Notes from a Video Store Burnout

An enlightened trip down the New Release aisle


Much has changed in the forty-odd years between Jules Dassin’s French noir classic Rififi (1956) and Hong Kong director Johnny To’s slick thriller Running out of Time (1999)–but thieves still have lousy health care. In Rififi, old-school jewel thief Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais)–haunted by a debilitating prison stretch and the betrayal (by a woman) that lead to it–suffers from a consumptive cough that introduces unwanted cracks of pity into his hardened, cool facade. Which is all the more reason why his last big score is less for the cash than for a shot at redemption. In Running out of Time, Wah (Andy Lau), a lone-wolf high-tech thief, has terminal cancer with two weeks to live and when he coughs, blood sprays from his mouth like manifested fear. As with Tony, Wah’s last caper is shaded by his impending mortality: he manipulates a police hostage negotiator (Lau Ching Wan) into becoming a testimonial witness to a farewell expression of his sharply cunning criminal skills. The poignant undercurrents of Rififi and Running are matched in both films by the sublime pleasure of watching consummate professionals–the actors and the filmmakers–at work, with Dassin practically setting the all-time standard for the caper genre. In a famous 28-minute sequence that unfolds in total silence, Dassin details, with intense precision, Tony and his crew’s execution of their go-for-broke heist. Such sustained objectivity is sharply contrasted by Dassin’s hauntingly subjective camerawork during the film’s riveting finale, after the plan violently unravels and Tony must struggle to salvage his criminal swan song–a final, desperate act of loyalty and compassion. Surprisingly for a Hong Kong bullet opera, Running‘s melodrama plays a bit more low-key. Into his bravura action style, with its sweeping pans and slo-motion effects, To builds small moments of human connection, particularly between Wah and a young woman he meets on a bus while making a getaway. These deepen even further the motives behind Wah’s devilish games of cat-and-mouse. Both films are available on VHS and DVD.

Other Recommended new releases: Contraband (DVD), Eisenstein: The Sound Years: Special Edition: Alexander Nevsky/ Ivan the Terrible, Parts 1 and 2, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (DVD), M. Hulot’s Holiday (DVD), Mon Oncle (DVD), The Scarlet Empress (DVD), Spartacus (DVD).

Also released this week:

VHS: Bongwater, Christopher Lowell’s Seven Layers of Design, Girl on the Bridge, A Nous La Liberte, Zero for Conduct.

VHS/DVD: All Jokes Aside, The Avengers: ’64 Vols. 3 & 4, A Crack in the Floor, The Ghost of Spoon River, Just Looking, Little Nicky, One Day in September, Pearl Harbor (The History Channel), The Prisoner Vols 3 & 4, Finding Forrrester, Kill Shot, Spaceman, Xchange.

DVD: Casino Lights ’99, Faces of Death, The Fall of the House of Usher, Ghost: Special Edition, Love Story: Special Edition, The Mummy Ultimate Edition, My Life, The New Adventures of Pippi Longstocking, The Original Faces of Death II/The Original Worst of Faces of Death, Princess Caraboo Show & Tell: Bats & Balls, Show & Tell: Milk & Cookies, Show & Tell: News & Comics, Straight To Hell: Special Edition, Zero Kelvin.Rififi