Wednesday, 5 June 2019


(More Patreon castoffs.)

Good news everybody! I got the DVD player on my laptop working, so now more films picked up from the local markets, charity shops and DVD exchange stores will be happening.

Holy shit this is a great film. It's also Patrick catnip, we have a cold, intelligent lo-fi macho man with a gram of honour (maybe half a gram in this one), lots of procedural scenes of men in rooms planning things, some scumbag opera elements and then a thrilling moral vortex at the end.


About plans in films. When was the first 'heist' scene or film and how did it develop? It's a really particular form of drama which builds and pays off in a really particular way. First the formation of the plan and its development, then the central axis of the story when the plan is set into motion, and then the payoff or execution of the plan as the heist takes place.

And the payoff can be played a number of ways, icily cool with a dab of charm as in Rififi, or a slow descent into tragicomic failure and horror as we realise the plan, or the people executing it, weren't that good after all, or an oceans 11 situation where its mainly charm, mild peril and a sheen of cool.

But the state of mind and the sources of drama when experiencing 'the heist'. First a great collection of seeds or objects of thought, of strong, specific problems which must be overcome, and scenes of people outright just thinking in which the main drama comes from seeing a bunch of people in a room trying to solve a problem.

But the exact nature of 'the plan' itself must be partially occluded. Because during the execution of the heist, there have to be moments of revelation and understanding on the part of the audience where we go "ah ha, that's why they needed that particular specific tool or idea, it was to solve this problem".

But if the entirety of the plan and its intentions had been laid out before us as it was pictured in the minds of the criminals, then there would be none of that particular kind of surprise, so there have to be things they know that we do not.

And, depending on the heist film, there can be elements we, the audience know about, that the criminals do not.

Rififi only has one of these I think. Towards the end of the heist a pair of bicycle cops turn up by happenstance and see a stolen car the criminals have used and this throws a wrench into their plans, (but isn't actually the element that brings them down).

So maybe Rififi is unusual in that its exchanging of knowledge between the audience and the planners, the agents, is almost completely one-way, they always know more than us, or they do _during the heist_ at least.

Anyway, - the manner in which the drama of Heists pays off is that the mind of the audience is asked, or required to range in time over the projected future and rememberd past. And yes this is true of all stories to some extent but here it happens in a really specific and detailed way.

During the planning, scouting and building part, where the agents are working with a plan visible to them but partially occluded to us, the mind of the audience ranges forwards in time; why do they need this particular thing, why do they seem to regard this small detail with unusual importance, why are they worried about this and why do they require these particular resources. We are *shown* the field of action, often in detail, sometimes in the imagination of the agents. Everything says "this is the field where things will happen, these are the times when things will happen, these are the threats"

(I wonder if you could do an abstract three act play that was purely about putting on a three act play? As in, the first act or scene was them planning the second act, the second was them trying to enact it, and the third was them responding to the second act.)

Then the action itself is made up of all these elements, some points of drama we understand from the beginning. In Rififi Tony and the gang know the place they are robbing has a top of the line alarm system (futurism, a little peek of sci fi) and they have to think and think of what to do about it. They develop a counter but we don't know if that counter is really going to work, so that is an axis of drama the audience knows about.

(The alarm system during the heist, and the way its described, shot and built up, makes it the prime 'enemy' of that part of the film. It's just a fucking box, but the scenes in which they try to foil a pre-prepared version and the alarm goes off again and again and again, and the final solution, muffling its 'mouth' with foam, and then the scene in the heist where Tony approaches it, and this utterly cold unflappable man is clearly nervous as shit like he isn't even during the physical threats of the film, all of that makes this box a kind of Minotaur. It is the monster in the maze and it is shown as such.)

And there are elements where we only half-know why they are important, like the flower delivery and the chronometrics of the street outside. And we know they talked about the people living over the store but were weren't told explcity that these people were going to be assaulted, gagged and tied up. Which is an opening piece of brutality and real unpleasantness from our agents, who we have been with the whole film.

And then there are elements which seem entirely new. Like the rubble falling from the hole in the roof which might set off the alarm, but don't worry, they predicted that and brought an umbrella on a rope which catches the rubble. So that's a little piece of 'false' drama, where it wasn't really going to be a problem but we felt like it was.

And the silent enactment of the theatre of the heist is made up of all these little fragments of drama and tension woven together in a patterning, so that known and predicted threats with hoped-for solutions are mixed in with half-described threats where we get to see what the solution will be, and with entirely new (to us) threats which the team predicted, and then with a single threat, at the end, the bicycle cops, new to both us and the agents, where we have to see them (or Tony in particular) work out how to deal with it.

A lot of the other heist films I've seen feel like pale or comic-booky (in a bad way) imitations of this. With more and bigger threats and technically larger drama, but less precision, invention, feeling, exactness, sense of life and carefully patterned drama.


This is a really intensely human film. There are only good performances in here. One film that this really reminds me of and which was shot about the same time I think, is The Blue Lamp, an Ealing Police/Social Drama film set in post war london and following the cops on their daily rounds with the drama of dealing with one particular criminal.

That film is like a light mirror to this one and I could imagine a character from Rififi crossing over to appear in The Blue Lamp. But like Rififi that is set in a ruined, or very poor postwar city (we see the bomb sites in London, though the city in Rififi looks relatively unscathed), with lots of industrial spaces, and it is an in-depth look at and valourisation of (to an extent) a particular largely-male subculture with its own rituals, uniforms and codes of behaviour. They even both have musical numbers in the middle, Rififi has a cabaret act which acts like one of those scenes-within-scenes in Renaissance Chivalric poetry where a tapestry or something briefly forms a sub-world, in this case giving the code of machismo that rules the criminals world, and the Police have a choir they sing in.

But all the roles and all the criminals and all the 'dames' who wait at home for them, covering for them, lying for them, loving them and resenting them, all of these are incredibly well acted and they all pop with such vibrancy and depth and livingness.

(Also its interesting to see that the stereotype for Italians is the same in France as it is here in the U.K.)

And this adds hugely to the film and is one of the things that makes it a watchable scumbag opera - that these people, who are verifiably bad, and probably Tony, the main character, is the worst of all the 'heroes' are so deeply emphatic and you really feel for them. And they have their good qualities and their codes which they keep to. So when bad things happen, it pulls you in. All of this humanity is like barbed hooks on the story making it hard to look away. You fall in love with all these people a little bit, which is a hell of a trick to play.

And Tony, in particular, the main guy, this person who if you were to tilt the camera or the moral axis of the film just a little would be this totally unsympathetic monster, who essentially fucks up the lives of everyone around him through the course of the movie by pulling them into his vortex of despair because the one person he wants doesn't love him. Who, when asked what he's going to do with the big score they just made, which they risked *everything* to get, just replies "I don't know". Because he won, and he's still not happy. The whole heist, the whole thing for him was just an auto-reaction to not being loved and to being alone and an attempt to regain some power over the world.

There are lots of these very macho films where the dominant undercurrent, the mood music you don't really feel in any particular scene but which comes to dominate the film, is this deep feeling of sadness, isolation and tragedy, with a bit of gothic doom. It's a very male-feeling emotion in these films.

Like Robocop - "Murphy had a wife and child .... I can feel them but I can't remember them."

And Rififi has a very Scorsasi-like mixture of valoruisation and condemnation of this culture of machismo. The long axis of the film says no, this is bad and tragic and destroys everything around it to no useful end, but the individual elements, the moments, all say yes this is some pretty cool shit.

We live in a dignity culture (for the most part) that evolved, or changed from an honour culture, and we have a fetishistic attraction/repulsion towards the remnants or ruins of that culture living in our own, like legacy dna in a cell. So there are a lot of these elements in our fiction, like the Klingons in Star Trek, we have these proud warrior races and these gangster cultures and these occasional knight stories and the thing of them all is that they live within these honour cultures which are counterpoised and in conversation with our own, enfolding, dignity culture.

It just occurs to me that a movie, or any kind of story is like a scam job where, if you fall for it, you actually get the money.

So the story is like a huckster saying hey hey come over here, care about these characters, take a look at their world, sense these objects, _this is something you can believe in_.

And if you do go over, and you do believe, if the scam works, strangely, you can get exactly what was promised.


  1. Rififi is one of my favorite films.

  2. You might enjoy David Mamet's old film, "Heist", starring Gene Hackman.

  3. I would like to be able to run a good heist as an rpg session, and I haven't cracked the code. One extreme would be to go abstract, have a scouting phase, planning phase, and go phase, and kind of roll dice for each, with maybe more detail and choice in the planning phase, then see how it plays out in the go phase. But I'm not wholly satisfied with that.
    The other extreme is for the GM to come up with some highly detailed target, and let the players scout it, plan it, and play out the heist all in detail. "In character", but also 100% player skill. I like that better in theory, but haven't seen it actually come together enjoyably in live play.

    1. Didn't someone do an OSR/Storygames mashup about this very thing? Isn't that what Blades in the Dark is?

  4. Ayyyy! Haven't seen anyone discuss Rififi before.

    It's surprisingly hardcore alright. Has a very frank delivery of romance in criminal circles, and the main character is cold and intelligent but actually seems like a CRIMINAL, unlike, e.g. Le Samourai or Ghost Dog (as I read your writeup it seems you agree). IIRC he rips off his old flame for her jewelry, and she sings a song about getting off on badness and havoc. This seems to gel with actual in-and-out-of-prison romances.

    Wrote this before I saw you noticed this too: Another interesting element of the film was the presence of Italians as a criminal substrate in France, something sort of imperceptible from the outside, but then of course there wasn't anything equivalent in degree to the Mafia in France at that time so I suppose it figures. Sounds like it was the same in Britain.

    It was also interesting how these guys were working their assess off drilling through the floor. Unusual to see criminals doing that in fiction, but then again their society was filled with workmen doing just that all day. There's something to be said for emphasizing verisimilitude when you can even in fantastic stories, hence the power of found footage or false document stories; the unexpected and well-executed mundane can underline the superb, whether it's the fictional plot elements or supernatural activity.

    I love that Robocop is mentioned in a rundown of Rififi. In the highest forms of analysis, all things exist alongside all things; they share a periodic table.

    "And Rififi has a Scorsasi [...] own, enfolding, dignity culture" Yes, outstanding. I think this is why it's important for good-guy heroes in fiction (who are not of the Christ/Buddha mould) to have (or develop) a very hard edge, much harder than is common in polite society, to the point of at least fistfighting over insults if I had to actualize the concept, and why it's good for societies in real life to have hard-edged hero cultures for people to enter in lieu of being thugs; ice hockey, rugby, special operations, rodeo, bullfighting, probably historically the Swiss mercenary corps. In reality they often take our Conan the Barbarian types who are not to be fucked with but have the potential to be good people, and ideally allow their better angels to become central as they hit their 30s. There's some bushido quote out there, "if you get rid of every retainer who likes to gamble at cards, pretty soon you won't have anyone useful left." And commonly in ancient myths e.g. Hercules, and Old Testament character arcs, the hero starts off as a pretty huge dirtbag before getting smashed by life/the gods and turned around.
    And those last three sentences, too, mmmm.

    I just put the cabaret song through google translate because I remembered I thought it was interesting, it’s interesting here too:

    The empire of the night
    Blacker than the series (série can mean gang, dunno if it does here)
    Attracts trouble
    Watch out for the rififi
    Night clubs gambling dens
    With poisonous vapors
    Swarm with more beautiful males
    Than a pair of waltzes
    Men have their mice (young girls)
    Quicksilver moulds
    With ruby ​​lips
    In the serpent's gaze
    Lighting up the gogos
    Who spit the grisbi (loot)
    The queen of the coconut
    It's the verdigris kid
    The empire of the night
    Blacker than the series
    Attracts trouble
    Watch out for the rififi
    But women don't care
    When the firecrackers come out
    They turn off their trance
    With water lily milk
    The chicks kill each other
    And the poulagas sweat (poulagas -> chickens -> slang for cops)
    To shoot these gentlemen
    When the gray and mauve dawn
    Close to the stiffs
    The survivors flee
    Where are the orchids
    The empire of the night
    Blacker than the series
    Attracts trouble
    Watch out for the rififi
    Mad and lonely Miss Blandish
    Taken away by death
    Drop a spineless rose
    And it's dawn again
    The empire of the night
    Blacker than the series
    Attracts trouble
    Watch out for the rififi