I came to Jules Dassin's work relatively recently, when I was researching heist movies and rented a dub-of-a-dub videotape of his French gangster classic Rififi. I knew nothing about the movie before watching it, only that it was supposed to be a classic and have a good heist in it. The tape I was watching was such a bad dub of such a bad print that the movie looked like it took place in the middle of the night in a Paris submerged under 50 feet of water. In those circumstances, the 25-minute silent heist sequence that forms the centerpiece of the movie took on an air of deep mystery and a kind of solemn strangeness. It felt weird and transgressive and dangerous, like I was watching a snuff movie or something.
Many years later I saw Rififi courtesy of one of Criterion's typically pristine transfers and saw that there is nothing particularly weird or mysterious about the movie, except that it's always weird and mysterious when a good movie gets made. The lighting in Rififi is crisp and lush, even occasionally pedestrian. The difference with the new transfer was that I could see the faces of the people in the narrative and witness the director's skill with actors. With a name like Jules Dassin, I assumed that the director was an off-brand French gangster-movie director, the guy French producers went to when they couldn't get Jean-Pierre Melville. I was wrong -- Dassin was an American, working in France when the McCarthyites chased him out. Rififi remains a classic, and I have also hugely enjoyed Brute Force and Naked City. Topkapi is a movie whose charms elude me, but I look forward to watching Night and the City, starring the just-now-deceased Richard Widmark. I don't necessarily believe in an afterlife, but it comforts me to think of Heaven like a kind of Valhalla, where whatever you were good at on Earth you get to do forever in the next world. In this case, I assume that Widmark, having signed on to star in some afterworld production, requested his favorite director or threatened to cross the street to make the movie with the competing studio.