Posted: 03/03/2003




by Del Harvey

French hard-boiled cinema as good as it gets, Rififi remains the best heist film ever.

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Then-popular French actor Jean Servais is middle-aged tough guy Tony le Stéphanois, a grim, hardboiled crook fresh from the state prison where he served time for the noble gesture of taking a rap for his younger buddy Jo le Suedois (Carl Mohner), a young tough who blurs his life of crime with his role as family man. When Tony tracks down his old flame, Mado (Marie Sabouret, he finds she’s been unfaithful. Disappointed, he first makes her strip, then beats her with a belt so hard he leaves permanent scars on her back. His resulting depression prompts him to join Jo and the fun-loving Mario (Robert Manuel) on a risky and complicated jewel heist. The well-planned caper concludes in a long, realistic, dialogue-free break-in scene that involves cutting through buildings and outwitting a then-modern alarm system. The job goes very well until imported safecracker Cesar (director Jules Dassin in a supporting role) steals a little diamond for a sexy singer (Magali Noel) he’s dating…and the film’s climax is one of the most classic and memorable of all time.
Two years before making Rififi, director Jules Dassin had been labeled a communist by fellow director Edward Dmytryk to the House Un-American Activities Committee. This single act caused Dassin to be blacklisted and forced him to move to France where he became more famous and successful than he ever was in the United States, beginning with Rififi.

Rififi became a hit around the world, even though it stirred up sensationalism for its excessive use of gunplay and dope use, all of which led to its condemnation by the League of Decency. In spite of this, the film earned blacklisted Hollywood director Dassin a Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival.

The pivotal scene in the film is a legendary 30-minute sequence without either dialogue or music, and thus was born the heist film. Imitators include films like Ocean’s 11, Reservoir Dogs, Thief, The Score and the recent Heist. And while many are quite good, none comes close to the original. While it is true that earlier films such as The Asphalt Jungle were about big heists, none provided the level of detail to be found in Rififi, or the tension arising from the actual heist itself.

Rififi was shot in Paris in beautiful black and white for a modest $200,000. And while streets are usually wet in movies because they photograph better that way, the city of Paris is especially damp in Rififi, which was shot in wintertime and depicted a criminal milieu where the only warmth comes in an apartment where one of the crooks lives with his wife and little boy.

The famous climax centers on tough guy Tony and the little boy, his godson. In spite of the cruelty Tony shows towards his former mistress, by the film’s end he seems purified by loss. His character believes in honor among thieves, and his lonely vengeance against the kidnappers provides the film with its soul.

Dassin’s resume includes such great noirs as The Naked City (1948) and Night and the City (1950). Born in 1911, Dassin has been quoted as saying he was not crazy about the Rififi project but needed the work. Its worldwide success was a blow against the blacklist, which fell after listed writer Dalton Trumbo was openly hired by Kubrick for Spartacus and Otto Preminger for Exodus, both in 1960. By then Dassin had settled in Europe; and was married to the fiery Greek actress Melina Mercouri from 1966 until her death in 1994. His last great success, Topkapi (1964) was a return to the heist genre, and is said to have been the model for Mission: Impossible.

Long unavailable in the United States, the film has recently been transferred to VHS and DVD by the Criterion Collection. If you have never seen this film, make the extra effort to do so; Rififi is a true classic.

Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly and a lover of film noir.

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