La Loi dir. Jules Dassin. Now Playing, BAMcinematek
Jules Dassin has a gift for depicting highly ritualized violence, both physical and psychological. Well, and psycho-sexual, too. The Code made sure the rough stuff in his American films was implied, never depicted—our loss. But once the Communist witch-hunt and Blacklist ran Dassin out of America, his already apparently seething rage (Check out Brute Force  for a prison’s worth of dudes glowering shirtlessly and sweating at one another with deep multiple intent) boiled over.
Night and the City (1950), the most hysterical of all the hysterical-period noirs, includes an over-long, super-close-up, sweaty, squishy pro-wrestling grapple between two flabby squirmy guys in little tiny rubber underpants. It’s deeply unsettling, and functions as a physical metaphor for all the psychic violence the lead characters inflict on one another. When our poor schmuck of a small-time hustling hero gets his comeuppance, Dassin doesn’t even show his violent demise. There’s just a forlorn splash in the Thames to mark the spot where a real loser really lost: death as ritual.
There’s also an extended wrestling sequence between sumo-size squishy Turkish men in little tiny underpants in Dassin’s Topkapi! (1964), his one good-humored caper movie. For added wrestlingness, the Turkish men douse themselves with and rub into their sweaty skin about a gallon of (olive?) oil apiece. Then they grapple, squishily, oilyly. This event is framed as a traditional rite, so that we understand that the oily guys grappling are like totally manly and everything. Dassin clearly digs wrestling, of a sort.
As inflamed as Night and the City might be, it was only a warm-up. After a five year hiatus, Dassin returned with the magnificent caper noir, Rififi (1955). Showcasing his love of ritual, Rififi features a 25-minute wordless vault break-in performed as ballet. Dassin himself stars as a dapper safecracker. Among the several deeply perverse interpersonal dynamics that Dassin presents as utterly matter-of-fact, the foremost is between the leader of the caper and his former girlfriend. As of our hero’s release from prison, which commences the film, the girlfriend has taken up with the man who’s going to get robbed. She has a tearful reunion with said hero. After they hug and smooch with great tenderness, our hero takes off his belt, turns his girlfriend around, rips open the back of her fancy dress, and whips her to the floor.
The whipping is silent, save the crack of the belt. The man’s face shows no pleasure, only resignation; the woman takes it. Dassin kinda suggests that she takes it and likes it; but whatever, she definitely thinks it’s her due. The beating is for screwing the other guy, apparently. In a film renowned for its visceral encounters, this is the most heartfelt. The psycho-sexual beating touches Dassin deeply. His baldly presented interest in such things has no equivalent in films of this era.
Sado-masochistic dynamics move to the fore in every relationship in the revelatory La Loi (The Law), Dassin’s 1959 magnum opus, brought to light in an amazing B/W print by Oscilloscope Laboratories, the heretofore indie-only distribution company owned and run by Adam Yauch, MCA of the Beastie Boys. La Loi takes place in an exquisite, impoverished, improbable—except in Puccini—seaside Italian town with every possible narrative cliché in residence. There’s a dashing thug who runs the town’s underworld (Yves Montand with a killer spiv mustache); a rotting old aristocrat who’s ruled the town and everyone in it for his entire lifetime (Pierre Brasseur, the God-faced god of French theater and cinema); the miserable, lovely wife of a wimpy little judge (Melina Mercouri, married to Dassin and his great, epic beloved in an intermittently credible, but totally hot performance); a naïve young agronomist who arrives in town with his city clothes and “northern ways” (Marcello Mastroianni mailing it in); and a trio of va-va-voomish working-class sisters who serve and service the aristocrat.
One sister, however, refuses the old goat. Va-va-voom all-star Gina Lollobrigida is too proud, too wild, too full of ze romantic passion for ze life to succumb. For this, every man in town wants her and every woman of her class or lower hates her. She will, it goes without saying, end up with Marcello. Lollobrigida’s problematic inability to act and her, for me, problematic non-status as a lust object prove, how you say, problematic. For me, she’s always been the Italian Anne-Margaret, whose attempts to ape the behavior of someone experiencing lust come off as over-played, truly weird, and in the end, creepy. Her scenes with Marcello are, for the most part, laughable as they fight for camera position. Gina has lovely skin, and the energy pours off of her, but she never figures out how to channel it. Marcello responds to this onslaught by smiling wispily in a manner that makes one want to smack his face.
Dassin always had problems with pacing, pacing within scenes, within sequences, even within shots. His story drags and his tour-de-force set-piece camera-choreography takes forever until, suddenly, a moment turns real and riveting. The momentary effect is maddening but the overall effect is oddly moving and memorable. There’s much to admire formally about the picture, even if the formal elements often interfere with any sort of entertaining or smooth narrative. The constant power struggles, their denial, and how that repression ends up expressed in eroticism, make the picture a bizarre, one-off classic.
What really grabs and lingers is when folks stop being polite and start hitting one another. In the first of those moments, Lollobridgida’s smokin’ sisters tie her to a thick wooden table and whip her repeatedly with leather straps. Their faces filled with envy and unknowing lust, they lash out at Gina’s considerable beauty. But they cannot mar her perfect skin; she takes every blow—and there’s lots of them—and smiles as they strike. The sisters considerately tied Gina down—in her thin, clingy Italian 50s-movie sundress—so that her breasts are upthrust by the rope just below them and her thighs exposed to the max. Gina looks like a cover illustration for True Magazine. Being tied down and writhing elicit her most credible moments onscreen.
Later, Yves Montand wacks his son in the face just as the boy was about to escape into a life of bliss with Melina Mercouri. She’s twice his age and they’re madly in love. They sneak onto the one bus outta town, but Yves finds them pre-departure. One of them would do anything for the other. One of them, sadly, can be turned from love with a slap to the face. When Melina returns defeated to the town that night, Yves drags her off to the room he keeps for his paramours. Telling her his son is a “whippersnapper”, but that he has what Melina needs, Yves commences an extraordinary dance of dominance and submission. He rips Melina’s dress, kisses her, pushes her away, waits for her to fight back, then tears up her clothes some more. She digs it. Neither speak, both pretend they do not know what they’re really about, and both are totally into it. This scene—the most perverse, moving, and real in the picture—speaks to something primal in the director. It’s hot stuff.
And it aligns/expresses the theme of La Loi, which depicts everyone in town as locked in power struggles and sado-masochistic symbiosis with everyone else. The Law of the title is a drinking game, a grim take on Truth Or Dare, in which guys sit around a table drinking and informing one another of their shortcomings. The psycho-sexual tension between the town’s menfolk as they verbally abuse, attack, and/or cower from one another makes Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? seem like On Golden Pond.
Dassin’s clearly got issues. And rage. And the betrayals he suffered during the Blacklist ramped up his already uncharitable view of humanity. His darkness makes La Loi sing. He stumbles only when he tries to be nice.
ContributorDavid N. Meyer
David N. Meyer's Spring Semester cinema studies course at The New School begins January 26, The Desperate Horizon: Road Movies, Westerns, and the American Landscape.