This year marks the centennial of the blacklisted American director Jules Dassin (born in 1911). Over the next several weeks, we’ll revisit his best films. “Rififi,” Dassin’s second European film, is his masterpiece, a seminal crime-heist film that continues to exert influence on the genre.
This seminal heist movie was made by Jules Dassin, the blacklisted director in 1954, while in exile in Paris. The same year Jean-Pierre Melville made his landmark film, “Bob Le Flambeur.”
“Rififi” came out in the U.S. in 1955, the same year that Kubrick made his breakthrough film, “The Killing.
Rififi is the French slang for trouble, and it implies risk, danger, and violence.
Dassin, who also co-rote the screenplay, based on a novel by Le Breton, has made a classic caper movie, one that pays meticulous attention to details of plot and characterization. Dassin deservedly won the Director award at the Cannes Film Fest.
This was the second European-made film by Dassin, the blacklisted director who had made some brilliant films noir in the late 1940s, such as “Brute Force” and “Night and the City.”
At the center of the crimer is a robbery of a big Parisian jewelry store, but the tale is more concerned with the various complications that happen after the adventure goes horribly awry.
The mastermind is Tony (Jean Servais), a conman recently released from jail, who suffers from (terminal) respiratory problems, We learn that Tony had served time to protect Jo (Carl Mohner).
When Tony is first approached by his buddies, Jo, Cesar (played by director Dassin himself under the pseudonym of Perlo Vita), and Mario (Robert Manuel), he is reluctant to get involved. But after discovering that his old girlfriend Mado (Marie Sabouret) has taken up with another man, he changes his mind. To that extent, he comes up with a grander, more ambitious plan and enlists the help of the expert safe-cracker, Cesar.
Thoroughly conceived and planned minutae detail, after careful observations of the place and its location and the street police, the robbery seems on the ‘right” track. Each man of the quartet has a specialty and a role to fulfill during the carefully executed robbery. Yet suspense is rising, because we all know that it only takes one error of judgment, one minor mistake, to crash down the whole plan.
On the surface, they all seem like “decent” men, and they certainly abide by a code of ethics—call it honor among thieves.
Much has been written about the robbery, which occurs in the middle of the movie and lasts 29 minutes. Despite the duration of the sequence, remarkably, it’s depicted with no dialogue or music and ;we only hear the natural sounds.
The details of the thieves’ lives before and after the heist are also fascinating. We get to know the women/wives in their lives, all abused and victimized in one way or another. Bewarned: there’s physical brutality against women in the picture, which matches James Cagney’s notorious “grapefruit” scene in “Public Enemy.”
Turning point occurs when Tony’s rival gangster, Pierre (Marcel Lupovici) and his bunch get greedy, when they hear about the robbery through the indiscretions of Cesar, who turns out toe be more of a coward and a softie under pressure.
The second half of the film is just as engaging in depicting the kidnapping of Jo’s son and its effects on the parents and on Tony, who makes a point to retrive him at all costs.
But the whole tale, from first frame to last, is edge-of-your seat, genuinely tension-filled, and along the way you get absorbed in the sharply observational powers of Dassin the writer and director.
This may explain why “Rififi” continues to exert a huge impact on the sub-genre of the crime-heist movies, ever since it came out half a century ago.
Among films indebted to “Rififi” are Italian Mario Monicelli’s “Big Deal on Madonna Street,” and our ownTarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs.” Historically, however, the first film of this kind was made by John Huston in Hollywood in 1950, “Asphalt Jungle,” which in my mind is Huston’s masterpiece.
Very few of the protags are alive when the increasingly violent saga comes to an end. But the tale’s closure is suspenseful and dramatically satisfying: Tony retrieves Jo’s son, after Jo is shot, and while wounded, manages to deliver him to his mom before dying on the wheel.
Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais)
Jo Le Suedois (Carl Mohner)
Mario (Robert Manuel)
Cesar (Jules Dassin)
Viviane (Magali Noel)
Mado (Marie Sabouret)
Louise (Janine Darcey)
Louis Grutter (Pierre Grasset)
Remi Grutter (Robert Hussein)
Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici)
Produced by Rene G. Vuattoux
Directed by Jules Dassin
Screenplay: Jules Dassin, Rene Wheeler, Auguste Le Breton, based on the novel by Le Breton
Camera; Philippe Agostini
Editor; Roger Dwyre
Art direction: Auguste capelier
Music: Georges Auric
Running time: 117 Minutes