Often referred to as the finest heist movie ever made, Jules Dassin’s Rififi was developed while the American noir director was living in France, having found himself on the Hollywood blacklist a year or so earlier. Dassin came across Auguste Le Breton’s slang-filled crime novel of the same name, and though he was initially skeptical about turning it into a film, it seems as though a lack of viable alternative options forced the director’s hand. It turned out to be a good move: Dassin and René Wheeler wrote a very good screenplay, and Rififi is one of the finest French films blacks (as I believe they’re possibly known) and – yup – as good an example of the heist movie as you’ll see. (If you’re unwilling to take my word for it then perhaps you’ll accept that of François Truffaut, who wrote ‘From the worst crime novel I have ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best film noir I have ever seen’.) Its crowning centrepiece is the scene that depicts the tense robbery, an intricately-planned takedown of a jewellery store which famously unfolds in half an hour of silence. The four thieves (led by Jean Servais’ stern ex-con Tony ‘le Stéphanois’) do not speak because they are wary of tripping a sensitive alarm system, and the tension is increased somewhat by a long sequence just before the robbery in which the men plan the heist; the loud alarm bell sounds throughout as they experiment with ways to shut it off.
The four robbers are generally likeable – particularly family man Jo (Carl Möhner), who proposes the job in the first place – which makes the cold, vicious, plain-living Tony stand out from the pack. Servais is tight-lipped throughout, with Tony refusing to crack a smile or to join in when the others reveal future plans with their ill-gotten gains. It’s easy to get swept along while the other three dare to dream, and Dassin is quite forceful in making you root for the criminals as they set about nabbing a bag full of diamonds, but it remains impossible to completely get behind the main protagonist of the film. Servais – who worked with the director again on 1957’s He Who Must Die – is a key contributor to Rififi‘s nasty edge, and the more he’s on screen the more you sense that the story will end badly for Tony. He may buy toys for Jo’s son, but when we see him viciously beat former flame Mado (Marie Sabouret) for hooking up with gangster and nightclub owner Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici) while he’s in prison, he’s effectively signing his own cinematic death warrant. (Though there’s a hint that this beating is a common sado-masochistic practice that the couple have participated in together beforehand, Servais looks like a cold, vicious bastard throughout the scene, as opposed to someone who’s getting any kind of sexual gratification from the lashes he inflicts). So, in that sense it’s no surprise when Tony dishes out the violence as a feud with Grutter and his junkie brother escalates, and few will be blindsided when the film completely ditches its caper-fuelled lightness in favour of tougher, hard-boiled fatalism. It’s a great film to watch for the impeccable blocking – at one point nudity is amusingly covered by actors moving into certain positions in front of the camera, while all four thieves are often in frame during the heist itself – and all the cool trappings of noir are present and correct: fedoras, hats, guns, raincoats, nightclub torch singers, cigarettes dangled at 45 degree angles, and so on. Dassin also stars, under the pseudonym ‘Perlo Vita’, as César, an Italian safecracker.
Directed by: Jules Dassin.
Written by: Jules Dassin, René Wheeler. Based on Rififi by Auguste Le Breton.
Starring: Jean Servais, Carl Möhner, Robert Manuel, Jules Dassin, Marcel Lupovici, Marie Sabouret, Magali Noel, Pierre Grasset, Janine Darcey, Dominique Maurin.
Cinematography: Philippe Agostini.
Editing: Roger Dwyre.
Music: Georges Auric.
Running Time: 113 minutes.