gesture as silent communication, Dassin purposely made the heist scene dialogue-free and even music-free.
After reading the proposed script, the novelist August LeBreton invited Dassin to his office. He greeted the American with a simple question, “Where’s my book?” Dassin tried to explain that he had to make so many changes because he could otherwise not do the movie. Furthermore, that’s the very nature of adapting books into screenplays – much is lost, some things added, and others brought to the foreground. The novelist reportedly reached into a drawer and put a pistol on the desk top. He repeated the question, “Where’s my book?” Dassin looked at the pistol and then at Le Breton and began laughing. With the tension dissipated, Le Breton came around the desk, hugged Dassin, and they became BFFs.
As if still hoping to affect the look of the film, LeBreton took Dassin on a tour of underworld Paris where he seemed to be right at home. He had always bragged that his Rififi novel came from experience and friendships. But Dassin, ever independent, made it clear that though he loved seeing some of the appropriate locales, he was not setting out to recreate or overly emphasize a documentary vision of the Parisian underworld. Characters were everything to him, and the robbery would allow him to show what each man was like when working in tandem. Nonetheless, he did use a lot of the locations shown to him by LeBreton. We get a good look at pre-New Wave Paris.
Casting soon fell into place once the team had given up on the idea of getting veteran star Jean Gabin, who would look just right in the role of Tony, but who was simply too expensive for the allotted budget. Instead, Tony would be played by Jean Servais (1910-1976), a Belgian-born actor who made his career in French cinema when he appeared in LES MISERABLES (1933). In the postwar era, with too much alcohol in his system, he was faltering, so this role would be a godsend. His craggy face fit the part of Tony perfectly. Dassin said that he also was drawn to the actor’s “weary, despairing cynicism,” a perfect touch for a film noir.
The entire cast and crew were rather pan-European. Robert Manuel (1916-95), with his “highly mobile features,” played the Italian gangster Mario. Austrian actor Carl Mohner (1921-2005) was introduced to the French cinema as Joe le Suedois. Marcel Lupovici, a Romanian-born actor, played Pierre Grutter, the cool leader of the rival gang. Robert Hossein, with a Russian-Iranian background, took the hyper-active role of Rémi Grutter, junky brother of Pierre. Dassin decided to play the other Italian character, Cesar, the expert safe-cracker. Since Cesar ends up betraying his companions, this was certainly a loaded role for Dassin to take, since he had been betrayed in America by two fellow movie directors.
Alexandre Trauner, Hungarian émigré set designer, had made quite a reputation with his designs for the classic LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS (Marcel Carne, 1945). Even with location shooting throughout Paris, the film still needed interiors: the gangsters’ apartments, the night club L’Age d’Or (named that by Dassin in honor of Luis Buñuel), and most importantly the jewelry store and the apartment up above. Working with the set designer, Jules Dassin was able to have a perfect space in which to create and capture his carefully choreographed series of shots. It all works so well that we are there with the criminals, almost feeling the grit, dust, and sweat on our own faces and arms.
Working with cinematographer Philippe Agostini (1910-2001), Dassin plotted the film’s movements and camera setups in the most meticulous way, just as if he were also committing a jewel robbery. The two agreed not to shoot on any days with full sunshine, perhaps not a problem in the Paris of autumn and winter. The “milky grey light and melancholy hues” perfectly echoed the tone of the film.
Really taking auteurism to heart, Dassin sat with the editor Roger Dwyre at the end of each day’s shooting and began putting sequences together. Hollywood had never allowed him that luxury and had even re-edited BRUTE FORCE and THE NAKED CITY in ways displeasing to Dassin.
On location, even with the script’s solid dialogue and action, Dassin allowed his actors freedom to look where they wished and to move and gesture in an improvised way, not overly directed. His theatrical work helped him trust actors.
Another important member of the RIFIFI team was Georges Auric, who composed the score. He had started writing music for films back in 1930, with Cocteau’s influential BLOOD OF A POET. He worked with Rene Clair, Ealing comedy directors in the UK, John Huston, William Wyler, and Henri-Georges Clouzot. For the most part, Dassin loved Auric’s score for the film, but they clashed over the music for the long heist scene. Auric composed some music just as he had for others, but Dassin wanted absolutely no music during the robbery, to complement the lack of dialogue, and to emphasize the excruciating significance of the slightest sound both inside and outside the apartment and jewel store. So, they compromised and sat down to watch the heist scene with Auric’s music and without any music at all. After seeing both, Auric turned to Dassin and said, “You are right.” A Hollywood studio would probably have inserted the music. In short, Dassin was so entirely fortunate that Hollywood, in its right-wing paranoid fantasy, chucked him out. He was able to accomplish so much more in Europe.
Among other films directed by Dassin after RIFIFI would be “Greek films” NEVER ON SUNDAY (1960) and PHAEDRA (1962), both with Melina Mercouri, an accomplished Greek actress, who became Dassin’s wife in 1966, a marriage which lasted until her death in 1966.
- Alastair Phillips, Rififi, French Film Guide (I.B. Tauris, 2009)
- Return to RIFIFI webpage