- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 2, 2000


Two brief revivals at local cultural institutions and a monthlong retrospective on cable television will allow moviegoers to discover, or rediscover, some landmarks of French cinema.
The titles date from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s and illustrate several genres, temperaments and styles.
The showing of one of the revivals is fleeting, albeit free of charge to those willing to line up early: an exclusive 4 p.m. screening tomorrow of Marcel Ophuls' documentary epic, "The Sorrow and the Pity," in the auditorium of the National Gallery of Art's East Building.
Jules Dassin's 1955 crime thriller "Rififi" concludes a brief engagement at the American Film Institute Theater on Wednesday.
Turner Classic Movies is showcasing a series called "Directors of the French New Wave," which began last night and continues every Friday evening (and early Saturday morning) for the remainder of September.
The Ophuls film, which recalls the German occupation of France in World War II through personal recollections and incorporates evocative archival footage to illustrate numerous events and public figures, was an imposing novelty in the early 1970s. Running almost 41/2 hours, it was originally distributed in a version that dubbed French-speaking and German-speaking participants as they discussed their experiences with Mr. Ophuls.
This fresh edition from Milestone Film & Video, the subject of a tribute by National Gallery's movie programmer Peggy Parsons, replaces the English voice-overs inserted in 1972 with more or less complete subtitles. In that respect, it's a belated release of the original version.
The revised edition gives us a "Sorrow and the Pity" with fewer gaps in the testimony and commentary, but it also opens the door for scattered oddities. For example, the late English diplomat Anthony Eden is bilingual. When he converses in French with the filmmaker, the subtitling is clearly appropriate. When he reverts to English and a French-language voice-over is joined by English subtitles duplicating Eden's words, something or other is obviously superfluous.
Mr. Ophuls, son of the great director Max Ophuls (a German Jewish refugee who left France for the United States during the war years), worked for the state-controlled TV network in France during the 1960s and specialized in documentary projects. He compiled "The Sorrow and the Pity" in reaction to the network's official myth about the occupation: All true Frenchmen were active resisters.
A more realistic history of the period — reflecting the complexity of French responses to military defeat, occupation and moral compromise — seemed overdue. Financed by German, Swiss and Belgian networks, the movie was ignored by French television when it was new.
The film's running time precludes more than one or two performances daily. Milestone founder Dennis Doros also remarked that he preferred a one-shot revival under National Gallery auspices to negotiations over a commercial booking. Out of American release since 1987, the movie should soon be available in a definitive video edition from Milestone.
"Rififi" isn't nearly as auspicious a reclamation project, but to have the film back in circulation is satisfying. Mr. Dassin, a Hollywood blacklist exile at the end of the 1940s, discovered a specialty — the hard-boiled thriller with an emphasis on realistic urban settings. (Now 89, Mr. Dassin lives in Athens, where he supervises a foundation named for his late wife and leading lady, Melina Mercouri.)
Mr. Dassin's most impressive thriller, "Night and the City," exploited ominous nocturnal settings in London, his first port of call after evading subpoenas in the United States. Five years went by between "City" and "Rififi." The long dry spell ended in Paris, when Mr. Dassin agreed to adapt a tawdry crime novel that he despised.
While difficult to confuse with the proverbial silk purse from a sow's ear, "Rififi" caught on in France and international markets and won Mr. Dassin the directing prize at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. In part, the award must have reflected sympathy for his efforts to restart a career in Europe. The title, mentioned only in a would-be catchy cabaret song, purports to be Parisian gangster argot for, roughly, "rough and ready." It became such an exploitable term that several French and European thrillers borrowed it in succeeding years.
The strongest aspects of "Rififi," on its 45th anniversary, remain two set-piece sequences that electrified moviegoers when they were new. Jean Servais, a second-string French actor who sometimes resembled Ronald Reagan with a shrunken visage, was cast as the protagonist. He was the tough, uncompromising hood Tony, who takes a strap to his faithless moll, Mado (Marie Sabouret). (A tough cookie herself, she understands the criminal code and forgives him.)
Persuaded to collaborate in a jewelry store heist, Tony masterminds an ambitious, all-night safecracking siege, shown in fascinating, semi-documentary detail for a half-hour, with the actors keeping mum while absorbed in their furtive teamwork. This sequence set a pattern for picturesque and would-be state-of-the-art crimes, extending from "Madonna Street" and Mr. Dassin's later "Topkapi" to "How to Steal a Million," "Thief" and "Entrapment."
The finale generates more emotional impact than you expect by using a little boy, Tony's godson, also named Tony, as an oblivious bystander while fatal scores are being settled with a rival mob. The child frolics while being driven home in a convertible by the bullet-riddled Tony. Those born after the advent of seat belts may be in for a considerable shock.
The TCM series is essentially a Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard retrospective. They're represented by six titles each in a collection of 19 films.
This bias definitely shortchanges peers whose flair for the medium seemed just as appealing or distinctive when the new wave was still new to American admirers, in the early 1960s. Nevertheless, the sample is worth a weekend or two of fond or inquisitive time traveling.
Mr. Godard's former spouse and leading lady, Anna Karina, is almost a subtext. She has principal roles in five of the movies, four of them directed by her ex. Unfortunately, the most captivating of her vehicles, "Band of Outsiders," remains among the missing.
For those who missed previous telecasts, TCM will also revive the superb documentary series "Cinema Europe," which recalls the film industries of Italy, Sweden, France, Germany and England from the silent period to the advent of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. An installment of the six-part survey begins every Friday at 8 p.m. The sixth chapter, however, finds itself without a Friday in September to call its own. It will trail the entire series at 5 a.m. Sept. 30. I guess that's one way to beat a deadline.

TITLE: "Rififi"

RATING: No MPAA rating (made in 1955, years before the ratings system began). Adult subject matter and treatment, with occasional graphic violence, profanity and sexual candor.

CREDITS: Directed by Jules Dassin. Screenplay by Rene Wheeler and Mr. Dassin, based on the novel by Auguste le Breton. Cinematography by Philippe Agostini. Production design by Alexander Trauner. Music by Georges Auric. Title song by Jacques Larue (lyrics) and Philippe-Gerard (music). In French with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes

TITLE: "The Sorrow and the Pity"

RATING: No MPAA rating. Adult subject matter, involving documentary recollections of World War II; some graphic footage of combat and wartime atrocities.

CREDITS: Directed by Marcel Ophuls. Cinematography by Andre Gazut and Juergen Thieme. Sound by Bernard Migy. Editing by Claude Vajda. In French with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 260 minutes, divided into two parts, subtitled "The Collapse" and "The Choice."

SERIES: "Directors of the French New Wave"

WHERE: Turner Classic Movies cable channel

WHEN: Friday evenings throughout September, beginning at 8 p.m. Schedule of remaining programs: Friday and next Saturday, "Cinema Europe, Part II," 8 p.m.; "Jules and Jim," 9 p.m.; "La Collectionneuse," 11 p.m.; "My Life to Live," 12:30 a.m.; "Shoot the Piano Player," 2 a.m. Sept. 15-16: "Cinema Europe, Part III," 8 p.m.; "The Nun," 9 p.m.; "Les Bonnes Femmes," 11:30 p.m.; "A Woman Is a Woman," 1:30 a.m.; "Le Petit Soldat," 3 a.m. Sept. 22-23: "Cinema Europe, Part IV," 8 p.m.; "The Soft Skin," 9 p.m.; "My Night at Maud's," 11 p.m.; "Les Carabiniers," 1 a.m.; "Alphaville," 2:30 a.m. Sept. 29-30: "Cinema Europe, Part V," 8 p.m.; "Last Year at Marienbad," 9 p.m.; "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," 11 p.m.; "The Wild Child," 1 a.m.; "Small Change," 2:30 a.m.; "Cinema Europe, Part VI," 5 a.m.

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