[W]hen we deal with the French New Wave, it is difficult to bear in mind that it was a movement that went far beyond a handful of directors. Being driven by cinephilia, it was a response to the possibilities of cinema and this comes home to us again and again even when we see the work of ‘minor’ artists like Jacques Deray who went on to make more commercially viable films like Borsalino (1970), a star vehicle for Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Deray remained an excellent craftsman in his latter films but his second feature Rififi in Tokyo (1963), virtually unseen today, is even radical for the way in which it deals with the genre of the heist film to produce a philosophical reflection worthy of Jean-Luc Godard at the height of his powers.
Rififi in Tokyo belongs to the category of films beginning with Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955), a film about a robbery gone wrong. Dassin’s film is a certified classic but also a relatively conventional piece of storytelling. It is about a group of people planning a robbery, people who don’t see eye to eye and are mutually suspicious of each other. They have come together because of their leader who has their trust but they are secretly also at loggerheads until their attempt ends in failure, with one or more of them dead. This model, it must be recollected, is the same one that Tarantino used in Reservoir Dogs (1992), itself a retelling of Ringo Lam’s City on Fire (1987). Dassin’s Rififi has a long segment shot in silence which deals with the actual robbery of a jewelry store. This segment is so attentive to detail that the film was initially banned in several countries because of the apprehension that the heist shown in the film could be replicated in real life. Rififi in Tokyo is also about a meticulously planned jewel robbery but it refuses to generate excitement in the manner of Dassin’s film. In fact, the film seems deliberately made to obscure the plotting. Perspectives keep changing and we don’t immediately understand why something is happening but we gradually discern that the purpose of the film is something quite different and perhaps even unprecedented.
The story of Rififi in Tokyo as we understand it involves a gang of French thieves in Japan. Van Hekken (Charles Vanel) arrives in Japan and the plan is apparently to steal a priceless diamond which is kept in the electronically protected vault of the Bank of Tokyo. Instead of filling us with the actual plan by which the gem will be stolen, Deray gives us a sense of the people involved, the experimental nature of the technology being employed and the relationship of the players to technology. More importantly, the film shows us various aspects of the ongoing action without giving us explanations. For some reason an underworld group is interested in the doings of the Frenchmen and it comes out that this is because any untoward criminal activity could upset their cozy relationship with the police. Van Hekken’s assistant is Danny Riquet (Eric Okada) and the Japanese gang has him murdered. Following Riquet’s death, Riquet’s old army friend Carl Mersen (Karl Boehm) joins Van Hekken to avenge his friend’s slaying. Further trouble arises when Mersen becomes involved with Françoise Merigne, the sluttish wife of Van Hekken’s electrical expert, a man who wanted to be a scientist but is now reduced to crime. The trio eventually makes its way into the bank vault, and Van Hekken gets the cherished jewel. As he is about to leave, however, an iron cage descends from the ceiling and imprisons him inside the vault. As Mersen escapes from the bank, he hears Van Hekken shoot himself to avoid capture. The film ends with Mersen walking out of the bank at dawn but followed by people in an automobile – apparently antagonistic to him.
Making Rififi in Tokyo very different from most other heist films is the sense to be got from it that no one participating in the action gets the full picture of what is happening. Riquet’s killing, for instance, is arranged like this: Van Hekken and some others sit at a café while Riquet is outside and it is apparent that he is being watched by two Japanese men. Riquet is desperate and has to pass on information to Van Hekken but he cannot make his connection with the latter evident. He therefore goes to a telephone at the café and speaks loudly into it – the words really meant for Van Hekken to overhear. When he is killed a few minutes later close to a railway bridge, there is the sense that he is as unaware of why he is killed as those who are killing him are unaware of why he is being targeted. But if it is all part of a larger scheme, there is no one completely in the know – not even the mastermind. When Van Hekken is trapped in the bank, the cage descends upon him suddenly with neither he nor the audience expecting it to happen. But the effect is neither suspense nor surprise; considering that Van Hekken is an old man who has been trying courageously to use technology he does not understand to pull off the last heist of his career, it is tragicomic. He might perhaps be compared to someone out of Sam Peckinpah’s world –the western hero rendered tragically redundant because of the advent of technology – the machine gun and the motorcar. The difference is that there is a certain absurdity in Van Hekken’s fate because he does not understand. Georges Delerue’s great music is therefore suitably melancholic without ascending into grandeur or descending into sentimentality.
Making Rififi in Tokyo a modernist experiment rather than a paean to the tragic hero rendered innocuous by technology is the fact that the film keeps us virtually as much in the dark about the underlying ‘meaning’ of the happenings as the protagonists are about their destinies – at least until the events come together in our minds. There is perhaps a clue in the way the film is shot (brilliantly by Tadashi Aramaki) that tells us what Deray is trying to do. The film focuses on this or that aspect of the cityscape or Japan’s industrial landscape in the manner of a Cubist painting. Often, we see the edge of a skyscraper against the sky, an empty street at dawn with the traffic just starting up or a set of neon signs at night and the compositions could be by Braque or Picasso – so starkly geometric is the composition. In Cubist artworks, objects are broken up, analyzed, and re-assembled in an abstracted form—instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context. Often the surfaces intersect at seemingly random angles, removing a coherent sense of depth. One wonders at this point if the narration is not trying to do in time what Cubism tried to do in space. The fact that is succeeds brilliantly makes Rififi in Tokyo one of the most philosophically audacious crime thrillers of all time because it does so much more than simply thrill.