Written by Auguste le Breton, Jules Dassin and René Weeler
Directed by Jules Dassin
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Having recently concluded a prison sentence, Tony ‘le Stéphanois’ (Jean Servais), former thief, is now a poor man, reduced to late night gambling to earn paltry pocket change. His two closest friends and former colleagues, Jo ‘le Suédois’ (Carl Mohner) and Mario Ferrati (Robert Manuel) have something else in mind when they present him the idea of stealing jewels from a high society jeweler shop in downtown Paris. Tony is reluctant at first, having lived enough failures as a crook and desiring to reunite with his former flame Mado (Marie Sabouret). Upon learning however that Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovic), eternal rival and nightclub owner, has claimed Mado as his main squeeze, Tony finally gives in to temptation and joins the newly formed quartet of criminal minds, the late addition being safe cracker César, played by non other than Dassin himself, for a mission requiring incalculable precision…
American ex-pat Jules Dassin was forced to rebuild his film career in France after 1951 when a fellow filmmaker, Edward Dmytryk, called him out as a Communist, which naturally saw him blacklisted by the infamous House Committee of Un-American Acts. Having already dabbled in the noir genre with a few movies, among them The Naked City, Dassin sought to capitalize on what he already knew whilst adding a French twist to it. The film’s budget was quite modest, even by 1955 standards, yet with very little capital at his disposal, the director managed to craft what is widely recognized as a top-quality noir that’s commonly considered one of the best of the genre by cinephiles worldwide. The film is ostensibly as faithful to the trappings of the traditional American movies as can be yet is gifted by some ingenious directorial choices that make Rififi an absolutely riveting experience.
Even from the very first few scenes, what strikes the viewer is just how instantly distinctive each protagonist’s face is. This is not a comment on the popularity of the actors portraying the roles, none of whom were exactly household names at the time. More literally, it is the foursome of visages that each possess their own charisma, insights into the personalities of each character and, most importantly, make for four completely different reaction shots on a number of occasions throughout the film. Servais, Mohner, Manuel and Dassin each look and react differently to their surroundings, therefore paving the way for a team of burglars whose personalities remain etched in one’s memory for a long time to come, much like in John Huston’s Asphalt Jungle. Ironically enough, even though none of the leads were major stars at the time nor would most people today be familiar with their names, their faces alone make Rififi a brilliantly cast film.
This quality become all the more crucial given that a full 30 minutes flies by without a single bit of uttered dialogue. The picture’s centerpiece, the heist in question–which requires the team to infiltrate the shop owner’s second-story home and dig their way into the street-level store through its ceiling–is a masterstroke of cinematography, editing, and, coincidentally, sound design, even though profound silence dominates much of the chapter with the exception of the clanging of their instruments against either floors or a safe. The composition, particularly as the thieves turn the lights to the shop owners’ home on and off depending on the circumstances, is akin to a beautiful tableau, as is that of the jewelry shop, slickly submerged in shadow. Producing responses of excitement, wonder, and tension all at the same time, the cinematography in this single sequence stands as some of the best looking and dramatically communicative material in all of noir lore, if not the very best.
Lastly, there is the matter of the aftermath of the robbery, which takes up practically the second half. Whereas a lot of heist films in which the operation goes astray have the initial hiccup occur during said operation, in Rififi, what ultimately proves the protagonists’ undoing are the ramifications of Tony’s actions and behavior prior to the heist. His early attempts to wooing Mado back into his arms prove futile, as she has nestled herself comfortably (enough) into rival Grutter’s lifestyle. Whatever hope may exist is dashed less so by Mado and much more so by Tony’s appallingly misogynistic reaction to his loss as he whips her repeatedly with a belt, a reaction made all the more shocking given that the viewer is falsely led into believing that Tony is asking her to go into his bedroom and undress so they can have one more session of passionate sex. Not only does word of Tony’s apparent success with the heist spark jealousy in Grutter, but his learning of his enemy’s recent mistreatment Mado pushes him over the edge, setting both on a collision course with doom. Funnily enough, the film throws in a brief red herring in the final stages of the heist when two police officers performing the early morning shift notice Tony’s car parked in an alleyway, realizing it is a stolen vehicle they have been on the lookout for. What appears to be start of the quartet’s downfall is anything but. The seeds of their destruction were already planted when Tony committed an error that had nothing to do with their plan at all. Talk about karma.
With Rififi, director Jules Dassin marries together a hardnosed American genre with romantic Paris. Dassin’s somber vision of a man so down on his luck that he becomes his own worst enemy clouds whatever romanticism Paris is famous for. Rififi is a testament to the evocative power of noir, returning the genre to the land that coined the term itself.
— Edgar Chaput