Posted by David Kalat on June 25, 2016
It’s a venerable cliché, the idea of “one last big score.” The hero, reluctantly recognizing his glory days are behind him, deciding to make one last play for glory.
And so we find “Le Stephanois,” an aging gangster released from prison to a world that has passed him by. He has scores to settle, and dreams of a legendary haul. What if he could assemble a crack team of experts, and deploy them on a meticulously planned heist to rob a jewelry store? What could possibly go wrong? (As it turns out, quite a lot)
And behind the cameras, we find an echo and an inversion. Here is Jules Dassin, an American expatriate director on the run from the Blacklist, increasingly desperate to get back into movies. It’s been years, and the long arm of the Blacklist has been stretching across the Atlantic to frustrate his every move. An offer is given, but it’s a poor one—only a fool would take this assignment. But beggars can’t be choosers, and the desperate man will do almost anything. Somehow, improbably, he turns straw into gold. His film is more than good, it is influential, and with it he changes the rules for everyone.
This is Rififi.
The Blacklist was a concept as insidiously dramatic as anything ever cooked up for the most hard-boiled film noir or Nazi Resistance thriller. It starts with Joe McCarthy or one of his thugs asking, “Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”
But this is not a Yes or No question.
There is no point wasting taxpayer money to simply ask you this incendiary question, because you are obviously inclined to lie. And so, this question is only being because someone else has already dimed you out. What this means, of course, is that the answer had better not be “No.” That would be perjury, and for that there is jail.
That doesn’t mean the correct answer is “Yes,” either. That’s the cruel trap.
Think of it as a game of tag. Right now you’re “it,” and you need to tag someone else. Last one standing loses. You see, when we ask, have you been a member of the Communist Party, what we really mean is,who else with you is a member of the Communist Party?
Now, maybe you don’t want to betray your friends. Maybe you don’t want to play this game: you’ve got an idea that it’s rigged, that no one wins. But just to be clear: if you don’t play, you are certain to lose—you job, your friends, your reputation. We will charge you with Contempt of Congress and you will go to jail, and everyone will assume you have something to hide.
And while staying stoic, refusing to name names, and accepting your sentence may seem like the right and noble course of action, let’s not pretend it didn’t also have collateral damage. Do you have a family that will suffer when you are locked away? Do you want your children to grow up with an incarcerated parent? What will happen to your career, your job prospects, and how will that hurt your family in the long run? And for that matter, just because you don’t name your friends doesn’t stop someone else in your circle from doing so—you could endure all this punishment and achieve nothing whatsoever.
This led to a third course of action: flee the country to avoid the question in the first place. An entire generation of American filmmakers was gutted by the mass flight to Europe of some of the most promising talents.
Which brings us to Jules Dassin, a natural born director of film noir. He was working on Night and the City when he was informed by Darryl Zanuck that he was to be Blacklisted. He relocated to Paris with his wife and three children (and let’s note in passing that his wife and all three kids turned out to be talented and influential artists, so by Blacklisting one guy our culture lost five talents in one go.)
But here’s where things start to get ugly for Dassin. Because although he’s managed to escape the threat of being called before the House Un-American Activities Commission and he’s theoretically able to continue working under his own name, in practice his escape has been purely nominal. Time and again he starts to develop a project, only to find some arm of the U.S. government has reached out across the Atlantic to slap him down again. Years passed, and one by one his prospects withered on the vine—the stars of this film dropped out under American pressure, the co-production deal on that film crumbled under American pressure. Five years passed, and the Dassin family was starting to get hungry.
Meanwhile, French producer Henri Bérard acquired the rights to a crime novel called Du Rififi chez les homes. There’s no good translation of that title—“Rififi” was WWII era French slang with no comparable English equivalent, and the title basically just evokes havoc and violence. After seeing Dassin’s The Naked City, Bérard decided this was the guy to bring the novel to the screen. At last, Dassin had a solid offer—the only problem was, he hated the book.
The book tells the story of a French gangster who orchestrates a jewelry heist only to find his triumph spoiled by the predations of a rival gang, which author Auguste Le Breton characterized as an ugly racial conflict, with the “bad” gang a bunch of dark-skinned Africans.
Dassin decided to solve his dilemma by leaning hard into the parts he liked, to help him lean away from the parts he didn’t. Thus, the heist itself, which was a minor detail in the book, became the centerpiece of the movie—a cinematic tour de force that occupies almost a quarter of the film’s run time, and plays out in virtual silence.
He recast the rival gang as ethnically non-descript to avoid any unintended political readings, and wrote out most of the ugliest stuff from the book (leaving an especially hard boiled film, mind you—it begins with the sadistic beating of a woman and ends with an attempted child murder, and between those poles there is an endless parade of violence and death).
The result was one of the most critically lauded and influential crime films of the decade. Some territories banned it for fear that its meticulously depicted heist sequence would serve as a blueprint for copycat crimes, but in the places where it did play it did so to enthusiastic raves.
And what about the U.S.? Well, it’s important here to note that the Blacklist itself was no official thing—it was self-imposed by Hollywood as an effort to curtail actual government interference. The studio bosses would tell people like Jules Dassin that in light of their political problems, they could not be known to have worked on any film screened in the U.S. for fear that there might be public outcry, pickets, or legal action. It was easier to just avoid the question. . . but no one had actually tested the waters to see what would happen if someone did violate the Blacklist. Among the Blacklistees, this was the Holy Grail—if someone on the Blacklist could get a film out to American theaters with their name defiantly on it, and nobody protested, it could end the madness then and there.
(Edward Dmytryk had tried this very thing with Christ in Concrete, which I helped release on American home video and wrote about here a while back. His effort failed, because his film was not shown in the U.S. at the time, and therefore couldn’t effectively serve as a test case).
The first U.S. distribution offer was a dog: either Dassin publicly renounced his past and admitted he had been “duped” into associating with anti-American groups, or his name would be removed from the film. This was unacceptable—Dassin wasn’t about to renounce his beliefs, nor was he willing to drop his name from his film. And it was decidedly his film: Dassin wrote the screenplay himself, in English, and then had it translated into French. He also cast himself in the film, as the safecracker Cesare.
So he collaborated with United Artists to establish a subsidiary corporation to handle the distribution. It would play in the U.S., subtitled in English, with Dassin’s name proudly affixed—and if indeed there were protests or pickets or lawsuits or what have you, that would only tar this one-time single-purpose distribution entity, leaving UA safely out of the line of fire.
But there were no protests, no pickets, no lawsuits. There were the usual saber-rattling from the Catholic Legion of Decency and some complaints that the film was basically a how-to manual for grand larceny (especially for wanna-be criminals who left halfway through and never saw the brutal comeuppance and humiliation of the characters). But Dassin’s involvement was a non-issue. The first chip in the wall Blacklist had been cracked. Mind you, having a foreign import that only played arthouse theaters proudly designate its creator by name, when most Americans wrongly assumed “Jules Dassin” was a French filmmaker would never be as effective in breaking the Blacklist as, say, having a major studio production come out with the name of the one of the Hollywood Ten on it (cough, Exodus, cough). Nevertheless, while the Blacklist would take another five years to fully dismantle, a crucial victory had been won.
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