C'est nous qui d'mande du Rififi.
Tonight the Noir City Film Festival screens Jules Dassin's classic crime drama Du rififi chez les homes, aka Rififi for the second time in three years. It's appropriate, though, since Dassin was the noir master behind Night and the City, Thieves' Highway, The Naked City, and Brute Force. Based on Auguste Le Breton's novel, Rifiifi came in 1955 after Dassin's work had been absent from Hollywood screens for five years—a break brought about due to his blacklisting by the anti commie crowd. Dassin made Rififi in France and reminded Hollywood exactly what they had lost.
We first meet the character Tony le Stéphanois in a poker game where he's lost his shirt. The other players won't let him continue without more cash, and that's how we meet his close friend Jo, who's called in to take Tony home. Tony is a big time criminal fresh out of prison and down on his luck, while Jo is a green young crook. Jo and his accomplice Mario have hatched a plan to cut the glass out of a jewelry store window and steal the few gems in the display, and they ask Tony to partner with them.
Our introduction to this trio makes them all seem sympathetic, but this Tony is a bad guy. When does that become crystal clear? When he whips his ex-girlfriend with a belt. Which beyond its literal significance also seems to indicate that people around Tony get hurt generally. He soon convinces Jo and Mario that their smash-and-grab idea is peanuts, and under his influence the plan grows into a full scale heist—one of the most memorable heist sequences in cinema, containing almost no dialogue, and running close to half an hour of screen time.
If you've never seen the film you may be wondering what exactly is “rififi”? A name? A place? The idea is explained in detail to a nightclub audience in a highly entertaining number by Magali Noël, because even French audiences of the day didn't know what it meant. We could tell you what Noël sang about it, but what would be the fun in that? If you want to know you'll have to watch the movie.
Who needs force when you have firepower?
Anita Colby, née Anita Counihan, is probably most remembered for her role as the bad girl Flossie in Jules Dassin's film noir Brute Force. It was one of only a few cinematic parts she landed, but it was a memorable one—she robs John Hoyt at gunpoint, kicks him out of his own car, and leaves him stranded. But he remembers her somewhat fondly anyway. Here's how he describes her to another character: “Flossie had looks, brains and all the accessories. She was better than a deck with six aces. But I regret to report that she also knew how to handle a gun—my gun.” Well, nobody's perfect. This image dates from 1947.
San Francisco’s famed film festival goes international.
Living overseas is sometimes bittersweet. While the people, the food, the bars, the beaches, the lifestyle, and a hundred other aspects are wonderful, there are no film noir festivals (and no decent pizza, but that's another story). Anyway, today we’re sad not to still be living in the San Francisco Bay area because it’s the first day of the Noir City Film Festival. Ironically, this year’s version, the twelfth in the series, looks toward other countries and includes movies set in France, Britain, Mexico, Singapore, Macao, and more. The films, which screen at San Fran’s Castro Theatre, include The Third Man, Akira Kurosawa’s Yoidore tenshi, aka Drunken Angel, Jules Dassin’s Du rififi chez les hommes, aka Rififi, and two dozen other films. All in all, a great collection. The photoillustrated poster art above (the first is the official promo and the second is the teaser that came out last year) is also pretty nice, though not up to the standard of previous years. But you can decide that for yourself—we’ve shared the entire run of Noir City posters and you can see those here.
There are eight million stories in The Naked City.
Above, a great French poster for Jules Dassin’s film noir La cité sans voiles, which was originally produced in the U.S. and called The Naked City. Dassin, who apprenticed under Alfred Hitchcock, was one of the quintessential noir directors, also helming 1947’s Brute Force, 1949’s Thieves’ Highway and 1950’s spectacular Night and the City. His career in the U.S. was ruined when he was named during the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s, forcing him to live the rest of his life in more tolerant France. The Naked City, while not Dassin’s best work, is certainly a significant piece, due to both its style and substance. Its tagline has become part of the American lexicon: "There are eight million stories in the naked city; this has been one of them." In 2007 the U.S. Library of Congress agreed that The Naked City was a special achievement when it selected the film for preservation in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically and aesthetically signifitcant.” La cité sans voiles premiered in France today in 1949.
Gene Tierney was born with everything, but life took much of it away.
Her name was Gene Tierney and she lived a fairytale existence before ever becoming a movie star. Her parents and grandparents were wealthy. She attended the finest schools on the East Coast and was sent to finishing school in Switzerland. She decided she wanted a career in theater and her father formed a corporation to promote her ambitions. Even in her earliest, smallest stage roles, critics were dazzled by her beauty. Hollywood was a natural next step, and she took it by signing with Twentieth Century Fox and appearing in 1941’s Hudson Bay. The roles and good reviews kept coming, and soon she starred in Otto Preminger’s 1944 noir Laura, about a police detective who falls in love with the portrait of a dead woman. Or at least he thinks she’s dead. Tierney was perfect in the title role—that of a woman more beautiful yet more complicated than her alluring painted image. Laura was a hit and Tierney became a huge star.
But unbeknownst to most, Tierney’s fairytale existence had already taken a dark turn. She had married renowned designer Oleg Cassini in 1941 and by 1943 was pregnant. But the baby girl was born brain damaged because, while pregnant, Tierney had somehow contracted rubella, a form of measles transmitted through fluid emission, the same way flu can be passed. Tierney was consumed by anger and guilt over her daughter’s condition, but her career was in full swing and she managed to hide her anguish as the roles continued—A Bell for Adano and Leave Her to Heaven in 1945, Dragonwyck and The Razor’s Edge in 1946, and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir in 1947. At some point, at some public function or other, Tierney randomly encountered a woman who said they had actuallymet before, during one of Tierney’s appearances at the Hollywood Canteen. In fact, the woman had been in the Marines at the time and had wanted to meet Tierney so badly she had broken a quarantine to do so. It took another chance meeting with the same woman before Tierney put two and two together: “A year later, I met the same girl again on the tennis courts at a friend’s home in Hollywood. She reminded me of the night she had broken quarantine. 'I got the German measles,' she said. 'Did you get them, too?'" Tierney said that after the woman had recounted her story, she just stared at her silently, then turned and walked away. She wrote in her autobiography, “After that I didn’t care whether ever again I was anyone’s favorite actress.”
The revelation changed Tierney. By 1950 she was suffering from depression and bi-polar disorder, yet managed a good performance in another classic noir, Jules Dassin’s dazzling Night and the City. But while her reviews were still good, her marriage to Cassini was failing. They divorced in 1952. Tierney’s depression persisted and doctors treated her with electroshocks—thirty-two sessions that completely erased portions of her memory. Her fairytale life was gone. Meanwhile she was enduring a series of failed romances that led to even more depression. Her career sputtered and in 1955 she stopped acting. When she felt ready for a comeback in the early sixties, her star had faded. After several more roles, she settled into retirement in Texas and finally died of emphysema today in 1991. But Tierney is one of the most fondly remembered stars of Hollywood’s golden age, and one of the few who got to play a role that was so perfectly a metaphor for her life. Like the lovestruck detective in Laura, the public fell for a portrait that was beautiful but ultimately false. As Tierney’s cool-as-ice Laura Hunt said, “To him, I, like everything else, am only half real. The other half exists only in his own mind.”
The headlines that mattered yesteryear.
1939—Adams Completes Around-the-World Air Journey
American Clara Adams becomes the first woman passenger to complete an around-the-world air journey. Her voyage began and ended in New York City, with stops in Lisbon, Marseilles, Leipzig, Athens, Basra, Jodhpur, Rangoon, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Wake Island, Honolulu, and San Francisco.
1955—Nobel Prize Winners Unite Against Nukes
Eighteen Nobel laureates sign the Mainau Declaration against nuclear weapons, which reads in part: We think it is a delusion if governments believe that they can avoid war for a long time through the fear of [nuclear] weapons. Fear and tension have often engendered wars. Similarly it seems to us a delusion to believe that small conflicts could in the future always be decided by traditional weapons. In extreme danger no nation will deny itself the use of any weapon that scientific technology can produce.
1997—Versace Murdered in Miami
Italian fashion designer Gianni Versace is shot dead on the steps of his Miami mansion as he returns from breakfast at a cafe. His killer is Andrew Cunanan, a man who had already murdered four other people across the country and was the focus of an FBI manhunt. The FBI never caught Cunanan—instead he committed suicide on the houseboat where he was living.
1921—Sacco & Vanzetti Convicted
Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti are convicted in Dedham, Massachusetts of killing their shoe company's paymaster. Even at the time there are serious questions about their guilt, and whether they are being railroaded because of their Italian ethnicity and anarchist political beliefs.
1933—Eugenics Becomes Official German Policy
Adolf Hitler signs the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring, and Germany begins sterilizing those they believe carry hereditary illnesses, and those they consider impure. By the end of WWII more than 400,000 are sterilized, including criminals, alcoholics, the mentally ill, Jews, and people of mixed German-African heritage.
1955—Ruth Ellis Executed
Former model Ruth Ellis is hanged at Holloway Prison in London for the murder of her lover, British race car driver David Blakely. She is the last woman executed in the United Kingdom.
1966—Richard Speck Rampage
breaks into a Chicago townhouse where he systematically rapes and kills eight student nurses. The only survivor hides under a bed the entire night.
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