CLASSIC FILM SCENES #9 – RIFIFI (1955) – THE SILENT HEIST
Directed by: Jules Dassin
Produced by: Henri Berard, Pierre Cabaud, Rene Bezard
Written by: August Le Breton, Jules Dassin, Rene Bezard
Cast: Jean Servais, Robert Hossein, Magali Noel, Janine Darcey, Pierre Grasset, Marcel Lupovici, Robert Manuel etc.
Cinematography: Philippe Agostini
I was reminded of this classic low budget crime film recently while watching the brilliant 1980s set spy drama, The Americans. In it, Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) is once again undercover manipulating a source, who happens to be a film geek. There she “bumps” into said source while watching Rififi (1955).
If you haven’t seen Rififi (1955), it’s a genuinely brilliant example of the heist movie. Directed by Jules Dassin, the standout sequence in the silent heist in the middle of the film. Lasting around 30 minutes there is NO dialogue and NO music. It is pure cinema of the highest quality and absolutely absorbing. We may not vindicate the actions of these criminals, but we are dragged into the cleverness of their crime.
Shot for what was a pretty low budget of $200,000, it features a cast of mostly unknowns or actors whose career, like the characters they play, was in decline. However, due to the sublime direction, tricky plot and stylish photography, Rififi, is a great example of ideas and ingenuity outweighing budgetary constraints.
Rififiwas a critical and commercial success in France and other countries. However, it was banned too in some countries because the governments were afraid the robbery would be copied by actual criminals. Moreover, the film and the silent heist legacy live on. Brian DePalma’s film Mission Impossible (1996) clearly riffed on the set-piece with the elaborate Langley heist sequence. Interestingly, Keri Russell herself would appear in Mission Impossible III (2006); as an American agent this time.
Producers: Jason Bateman, Chris Mundy, Bill Dubuque, Mark Williams
Director(s): Jason Bateman, Andrew Bernstein, Phil Abraham, Alik Sakharov, Ben Semanoff, Amanda Marsalis
Writers: Chris Mundy, David Manson, Alyson Feites, Ryan Farley, Paul Kolsby, Ning Zhou, Martin Zimmerman
Cast: Jason Bateman, Laura Linney, Sofia Hublitz, Skylar Gaertner, Julia Garner, Jordana Spiro, Lisa Emery, Jason Butler Harmer, Harris Yulin, Peter Mullan etc.
Original Network: Netflix
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
The Byrde family are back for a second season trying to keep their heads above bitter Ozark lake water once again. If you haven’t seen the show Jason Bateman plays an accountant who has to go on the run with his family to Ozark, Missouri while working for a murderous Mexican drug cartel. Accompanying him is his wife, Wendy, portrayed by Laura Linney and their two teenage children, Jonah and Charlotte.
Without wishing to give away too many spoilers I can reveal the first season found the Byrde’s lives under threat from the Mexican Cartel and the FBI, while at the same time they made new local enemies in the Langmores and the Snells. The structure of the season one and two is to essentially place the American “nuclear family” at the heart of a crime noir thriller and watch them use their intelligence and wits to save their skins. What is even more apparent though in Season 2 is that, like with Breaking Bad, the ingenuity of the writing means we are rooting for the bad guys. I mean, the Byrdes are money-laundering criminals, but somehow the performances and screenwriting makes us root for them, mostly.
Having created some geographical and financial stability in the Ozarks by funnelling drug monies through various local business ventures, Marty and Wendy spend all of this season planning to get a casino up and running on the lake. Of course, this is met with resistance from many parties, notably the local crime family, the Snells; the FBI led by twisted obsessive, Roy Petty; Ruth Langmore’s jailbird father, Cade; and most significantly the State Senate which must pass the bill for a new casino. The latter is where Wendy’s character proves her worth as she has experience manipulating the political process following years working as campaign manager in Washington.
In the past I have criticised some Netflix shows for having too many episodes and being full of filler. Well, it’s safe to say there is little in the way of filler in these ten episodes. The suspense, pace and narrative zip along, fully committed to the substantial plots and compelling subplots. Of course, it feels very familiar, yet the “innocent family under threat” trope so often used by Hitchcock and other thriller filmmakers is cork-screwed here. Both Marty and Wendy fight back against their nemeses with cunning and threat. Wendy’s character arc is particularly enthralling, because as Marty begins to waver and his Borg-like cloak of non-emotion slips, she revels in the power-games, even as the body count begins to mount up.
If you love crime thrillers as I do you will love Ozark. While the elements are quite generic the acting, writing and directing are right out of the top draw. I also love the cinematographic style too. Some may say they find it literally too dark. However, the lack of white balance adds to the murky nature of the events in play. The crisp darkness and shadow paradoxically illuminate the inner machinations of some very dark souls. I mean, while the Byrde family are criminals, they are actually sane when compared to the likes of psychotic Darlene Snell (Lisa Emery) and sewer rat, Cade Langmore (Trevor Long). Their characters are so unhinged I wouldn’t want to argue with them, even on the phone.
Ozark, also has at least three almost-perfect acting performances from Jason Bateman, Laura Linney and Julia Garner as the young Ruth Langmore. Garner for such a young actress steals every scene. I think she is destined for a great career. Garner gives her character a sparky, intelligent and tough-nut exterior, but vulnerable interior. Plus, a strong theme of the show is loyalty and survival of the family unit. As much as Ruth Langmore tries to stay loyal to her family, fate and her poor choices conspire against her. Oh, and I almost forgot the Season 2 acting cherry on the cake, with Janet McTeer’s crime lawyer kicking in our dramatic shins with wicked aplomb.
In short: Ozark is a treat for an audience hungry for plot driven crime dramas. It perpetually springs narrative traps as the themes throb darkly. The underlying theme seems to be you have to be bad to survive and anyone who isn’t ultimately pays the price. Because God and humanity have forsaken Ozark, Missouri, with only shadow in bloom. Blessed with incredible acting, fine writing and twists throughout, I for one cannot wait for Season 3 to be released next month on Netflix.
While we all love a good proper feature film containing one continuous narrative, the anthology or portmanteau film has thrown up some fine cinematic entertainment over the years. Generally, an anthology film can be described as a collection of works with a linked theme, genre, style and author etc.
Thus, in my occasional Six of the Best series I have decided to pick some favourite ones. To make it more interesting I have chosen them from different genres. Otherwise, I would have just chosen all horror films. So, here are six of the film anthology films worth watching.
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018) – WESTERN
The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a mischievous alchemy of stories. Here, the Coen Brothers reach into their cinematic bag of tricks to deliver an entertaining and memorable collection of characters, songs, bloody death, jokes, pathos, landscapes, snappy dialogue, dark humour and action. Coen’s films often improve with each viewing as their work is so full of stylish depth and this is no different. Quite often, you’re laughing so much you miss the philosophical happenstance which is occurring in many of these fine stories.
DEAD OF NIGHT (1945) – HORROR
It seems sacrilege not to include the likes of George Romero’s Creepshow (1982) or one of Amicus’ unhinged collections such as Dr Terror’s House of Horror (1965). But, having watched this classic recently I can certainly say it has some brilliant and scary stories which stand the test of time. Full to the brim with the cream of British acting, writing and directing talent, the standout tale is Michael Redgrave’s troubled ventriloquist, although the whole film is a nightmarish treat for horror fans.
FANTASIA (1940) – ANIMATION
With the current trend for Disney to remake their back catalogue as “live” action films in mind, I very much doubt they will doing this with Fantasia. Conceived as a short to re-invigorate the slowing career of Mickey Mouse, the film is unlike any other Disney have made. It consists of experimental, non-narrative and hallucinogenic vignettes mainly set to wondrous classical music. A masterpiece of hand-drawn animation, style, colour and design, it’s certainly not just for kids. I recall many images giving me nightmares when saw it as a child and it remains a powerful cinematic work to this day.
NIGHT ON EARTH (1991) – COMEDY
I was going to choose Woody Allen’s erotic sketch film, Everything You Wanted to Ask About Sex but were Afraid to Ask (1972), for the comedy section. However, I decided to select a more deadpan and character oriented film. What better then, than a Jim Jarmusch curiosity. I love the concept of the film as Jarmusch sets several themes and parameters in place. There are five slice-of-life vignettes set on the same night in the cities of Helsinki, New York, Rome, Paris and Los Angeles, all starring some of Jarmusch’s favourite actors. Relationships and quirky interactions between cab driver and passenger are explored in the filmmakers’ inimitable style.
PULP FICTION (1994) – CRIME
Quentin Tarantino’s second feature film remains a fresh masterpiece of colliding gangsters, uber-cool hitmen, fixers, boxers, sexual deviants, femme fatales, drug addicts and general criminal types. With an over-lapping timeline that kind of does a figure of eight, we get stories ranging from a couple robbing a diner; a boxer double-crossing a crime boss; and an employee almost killing his boss’s wife. Tarantino breathes life into the crime genre and the stock pulp characters with one of the greatest screenplays ever written; full of incredible dialogue, startling twists and a brilliant ensemble cast.
WILD TALES (2014) – DRAMA
Damián Szifron conjures up a delectable and devilish set of stories mostly based around the themes of obsession and revenge. It opens with a breath-taking little prologue featuring a horrific incident on a plane and culminates in arguably the wildest tale when the Bride goes on the rampage at her wedding. Everyone’s favourite Argentinian actor Ricardo Darin pops up in the middle as an explosives expert who enacts revenge on City Parking fascists. I love the whole thing as the film delivers a full deck of twists that master of the macabre Roald Dahl would be proud of.
Gillian Flynn, David Fincher, the cast and production team have carved out a superlative, rug-pulling, amoral, misanthropic and bloody suspense thriller which ghosts between several genres from romance to police procedural to thriller to Grand Guignol splatter film. Given the nature of the well-orchestrated and devious plot I will not be giving anything away other than it is essentially about a marriage in crisis and then some.
We begin in North Carthage, a picturesque town in Missouri as our anti-heroes Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) are established. Flashbacks reveal a lustful romance but as money troubles affect them they are forced to leave New York and move back to Nick’s hometown. The story kicks off with a weary Nick bemoaning his lot to his supportive sister (excellent Caroline Coon) before he finds out Amy has gone missing. Then the fun really starts.
As the plot unfolds we are led a merry dance as to where sympathies lie as the story twists and turns allegiances from Nick to Amy and back again. Having lived through a couple of acrimonious relationship breakdowns myself I felt the pain of the characters trapped in a marriage where the spark has been dampened by familiarity, financial worries and narcissistic deficiencies. Although, given the size of the house they live in I didn’t feel too bad for these over-privileged sociopaths.
Ben Affleck is very effective as the trouble-plagued yet spoilt WASP, however, Rosamund Pike steals the acting honours with a sparkling star-turn. Throughout she demonstrates the many facets of an emotionally complex, intelligent and physically adept human. I sensed this was writer Gillian Flynn’s fantasy; acting out her devilish desires on page through this beautiful yet dangerous character. Pike’s Amy took me back to the age of fantastic ’40s femme fatales played with aplomb by: Barbara Stanwyk, Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner et al.
David Fincher, with his wonderful pallet and great eye for a script, is carving himself out a terrific raft of movies which look into the dark recesses of the American dream. He dissects and delivers a scathing commentary on the flaws and weaknesses of the middle, upper and wealthy classes. He not only incorporates obsessive characters but also muddies waters between good and evil and hero and heroines as witnessed most recently in The Social Network (2010), Zodiac (2007) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2012). While Gone Girl could have been shaved of 10 minutes to make it punchier, for me, Fincher is a post-modern Hitchcock; making fine films about damned unlikeable characters but somehow pulling us into their tawdry lives.
There’s a fantastic episode of South Park from season 17 called ‘Informative Murder Porn’ which satirises the rise of scurrilous, scandal-mongering TV shows which “celebrate” salacious murders, crumbling marriages and missing people. Gone Girl is essentially a high-end version of such shows; the likes of which feature cleverly within the film’s plot. Indeed, the film also condemns the poisonous nature of such programmes which take joy in other’s misery.
Overall, Gone Girl is a masterful B-movie which is very gruelling to watch from an emotional perspective. Aside from the cops investigating (Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) Amy’s disappearance and Nick’s sister the majority of the characters are borderline sociopaths. Indeed, when one of the more likeable characters is the media-hungry-lawyer-snake-oil-salesmen-come-showman (Tyler Perry) then you know you’re dealing with an extremely opaque vision of humanity.