Film and Television Features

Rififi (Jules Dassin, 1955)

Watching Fast Five, it’s fascinating that the basic elements of a caper movie still hold together: desperate characters looking for one last big score; a motley crew of crime professionals pulling off an impossible heist; last minute complications and double crosses. The one element missing is a semblance to reality. In spite of the wooden acting, it is a popular movie now. Whether it’ll be remembered fifty years from now is anyone’s guess. There are no such doubts about Rififi (1955), which is still as compelling and suspenseful as the day it came out.

Rififi centers around Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais), a down on his luck thief just out of prison after serving five years. His friend Jo le Suedois (Carl Möhner) and Mario Ferrati (Robert Manuel), a jovial crook, come to him with a proposal to rob a jewelry store at gunpoint. Tony declines because he’s gotten too old to run.

Tony is a melancholic man whose soul has gone numb. What thaws him out is learning that his old sweetheart Mado (Marie Sabouret) has shacked up with  Louis Grutter (Pierre Grasset), a shady nightclub owner and gang leader. Tony finds Mado and takes her to his apartment, where he beats her savagely. He then decides to take the jewelry store job with conditions: the target will be the safe, and the team must find a way to deactivate the alarm. Mario recruits the services of César le Milanais, a horny safecracker played by director Jules Dassin

The heist is perfectly executed, and a contact is made to exchange the loot for cash. Unbeknown to the team, César has pocketed a ring that he gives to Viviane, a singer at Grutter’s nightclub. Grutter has just given instructions to kill Tony when news about the ring reaches him. His men capture César,  whose confession put the team in jeopardy. At this point, the well-rounded script takes a dark turn involving murder, the kidnapping of a child, and a bloody shootout.

Rififi was not the first caper movie. That distinction goes to John Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950). What sets Rififi apart is the emphasis on suspense. Its jewelry store heist is a cinematic tour de force. There is neither dialogue nor music throughout the 33 minute sequence, which takes us step by agonizing step as the teams breaks a hole from the apartment above, climbs down a rope, deactivates the alarm, and works on the safe until dawn; each move timed and choreographed. Dassin keeps the tension taut, adding complications in the race against time.

There is a sly misanthropy to Huston’s film that is sidestepped here, where even a doomed character like Tony has a last minute chance at redemption. Outside the constrains of the Hollywood films of the time, the visual and thematic codes of the noir film are heightened: eroticism, cruelty, violence. Director Jules Dassin takes full advantage of this freedom and blends it with neorealism to reach a style all his own.

When Jules Dassin was approached to direct Rififi, it had been five years since his last movie. He had directed a string of noir classics that include The Naked City, Brute Force, and Night and The City, but a strong reputation was not enough to keep him gainfully employed after being blacklisted as a Communist, notwithstanding the fact that he had left that party long before his Hollywood career. Dassin became a nonperson to producers and fair-weather friends, forcing him to live in exile in Europe, and even there he was unable to provide for his family. Those feelings of anguish and desperation were carried over to the script he wrote for Rififi, where betrayal is the one unforgivable sin. 

The movie became a celebrated success, and Dassin won the best director prize at Cannes, rebuilding his career and gaining him an international following. Rififi is his most influential movie, and it still gets my vote as an unforgettable classic.