Sunday at Noir City

Americans invented Film Noir, but the French named it. So it seems appropriate that on the first Sunday of this year’s festival, Noir City presented a double bill of French crime thrillers.

The two films have something else besides nationality between them. Both deal with gangsters who have young children. This always complicates things.


Before the screening, the self-styled “Czar of Noir,” Eddie Muller, enthusiastically introduced this 1955 classic. After telling us how director Jules Dassin fought for his vision, he called Rififi the all-time greatest caper film.

Now that I’ve seen the movie, I must agree…at least if you’re talking about serious caper films. Big Deal on Madonna Street, which screened the night before, is the all-time greatest
caper comedy. Since this year’s Noir City theme is “The Big Knockover…Heists, Hold-Ups, and Schemes Gone Awry,” both movies were musts.

In Rififi, five Parisian criminals take on an exceptionally complex heist. And these aren’t just gangsters; they’re people. Two are loving husbands, and one of those is also a loving father. Of course, having someone to love can be dangerous if you work outside the law. These four, very different men – all competent professionals – carefully plan and practice an extremely complex break-in.

The heist itself is cinematic bravado. For about half an hour of screen time, there’s no dialog or music as the thieves go through their carefully choreographed crime, with only effects on the soundtrack. This should fall into any list of the greatest extended sequences in cinema.

Of course, even competent professionals make mistakes, and things don’t come out as well as they should. In most noirs, it’s the cops that are after the outlaw protagonists. But this time, it’s a rival gang that get on our anti-heroes’ trails, and that’s far scarier than the police.

I give Rififi an A.

The film was projected off of a DCP, and it looked great.

The Big Risk

After Rififi, almost anything would be a letdown. But The Big Risk let me down more than I expected.

Lino Ventura plays a criminal so hardened that he has been sentenced to the guillotine in absentia. After a disastrous gun battle, he needs to get out of Nice and into Paris while every cop in the country is looking for him. And he has his two young children with him.

He calls on his old friends to help him get out of this mess. They promise to help, but seem reluctant to do so. Among other things, they send an untested kid (Jean-Paul Belmondo) to drive him to Paris in an ambulance. That turns out to be a lucky break, since the kid soon becomes his only friend.

This isn’t really a heist movie, but that’s not its real problem. The film is too long for the story, with too many turns that really aren’t all that interesting. There are wonderful moments of terror, shock, romance, and dark humor, but not enough of them.

I give it a C+.

Noir City screened The Big Risk in an acceptable, but not exceptional, 35mm print.

One thought on “Sunday at Noir City

  1. This makes me think about the (I believe) more recent genre of films, best exemplified by the Coen brother’s “Fargo”, and Matt Shakman’s “Cut Bank”, which I just saw. These are certainly films about “schemes gone awry”, but instead of gangsters and shady underworld characters, the protagonists tend to be, well, just folks who out of desperation, or just stupidity, come up with what seems like a simple plan to change their fortunes- which then proceeds to unravel at and go in unintended directions, usually involving people getting hurt who didn’t see it coming and probably didn’t deserve it.
    It’s notable that both films I mentioned featured law enforcement officers who seem to be in over their heads, but who, ultimately, prove to be competent and as smart as they need to be (this, just to go a little far afield, in contrast to the Sheriff in “No Country For Old Men”, who discovers that he actually is out of his depth, and is shattered by the realization).
    What this says about the world view of the 40s and 50s, compared to our current view, I couldn’t say, but the major distinction seems to be that the earlier Noir films were about marginal characters- gangsters- not like most of us, while the newer films are about people who could be us, if we’re careless.
    Cautionary tales? Perhaps, or just reminders that we’re not as smart as we think we are, and that the way to make God laugh is to make a plan. Fun to think about, in any case.

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