Rififi, and six more movies



Jan. 15, 2023

Rififi (1955)

Tony is an ex-con with a gambling habit, and his funds are running low, so he's tempted by an offer to pull a low-risk heist from a jewelry store's front window. Tony, though, is not a low-risk kind of guy, so instead he suggests something riskier, but with a much bigger payoff.

Planning the heist stretches across several scenes, all marvelous. It's a jigsaw with perfectly interlocking pieces, and the movie is filled with memorable moments:

• The Italian safe-cracker in the French jewelry store, wordlessly negotiating with the proprietor over a small purchase while discreetly casing the joint.

• The gang steals a display model of the store's security device, and tests it in their basement workshop, figuring out just how easily the alarm sounds.

• Rififi, figuring out the flaw in the alarm system. 

• During the burglary, the film is nearly silent, with delicate chiseling but no words, and curiously, no music. You'd expect tense violins or something, but the silence is even more unnerving.

• And other elements of excellence which I simply won't talk about. No spoilers. So there.

Rififi is a French movie, but it was directed by an American, Jules Dassin, who'd been blacklisted stateside. Oh, and the Italian safe-cracker's name is Macaroni, which struck me as funny but hey, it is an Italian name.

It's an absolutely smashing movie, and I have no complaints about it.

Gotta complain about the subtitles, though. This was preserved and reissued by the Criterion Collection, where the subtitles usually suck and indeed they suck here. For example, Criterion has decided that when men play poker, their bids and calls needn't be translated. Signs, even signs important to the story, won't be translated. Clearly audible asides are sometimes ignored, and you're on your own with small words, like "chow" when the characters briefly speak Italian. In the middle of the heist, when one of the men checks his notes, we can see lettering written on his paper, but it's for him to read, not you. This is the Criterion Collection, making a great movie kinda frustrating to watch.

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

America in Color (2017-2020)

This was a show on the Smithsonian Channel, where historical film footage was colorized and turned into a series of documentaries. Can't have people watching history in black and white, you know.

I've only seen this one episode, because someone sent me a link and said it was grand.

It's not grand. It's about what you'd expect from TV, perhaps less. This particular episode is about the 1920s, and the whitewashing of history hurts.

Any media that praises the genius of Henry Ford should at least mention that he was the author of The International Jew, and one of America's most prominent anti-Semites.

When Ford, Harvey Firestone, Thomas Edison, and President Warren Harding go camping together, bringing a motion picture photographer, the narrator says, "… four of the most powerful people on the planet take a break from the stresses of work to enjoy the great outdoors." And that's not a Movietone newsreel talking, it's the Smithsonian Institute saying that — here and now. What hogwash. 

Realistically, when four of the world's most powerful men go camping together, all wearing suits, they might roast some marshmallows, but they're mostly discussing and planning the course of America's near-term future, which I believe ought to not be so choreographically plotted as it always is. To the Smithsonian, though, it's only about roasting marshmallows.

Then the show presents lovely color imagery of Charles Lindbergh, and same as Ford, Smithsonian tells only the heroic side, which is not enough. If we trust the documentary, we'd never know that Lindbergh was head of the America First movement, trying to keep America pals with Nazi Germany.

There's a segment on prohibition, one of the craziest parts of the 20th century. I barely even drink, but what a stupid idea was prohibition — a waste of money, waste of jail space and lives, and a huge boost to organized crime. So of course, we did it all again with marijuana. Maybe we'll do it next with abortion.

All in all, the show is startlingly superficial. Smithsonian magazine has been my last on-paper subscription, but I've been wavering, and this is enough to convince me to let it lapse.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Phantasm (1979)

This one is goofy, but grand. It was barely funded and made mostly by amateurs and enthusiasts, a homemade horror that morphs into science fiction.

Everything looks unsettling, as it should. There's a simple but proper score, not much more than mood music really, but it's enough. No matter what craziness is happening in the story — and there is much craziness here — almost all the actors' line readings seem curiously calm, which adds to the ethereal vibe. 

The movie starts with an old man in a suit saying, "Hello, I'm Angus Scrimm," and he talks for a few minutes about his experience getting the role of "The Tall Man" in this movie. And then the movie starts. Guess I'm either watching some anniversary edition, or maybe the introduction is part of the general weirdness here. 

When the movie actually starts, some young dude is boinking a dame in a cemetery, and when they're finished she stabs him dead. And there must be some dumb cops around town, because it's ruled a suicide.

The dead man is delivered for burial at Morningside Cemetery, but after the service, the funeral directer (Angus Scrimm as "The Tall Man") single-handed slips the coffin into the hearse. A coffin with a corpse in it weighs hundreds of pounds, so this is noteworthy.

The dead dude's best friend's kid brother sees this, and starts seeing all sorts of other kooky stuff — dwarfs, chopped-off fingers that bleed yellow, a fortune-teller who might be her own grandmother, flying metallic orbs that latch onto people's faces, and eventually a trip to a different dimension. But it's a lovely dimension, and well worth visiting.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

On the original Star Trek of the 1960s, Klingons were allegorical commies — the Soviet Union of the 23rd century — so the collapse of the USSR inspired this episode of the movie series.

The Klingon Empire, crippled by its huge military budget, finally seeks detente with the Federation, and Captain Kirk and the Enterprise are sent to bring a Klingon entourage to Earth for peace talks.

Kirk hates Klingons, of course, so he doesn't want to do it, but he does, leading to a comedically tense dinner aboard the Enterprise. Others are more emphatically opposed to peace, and diplomacy is soon scuttled by subterfuge, from which springs action enough to make for a pretty good movie.

David Warner and Christopher Plummer play Klingons, and Kim Cattrall makes a marvelous Vulcan. Kurtwood Smith wears a ridiculous face-wig, and leggy supermodel Iman plays some kind of green-eyed alien. George Takei as Sulu finally gets to do something more than fire photon torpedoes, and Michael Dorn from The Next Generation drops in as, I guess, Worf's grandfather or something — it's not explained.

There's a subplot that gets Kirk and McCoy condemned to a gulag, which feels less like prison and more like amiable filler. There's little depth to any of this, but it's engaging, and never too stupid. This was the last Star Trek movie with the original cast, and it's a fitting farewell. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Suture (1993)

This is a movie that wants to mess with your mind, and it's mostly successful. Maybe it helps if your mind is a mess already, like mine.

Clay and Vincent are half-brothers, and people (including Clay and Vincent) can't stop commenting on how similar they look, almost like twins. Dennis Haysbert plays Clay, and an actor unfamiliar to me plays Vincent; one's black, one's white, and they have zero physical similarity beyond both being human and male.

These "identical" brothers don't know each other well, but they get together after their father's funeral. Then Vincent is suddenly called out of town, and he leaves Clay at his home and with his car, promising to return the next day. Before leaving, though, Vincent surreptitiously switches his ID into Clay's wallet, and plants a bomb in his car.

Why? Because Vincent is suspected of murder, and he's hoping that staging his death — killing his "identical" brother — will throw the cops off his trail. Well, the car explodes as it's supposed to, but Clay miraculously survives. He's lost his memory, though, and he'll need extensive facial reconstructive surgery.

And all that's only the basic premise here. After that, most of the movie is about Clay's slow and difficult recovery. But since he has no memory, and the cops and doctors think he's Vincent, Clay believes he's Vincent, too.

It's an interesting concept and a brainy mystery, filmed in luscious black-and-white. It kind of reminds me of Memento, but it's been twenty years since I've seen Memento, so my memory might be as unreliable as Clay's, or Vincent's.

Whatever it is, Suture is challenging, and I liked it.

The movie plays around with reality quite a lot, like having the brilliant surgeon be a woman whose name is Renée Descartes for no apparent reason, and having a crucial eyewitness tell us repeatedly how great her memory is, though she's unable to pick Haysbert out of a lineup of white men.

The film's biggest unreality, by far, is that it takes place in a world where doctors and psychologists have time to care about any one patient. They give Clay/Vincent inordinate attention, and then say, "Why don't you come back and see me again tomorrow?"

Verdict: YES. 

♦ ♦ ♦  

Tenebrae  (1982)

More giallo from the master, Dario Argento.

Anthony Franciosa plays a best-selling mystery writer whose new novel is called Tenebrae (the word means darkness). Somebody likes the book perhaps a bit too much, as a series of bloody murders in Rome seem to be inspired by the book.

Amusingly, there's a female reporter in the movie who slams novelist Franciosa for writing books that are demeaning to women. "Tenebrae is a sexist novel," she tells him. "Why do you despise women so much? Women as victims, cyphers, the male heroes with their hairy macho bullshit."

That's probably a direct quote from criticism Argento has heard. Women getting murdered is the recurring theme in all his movies, to the point that I sometimes want to apologize for being a fan. He does it so artistically, though.

Sadly, this one's lesser Argento. The plot is a rehash of some other Argentos, and where the story's going is both predictable and unbelievable.

Verdict: MAYBE.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Willie Dynamite (1973)

This is a sub-par blaxploitation flick about a pimp trying to out-pimp the other pimps, while an ex-hooker tries to convince the ladies to either get out of the business or go independent. It's light on action scenes, most of the dialogue is very stereotypical ultra jive, and the pimp's outfits are outrageous even by the standards of 1970s pimp couture.

The only thing that merits mention here, and the only reason I was curious to see Willie Dynamite, is that it stars Roscoe Orman, who later played the kindly Gordon Robinson on Sesame Street for 40-some years. There's about five minutes of amusement in seeing the nicest guy on the block from children's TV play a devious pimp, but after that the movie is simply dull.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Coming attractions:

• Doctor Who (1986)
• Jigoku (1960)
• Maniac (1934)
• Papillon (1975)
• Silent Running (1972)
• Skidoo (1968)
• The Wrecking Crew (1968)


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twentyplex, you're missing out.

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Top illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter, not that fake crap, on the popcorn. I try to make these reviews spoiler-free, but sometimes screw up, sorry. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.   



  1. I'm kind of indifferent to Coscarelli, and somehow evaded being completely enamored with Phantasm like so many other kids my age. I really like his first two films, though, Jim The World's Greatest, and (especially) Kenny & Company. Neither are genre films, just stories about suburban So-Cal youngsters, like all the non-E.T. scenes in E.T.


    His stuff may have been low budget relative to other films, but his parents were flush enough to fund his first film to the tune of $250,000 - and that's in the early 70s! I know it's not healthy to view art through a jealous lens of economics and privilege, but goddamn does it get tiresome finding out the backstories of all these guys. Hell, Stanley Kubrick was no different. He's the greatest filmmaker of all time, but one of his relatives helped raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to make Fear & Desire, and that was the 50s, so do the math. Spielbergo, too. A family friend got him a job on the Universal lot, and away he goes. On and on... right place, right time, right people.

    Coming Attractions:

    Jigoku is fantastic, a real trip. Seems like a huge influence on Lucio Fulci, especially his masterpiece The Beyond. And of a piece stylistically with Mario Bava's extraordinary color films of the 60s.

    1. I was resistant to Phantasm most of the way, but the accumulated kookiness won me over toward the end.

      Everyone says good things about Kenny & Company, so it's already on my watchlist, and if I like it I'll move onward to Jim The World's Greatest and Coscarelli's other stuff.

      Yeah, the pretense of hard work that pays off is everywhere, and everywhere it's pretense. What pays off is access to money, and/or connections to people in power, and if that fails, excessive ass-kissing. It's the same story with at least 80% of anyone so famous you've heard his/her name.

  2. I've subscribed to Smithsonian the magazine for many years and I don't think the channel and the magazine have any staff in common.

    You write better I think when you keep the politics toned down.

    1. Pretty sure everybody at anyplace branded Smithsonian reports to the same ultimate Smithsonian-in-Chief.

      The point behind everything I write is to be honest about my feelings, failings, shortcomings, misgivings, and everything else. Nothing gets toned down.

  3. I was briefly published in Smithsonian the magazine, but that was long ago.

    Doug, you write better, I think, when you keep the politics toned up. Not unlike Leonard Cohen, who was and will always be Québécois.



    1. . . . and 40 years later as an old man who couldn't afford to carry an oud player but carried one anyway. . .



    2. As I lose weight, I'm hoping to get a bit better toned.

      Dude is singing in French. I can't do that.

      What sir, is you very favorite Cohen song? And a free bonus question: What's the longest Cohen song?

    3. Whoops, wait, you've been published in Smithsonian? And long ago, when the magazine was better? What did you write about? And why do I suspect it was music?

    4. No big deal. It was a photograph, not an article. And I was on the chess beat, not the beat beat.

      In 2002, the US chess championship was held in Seattle at the Seattle Center. I had been shooting with my Kodak digicam for about a year, and I decided that if I was going to watch the best chess players in the country I might as well watch them close up.

      So I dressed as a photographer, which consisted of wearing jeans, a clean shirt and a vest with a lot of pockets. Since the Kodak didn't come with many accessories I just stuffed the pockets with snacks. You never know when you'll need snacks.

      I went with several friends, so I separated when we got there and just tried to look like I belonged. The chess press does not dress to impress, and the regular press, covering the eight day event was, well, a mess. I had an assortment of tags and badges from previous jobs and concerts, so when I saw the actual credentials, I wore the closest thing I had. I should also note that, although I am a little in awe of standing next to Boris Gulko, the only person to win both the Soviet and American chess championships, security was lax. The United States Chess Federation was a half dozen social outcasts and a printing press in 2002. Things are better now (I think they're up to ten outcasts) but it was a low budget operation then. Bobby Fischer was alive but crazy, and I was unable to name a single additional American chess player of note (except for Gulko: welcome to America, Boris, and Seattle's own Yasser Seirawan).

      I ducked under the ropes and started shooting (the Kodak was clickless) without getting too close to the four podium tables (featured matches), but got some good shots anyway.

    5. [cont'd] In 2002, there wasn't a separate women's US championship tournament. Women competed against the men and the woman with the highest score at the end of (I forget) eight or ten matches was named the US women's champion. I was a smoker back then, as was one of the women in the tournament, a pretty 19-year-old Philadelphian attending NYU named Jennifer Shahade. The matches lasted up to five hours, and she'd duck outside between moves a few times during the match to grab a smoke. I saw her out there, but knew she was thinking about her next move and left her alone. But after the matches were over each day, I did have a chance to get to know her a little.

      Each night I'd drive back to Tacoma and save the photos I took that day, printing the best ones and bringing them back to the next day's tournament to give to whoever was in the photo as a memento. Jennifer liked some of the photos I got of her, and I brought a few of her back from Tacoma.

      She gave me her email address and asked me to send her whatever I wanted of photos from the tournament. I said I'd be happy to do so.

      As it turned out, Jennifer won the women's US championship that week. (She won it two years later in 2004 in NYC as well). I sent her the best digital photos I took of the tournament and of her, and we corresponded for a short time. A few months later, Jen emailed me that Smithsonian Magazine was going to do a full length article on her and were going to send a reporter and a photographer to visit with her. She said she told Smithsonian that she already had good digital photos of her in Seattle and forwarded my photos to the mag. They preferred to use their own shots, but Jen said that they should use at least one of mine. So they did, and I got a photo credit in Smithsonian Magazine. It wasn't one of my best photos, but at least it was published and credited.

      I bought a couple of copies of the issue when it came out and went about my life. A month or two later I received a letter from Smithsonian and a check for $400.00. I didn't even think about getting paid for the photo: I was just happy that it got published and that Jen was happy with it. But I needed money at the time, so, unfortunately, I cashed the check rather than framing it.

      That's the story. I'm incapable of telling any story briefly as you can see, but this one was a particularly pleasant memory. In general, US championship anything is populated by snooty people with big egos. It was a nice surprise to discover that the best chess players in the country, both men and women are, overwhelmingly, nice people who, when they're not in the middle of a match, will take time to talk with their fans and even offer a tip or two.

      Jen couldn't have been nicer and it was a great experience.

    6. Great story, and wow, $400 is a *lot* more than I'd expect them to pay for one photo. Must've been a damned fine photo.

      I don't pay much attention to big time chess, but I have actually heard of Jennifer Shahade, and specifically remember browsing her book Play Like A Girl the last time I was in a physical bookstore (which must've been at least five years ago).

      What you lack in brevity, you make up for in brilliance.

    7. I googled Jennifer and see that her Wiki page has a photo of her from the 2002 US Chess Championship in Seattle. Yours, Basket John?

    8. I took the same photo about a second later. Another photographer and I wanted to catch her in that wonderful concentration pose in the match that would give her enough points for the championship. We were jostling each other, trying to not make a commotion. My photo looks just about like that, but one of her fingers is in a slightly different position. And, although his camera cost three or four times what mine did, it's hard to tell the photos apart.

      But if you click on the photo, you'll see that it was taken by the other guy. It was a wild, hectic ten seconds followed by an apology from me to him for using an old roller derby move to get in position.

      My recollection is that she lost the game playing black, but won the woman's title by half a point over Camilla Baginskaite. I think it was her first of three norms for the lifelong title of Woman's Grandmaster that she was awarded a year or two later.



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