An excellent combination of French and American film sensibilities, this was a pleasure to watch. Full of legitimate suspense and excitement, it represents a fascinating look at the origins of the heist genre of films.
What a nice little noir film; full of interesting characters, with plenty of twists and turns. Not quite a masterpiece, it was still a very enjoyable film. For the era it was released I think I liked Bob le flambeur more, but this was still an extremely entertaining and worthwhile film. This was my first exposure to director Jules Dassin, an American-born filmmaker who fled to France after being accused of communist sympathies, and it definitely left me excited to see his other work. Interestingly, Jean-Pierre Melville, who made Bob le flambeur, was initially offered the job of directing this film. Although I love his work, I think this would have been a very different film under his guidance, certainly less of a mixture of French and American tropes, which could have made it less interesting for me.
The film follows Tony “le Stéphanois”, a tough from Paris who has recently been released from prison after doing five years for a jewelry heist. His two friends, Jo and Mario, have a plan to rob the most expensive jewelry store in Paris, and want him to join them. Initially he’s not interested, but after an encounter with his former girlfriend he decides to participate, and raises the stakes as well. Instead of simply grabbing the jewels near the window, he wants to rob the safe. After enlisting the services of master safe cracker César, played by our director Jules Dassin, the foursome gets to work figuring out how to bypass the security of the jewelry store. Eventually we get to the actual heist, perhaps one of the best scenes in film history, done completely in silence and lasting almost a half hour. The film spends the rest of its running time showing us what happens to the various characters involved in the heist.
This film had a lot of points of interest for me. It’s definitely an archetype, the central heist plot has been copied endlessly for the nearly sixty years since it was released. We would almost certainly not have an Ocean’s Eleven if this film hadn’t shown how to execute the genre to perfection. The heist scene in particular was even better than the one in Ocean’s Eleven for me, replacing over-the-top execution with real suspense and intrigue. The use of silence throughout created an intense sense of place and a real fear of being caught. The entire thing had me on the edge of my seat, and was more than enough justification for the rest of the film. Dassin supposedly hated the book that this film was based on, and added most of the heist scene just so he could feel good about at least part of what he was making. You can tell that his love for this part of the film was real, it gets the most attention lavished on it, and it’s really something special.
Dassin was forced to leave the United States due to his blacklisting at the hands of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He fled to France and attempted to continue his film career there, only to be stymied multiple times by the long arm of United States film studios and politicians. I think you can really see the affects of this exile in the film, especially in the way that anyone who squeals is treated by their peers. Noir in general has a pretty negative attitude to people who rat out their compatriots, but this film takes an incredibly hard line on the subject. I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest that perhaps Dassin’s own relationship with a lack of silence from ones peers had a strong effect on his filmmaking here. You can practically draw a straight line between the two, and I think it adds a whole layer to the film that it might otherwise not have had.
Another thing I found really interesting in this film was its portrayal of the relationship between these toughs and their female companions. Basically all of these guys are absolutely terrible to the women in their lives, to varying degrees. Certainly the theme of a noir man asserting his dominance over all the women around him isn’t anything new, but Dassin approaches it very differently than I’ve seen before. He really shows how horrible these men are to the women they supposedly love, and he doesn’t make them seem cool because of it. That’s the real difference, that I didn’t find myself rooting for these abusive and misogynist men. None of these characters is really what I would call cool, Tony, the lead, has a certain air about him, but even he is more tragic than anyone you’d want to emulate. It’s a completely different vibe than you usually get in a noir film, a much more realistic one than I’ve seen before. It was a very welcome addition.
Certainly all noir, and really most of mainstream cinema as well, has some sense that punishment must be necessary for the bad behavior of the various involved parties. But when this film doles out its justice, it does a much more direct job of tying it to specific bad behavior. These are much realer people than I’m used to seeing in a film of this nature, and their various story resolutions aren’t setup as moral tales, but rather directly connects their choices with what ends up happening to them. It’s an extremely humane take on the genre, much more similar to a Bob le flambeur, with its focus on addiction, than to an Ocean’s Eleven say. That is to say that Ocean’s Eleven takes the style from this film, but very little of the substance. This is a tale about bad people, and the things they do to those around them in pursuit of their agendas. The closest we get to anyone you would conventionally think of as “good” are characters who are simply orthogonal to any misdeeds. It’s a very interesting take on one of my absolute favorite genres of film, and I’m really glad I got to see it.