Rififi, Jules Dassin’s quintessential 1955 noir/heist thriller, had quite an impact on the European crime movie genre in its day, although most of its imitators or similarly inspired creations rarely found distribution in the U.S. except as English-dubbed second features in limited runs in a few major cities like New York. I have yet to read of any major film critics or movie buffs like Quentin Tarantino championing any of the Rififi knockoffs. But for anyone with a soft spot for heist films, you might enjoy sampling some of these lesser efforts, particularly RIFIFI IN TOKYO (1963).
Based on a crime novel by Auguste Le Breton, who penned The Sicilian Clan (made into a 1969 movie with Jean Gabin and Alain Delon) and contributed dialogue to Jean-Pierre Melville’s Bob le Flambeur (1956), the screenplay for RIFIFI IN TOKYO was the work of Jose Giovanni (Le Trou, Le Deuxieme Souffle), Rodolphe-Maurice Arlaud (Inspector Maigret) and Jacques Deray. Like most heist thrillers, the movie culminates in an intricately planned robbery – the theft of a priceless diamond from the Bank of Tokyo vault. And like any noir worth its salt, things go badly with double-crosses, murders, entrapment and suicide.
It all begins with the arrival of Van Hekken (Charles Vanel), an international jewel thief who plots the heist with the assistance of his right hand man, Danny Riquet (Eric Okada). When a rival gang of Japanese yakuza assassinate Riquet, Van Hekken enlists the aid of a former army buddy Carl Mersen (Karl Boehm) and Merigne (Michel Vitold), an electronics expert who is accompanied by his bored, sexy wife Francoise (Barbara Lass). There is an immediate attraction between Carl and Francoise which creates tension within the group and is complicated by Carl’s former relationship with Asami (Keiko Kishi), who may or may not be an informer for Japanese gangster kingpin Kan Ishii (Oda Masao).
Originally released and distributed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the U.S. in 1963, RIFIFI IN TOKYO has been out of circulation for years and is practically unknown today. At the time, the studio treated the film as a B-movie/second feature on double bills which were targeted toward undiscriminating action audiences. Yet the film is surprisingly stylish and subtle and has a formal beauty that you don’t ordinarily expect from an obscure European programmer. For one thing, Deray’s melodrama is more focused on the uneasy relationships between the members of Van Hekken’s gang than the planning and execution of the climatic jewel robbery. The tension is generated by who will betray who, who will crack under pressure, who will fall victim to a rival gang or cause their own downfall. This doesn’t mean there is an absence of action. There are chases, beatings, shootings, knifings and, in one case, a key figure is crushed to death by a car – twice! It might lack the shock factor of the Jack Weston-car crushing in 1967’s Wait Until Dark but the staging of it is masterful and hard to forget.
Since the film is set in Tokyo in the early sixties, you expect a leap forward in terms of technology from the painstaking heist maneuvers on display in the original Rififi…and you get it with the Bank of Tokyo’s multiple surveillance monitors, 24-hour security guards, time release vault doors, and various electronics and hardware carried by the thieves to hack the system. All of it is downplayed with little fanfare because the thrill of the heist is less important to Deray than an all-pervasive sense of doom and futility. It reaches a crescendo in the robbery’s wake and qualifies this as a true noir.
There are flaws of course. Some intriguing characters and situations are introduced and never developed. For example, we get a brief glimpse of Asami at home with her parents and her brother (who is also her partner in crime). With her job as a nightclub hostess/escort, Asami appears to be the family’s sole provider but the parents’ disdain for her and her profession (with its mob connections) are obvious in the way they ignore her gift of a television set, refusing to even turn it on. No further attempt is made though to explore the generational, cultural and widening moral gulf between Asami and her parents. It’s not that kind of movie but makes me wonder what would have been the result if Yasujiro Ozu had directed a crime drama. Much more distracting is the erratic and unconventional editing which is fascinating at times with its jump-cuts and butcher shop sound edits but also occasionally disorienting and destructive to building suspense in the final third of RIFIFI IN TOKYO when a gang war erupts as Van Hekken and his team infiltrate the bank.
Still, the biggest challenge of the film is the poorly translated subtitles (on the DVD version available from ETC). Instead of the usual hard-to-read white subtitles for black and white movies, these are highlighted nicely in yellow but – oy vey! – they often are barely coherent. They seem to be translated on the fly by some automated language translation app. Luckily, you can comprehend most of the plot and its unraveling without too much effort but the subtitles add an unintentional comic element and some translations are delightfully daffy. Often sentences have the wrong pronoun or are missing one or more words or are awkwardly structured such as:
“Damn you. Get yourself to another.”
“I should have thought also known.”
“How long have you ready?”
“Think there is a war and is a general?”
“Does your laboratory air-conditioning?”
“Do THEY not say good afternoon?” (a woman addressing her husband as he enters the room without speaking)
Despite these minor quibbles, the movie will appeal to film buffs who have read this far and the on-location setting alone with its eclectic mix of European and Japanese actors provides an exotic allure and fascination. Consider, for instance, the talent behind the camera and in front of it. RIFIFI IN TOKYO is directed by Jacques Deray, the underrated French filmmaker of numerous Alain Delon crime vehicles such as The Swimming Pool (1969), Borsalino (1970) and Flic Story (1975). He also directed a personal favorite of mine, The Outside Man (1972), a quirky, engaging thriller with a rather astonishing cast (Ann-Margret, Roy Scheider, Angie Dickinson, Jackie Earle Haley, Umberto Orsini, Michel Constantin, Talia Shire, Ben Piazza, Alex Rocco) about a hired assassin (Jean-Louis Trintignant) on the run from mobsters and cops in Los Angeles after completing a successful hit; it is currently available on DVD from the Warner Archives Collection. RIFIFI IN TOKYO was only Deray’s second feature and the crisp black and white cinematography is courtesy of the little known Tadashi Aramaki, who only has one other credit listed on IMDB. The music score is by the prolific Georges Delerue who composed music for Alain Robbe-Grillet’s L’immortelle, Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Magnet of Doom and 13 more features, shorts, TV movies and documentaries the same year! As for the unpredictable and often abrupt tonal changes in the editing, Albert Jurgenson claims that credit and has been honored numerous times in his career, receiving Cesar awards for Best Editing on Alain Resnais’s Providence (1977) and Claude Miller’s Garde a cue (1981).
Known in his native Germany as Karlheinz Bohm but in English language films as Karl Boehm, the star of RIFIFI IN TOKYO will be familiar to cinephiles as the deeply disturbed, homicidal protagonist of Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960). Like Anthony Perkins in Psycho the same year, Boehm will be forever linked in many filmgoers’ minds as that sick, twisted photographer who impaled women with a sharpened tripod. But he’s playing the hero here even though he hardly projects the image of a man of action. His cerebral and brooding presence doesn’t quite fit his character which is that of a man driven to avenge a friend’s death. Still, it’s an offbeat casting choice when you consider his career as a whole. Boehm was quite the matinee idol in his younger days, scoring a huge popular success opposite Romy Schneider in Sissi (1955) and its sequels, but that phase was over by the time he made Peeping Tom. Unlike Powell, Boehm’s career wasn’t hurt by appearing in such a scandalous, shocking film for its time and in its wake, he alternated between big Hollywood epics like The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (both 1962), minor genre efforts like RIFIFI IN TOKYO and TV work. It wasn’t until his later career that he found his groove as a member of R.W. Fassbinder’s repertory, making strong impressions in such films as Martha (1974), Effi Briest (1974) and Fox and His Friends (1975). Martha, in particular, finds Boehm back in full-force creepy mode as a cruel, sadistic engineer who seems intent on dominating and humiliating his anxiety-ridden wife.
If Boehm comes across as a cipher in RIFIFI IN TOKYO, Polish actress Barbara Lass (she changed her last name from Kwiatkowska for obvious reasons) is infinitely more animated and appealing as the main love interest (love that umbrella cha-cha dance). Lass was formerly married to director Roman Polanski and soon divorced him after she traveled to Tokyo to make this Deray heist melodrama. She fell in love with Boehm during the filming (she had just ended an affair with director Costa-Gavras) and they would subsequently marry in 1963. Unfortunately, their obvious real-life chemistry is sadly lacking in their scenes together which includes a would-be torrid seduction scene (the couple would later divorce in 1980).
Overall, Lass had an impressive if brief career, going from Polish cinema (most of her early work is unavailable for viewing) to Italian horror (Werewolf in a Girls Dormitory, 1961) to art house fare (Fassbinder’s Effi Briest, Margarethe von Trotta’s Rosa Luxemburg, Peter Lillenthal’s Das Schweigen des Dichters). Lass is certainly at the height of her beauty here and makes the most of her limited screen time as a lovely but callow jet-setter.
It is actually Charles Vanel as the diamond heist mastermind who is the real heart and soul of RIFIFI IN TOKYO, bringing a touch of world-weariness and tragic grandeur to his aging criminal. He wants to retire after one last score which is wishful thinking in a genre famous for such cliches. Still, Vanel, like his younger peer Jean Gabin in similar crime films, represents the last of his breed, a gentleman thief trying to retain a sense of honor (an ironic stance no doubt) in an increasingly amoral society. His rock solid presence in the film is also a homage to the golden age of French cinema where Vanel began in silent films at the age of sixteen. His early sound era triumphs include Raymond Bernard’s anti-war epic Wooden Crosses (1932) as well as that same director’s superb screen adaptation of Les Miserables (1934) in which Vanel made an ideal Inspector Javert. Most cinephiles, however, know Vanel from his collaborations with Georges-Henri Clouzot on The Wages of Fear (1953) and Diabolique (1955). In his later years as a character actor, he brought a touch of class and professionalism to a number of genre films, especially crime thrillers like Symphony for a Massacre (1963), Magnet of Doom (1963) and Gang War in Naples (1972).
Rounding out the key supporting cast of RIFIFI IN TOKYO are Keiko Kishi, Michel Vitold, and Eiji Okada – or is it? (details below). These are actors who might not be familiar to you at first glance but each has a body of work behind them that includes box-office successes and internationally acclaimed art house fare. Kishi is a celebrated Japanese actress who garnered praise for such early career efforts as Yoshitaro Nomura’s Bomeiki (1955), Yasujiro Ozu’s Early Spring (1956) and Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan (1964). Her later work includes Hideo Gosha’s Hunter in the Dark (1979), Kon Ichikawa’s The Makioka Sisters (1983) and Yoji Yamada’s The Twilight Samurai (2002), winner of 13 Awards of the Japanese Academy (the equivalent of the Oscar) and a Best Foreign Language Film nominee in the 2004 Oscar race.
Vitold has mostly specialized in supporting roles, easily moving back and forth between feature films and TV work throughout his career. Some of his more recognizable work includes Georges Franju’s Judex (1963) and Thomas the Impostor (1965), Costa-Gavras’ The Confession (1970) and Fabio Carpi’s Basileus Quartet (1983), which shares some similarities to the more recent indie drama, A Late Quartet (2012) with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Christopher Walken.
Despite IMBD’s credits for RIFIFI IN TOKYO and other online film sources, I do not think the actor playing the ill-fated Riquet is Eiji Okada who is billed in the on-screen credits as Eric Okada. Unless the actor is a total chameleon who can completely change his body shape and physical features, I suspect that the man cast as Riquet is actually Taibi “Erick” Okada (older brother of actor Masumi Okada) who also goes by the name E.H. Eric. But if you see RIFIFI IN TOKYO, I think you’ll agree that the tall, gaunt Eurasian actor with the protruding ears looks nothing like the actor who appeared opposite Marlon Brando the same year in The Ugly American. The real Eiji Okada first attracted world wide attention as the married architect involved with a French actress (Emmanuelle Riva) in Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, mon amour (1959) and followed it with the haunting allegory, Woman in the Dunes (1964), in which he plays an entomologist lured into an inescapable sand pit with a stranger. Samurai action fans, on the other hand, know him for such superior genre entries as Samurai Spy (1965), Zatoichi’s Conspiracy (1973), Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in the Land of Demons (1973) and Lady Snowblood (1973).
RIFIFI IN TOKYO was one of the first caper films to capitalize on Rififi‘s success and its title but there were other imitations including Giovanni Korporaal’s Rififi in Amsterdam (1962), Jess Franco’s Rififi en la Ciudad (1963), and Rififi in Panama aka The Upper Hand (1965) with Jean Gabin, George Raft, Gert Frobe and Nadja Tiller. As a die hard heist fan, I would like to seek out the rest of these now-obscure genre efforts but for anyone interested in seeing RIFIFI IN TOKYO, European Trash Cinema offers a surprisingly sharp DVD transfer with yellow English subtitles (as I cautiously noted above).
According to one reviewer on the internet, “Du Rififi a Tokyo was recently released on DVD in France and can be ordered from http://www.amazon.co.fr.” Be aware, however, that this version is in French with no subtitle options.
RIFIFI IN TOKYO links: