Rififi (1955): Dassin’s Masterpiece, Crime-Heist Film

Blacklisted American director Jules Dassin’s Rififi is arguably his masterpiece, a seminal crime-heist noir film that decades later, continues to exert influence on the genre. in world cinema.

Grade: A (***** out of *****)

Rififi
Movie poster illustrates Tony "le Stephanois" wearing a green jacket over a red background. In the background Jo "le Suédois" attempts to pull a telephone away from his wife. Text at the top of the image includes the tagline "Tony le Stephanois est exact au rendez-vous...". Text at the bottom of the poster reveals the original title and production credits.

Film poster with original French title

This heist movie was made by Dassin, the American blacklisted director while in exile in Paris.  That same year was a good one for French cinema: the admirable auteur Jean-Pierre Melville made his landmark film, Bob Le Flambeur.

Statewide too, Rififi came out in the U.S. though mostly in large cities, in 1955, the same year in which Stanley Kubrick made his breakthrough film, “The Killing.”

First a word about the title: Rififi is the French slang for trouble, implying risk, danger, and violence.

Dassin, who also co-wrote the screenplay, based on a novel by Le Breton, has made a classic caper movie, which pays meticulous attention to the details of an intricate plot and large number of characters.

Dassin deservedly won the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Fest, though it would take another five years for him to get peer recognition, and for a lesser picture, the 1960 Never on Sunday, a Greek-language, culture-collision comedy, starring himself and then wife, Melina Mercouri.

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.

Tony (Jean Servais), the mastermind, is a con man recently released from jail, who suffers from (terminal) respiratory problems; we learn that Tony had served time due to his protection of 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), for another crime, he is reluctant to get involved.

However, 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 an even grander, more ambitious plan, and to execute it efficiently and safely, he enlists the help of the expert safe-cracker, Cesar.

Thoroughly conceived and planned in minutae detail, after careful observations of the place and its location and the street police, the robbery seems to be on the “right” track.   Each man of the quartet is tasked with a role–based on his specialized skills– to fulfill during the  robbery.

Yet suspense is rising, because we all know that it only takes one minor mistake, a single error of judgment, to crash down the seemingly perfect plan.

On the surface, they all seem like “decent” men, and they certainly abide by a code of morality and ethics—call it the code of honor among thieves.

Much has been written about the robbery, which occurs in the middle of the movie and lasts about 29 minutes.  Remarkably, despite its length, it’s depicted with no dialogue and no music; only natural sounds are heard.

The details of the thieves’ lives before and after the heist are also fascinating. We get to know the women and wives in their lives, all abused and victimized in one way or another. Be warned: there’s physical brutality against women in the picture, the kind of which might match James Cagney’s notorious “grapefruit” scene in “Public Enemy.”

The turning point occurs when Tony’s rival gangster, Pierre (Marcel Lupovici) and his bunch, get greedy upon hearing about the robbery through the indiscretions of Cesar, a man who turns out to be more of a coward and a softie under pressure.

The second half of the film is just as engaging as the first in its depiction of the kidnapping of Jo’s son and its effects on the parents and on Tony, who makes a point to retrieve him at all costs.

Some masterpieces originate by the hand of fate, and/or occur by accident. Producer Henri Bérard, who owned the rights to Auguste Le Breton’s popular crime novel Du Rififi chez les hommes, chose Dassin due to the major critical and commercial success of his previous film The Naked City, which was a big hit in France.

Dassin claims to have written the script in only six days, which was then adapted and translated into French by screenwriter René Wheeler.

Dassin’s movie differs from the novel in some significant ways. The book was replete of racist themes, beginning with the identity of the rival gangsters, who were “dark” Arabs and North Africans, pitted against “light-skinned” Europeans. Moreover, the book depicted some taboo issues, such as necrophilia, which Dassin disliked. When Bérard suggested to turn the rival gang into Americans, Dassin objected, holding that, as a blacklisted artist, he would be charged with using obvious revenge on screen.  As a result, Dassin downplayed the rival gangsters’ background, by just denoting the Germanic “Grutter” as surname.

The greatest change from the book was the heist scene, which is only 10 pages of the 250-page novel. But, as noted above, Dassin extended the scene to almost half an hour, or about one third of the film’s running time.

The whole tale, from first frame to last, is edge-of-your seat, tension-filled experience. And along the way, you get fully absorbed in the sharply observational powers of Dassin as writer and director, and striking and functional imagery of ace cinematographer, Philippe Agostini.

This may explain why “Rififi” continues to exert such a huge impact on the genres of the crime-heist noir movies, ever since it came out half a century ago.

Among the many films indebted to “Rififi” are Italian Mario Monicelli’s “Big Deal on Madonna Street,” and Tarantino’s debut, “Reservoir Dogs.”

Historically, however, it is important to remember that the first film of this kind was made by John Huston in Hollywood, in 1950, Asphalt Jungle, which in my mind is his masterpiece.

Made on a relatively small budget of about $200,000, Rififi was a commercial hit all over the world, including the U.S.

Spoiler Alert

Only a few of the protagonists remain alive when the increasingly violent saga comes to its logical yet grim coda. Even so, the tale’s closure is both suspenseful and dramatically coherent.  Tony succeeds in retrieving Jo’s son after Jo is shot, and though severely wounded, he continues to drive until he delivers him to his mom just before dying on the wheel, with a crowd of innocent observers surrounding his car and doomed fate.

Cast

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)

 

Crew

Produced by Henri Bérard, Pierre Cabaud, René Bézard

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

Distributed by Pathé (France)

Release date: 13 April 1955

Running time: 115 minutes