The movies can be a magical experience. One of enlightenment, excitement, emotion and entertainment. Some work and some do not, but when a film lands strong, it never gets old but only ages like a fine wine. It is always evolving, yet always the same. A rock, a go-to. When a film is special, it means something, not just for the history of cinema and all that made the film, but for the person viewing it for first or one-hundredth time. That is what Rififi is to me. It is one of the first foreign films, as well as Criterion Collection titles, I had ever seen, and I fell for it instantly. One of the finest film noir’s ever made. One of the greatest crime films ever made. One of the most detailed, meticulous and suspenseful heist films ever made. Rififi is just one of those films, like Carol Reed’s The Third Man and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, that it is just working on a higher level and with every element in perfect harmony. Rififi is just that good.
If you have seen the film, you know what sticks out. A 28-minute heist scene in a Paris jewelry store. It is the best and still the best. The scene contains no dialogue or music. All we are given are deep breaths, light tapping of chisels on concrete, the movement of the four men conducting the theft. It is done with such perfection and precision by director Jules Dassin that it stills leaves me in such awe. I watch it and my eyes barely blink. It is so engrossing that it feels as if nothing else is happening around me. Just the film. Even watching it at home on Blu-ray, it feels as if I am at theater, all by myself watching perfection on the screen. Rififi could be an all-time great film just based on the heist scene alone, but the film contains refined brilliance throughout.
Dassin was on the outs when he made Rififi. He had not made a film in over four years after being placed on the Hollywood Blacklist from Senator Joseph McCarthy. Out of work and in need of a job, he was offered to make Rififi (French title Du rififi chez les hommes) based off an unpopular Auguste Le Breton novel of the same name. Dassin, who did not approve of the novel, made one huge change in focusing a fourth of the film on the heist alone. He wrote the script in English, not speaking French very well at all, and was given a modest budget. It looks as if he did not need a lot of money, but just a little desperation and drive to make a quintessential film. Dassin stuck to his strong and creative ideas and filmed a gritty and chilly Paris to perfection. The films cast is the embodiment of criminal cool.
This was not Dassin’s first film noir. He was always ready a master in the States, making classics such as Brute Force, The Naked City and Night and the City, but after being blacklisted, that run stopped. What that must have felt like finally getting to make another film and returning to what he was brilliant at. Shooting on locating in Paris, containing a full noirish vibe with wet streets, nightclubs, and suave and ill-advised gangsters. Rififi bursts on to the scene and has been enticing filmgoers for decades.
The film begins with a poker game, where recently released from prison Tony le Stéphanois (Tony Servais) is trying to make a few bucks, but does not get very far. Tony meets with up with his old pal, family man and father to Tony’s godson Jo le Suédois (Carl Möhner), as well as the playful and enigmatic Robert Manuel (Mario Ferrati) and the safecracker, César la Milanais (played by the director himself Jules Dassin under the pseudonym Perlo Vita). They talk Tony into joining them in an intricate robbery at a high-end jewelry store, not just for the jewels, but for a precious safe inside. We are not only witness to a mesmerizing heist scene, but a heavier, grittier crime drama as Tony’s godson is kidnapped, by nightclub owner Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici) who just happens to be dating Tony’s ex-girlfriend Mado and he wants to exchange the kid for the jewels.
Oh, and then you have that catchy, jazzy tune sung by Vivianne, played with sultry cool by Magali Noël. It gets stuck in your head and breathes French coolness. This film has all the elements. Brilliant cinematography by Philippe Agostini which brings a chilly shine to Paris. A solid narrative which moves so effortlessly and is full of tension. A breathtaking heist sequence. Superb directing, where Dassin went on to win Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival of 1995, and unforgettable acting, especially from Servais, who delivers a minimalist and perfect performance as a man who is reaching the end of his rope. It is what makes this film so amazing and one that will always stand up as one of the greatest French films of all time. The sum of its parts mingles together with ease and satisfaction. It is a mesmerizing film noir. It is cinema at its finest.
This is what the movies are all about. Rififi is about the thrill and standing up for one’s self and ways, whether wrong or right. These characters live in the criminal underworld and one’s honor and loyalty are always tested and upheld. The film does cover a run page when Tony physically assaults his Mado. It is an uncomfortable scene, but exhibits the ridiculous and disgusting ways of these criminals and the masculine culture that existed, and unfortunately, still does. It is also as much about its blacklisted director as it is about the craft and creativity. Dassin was standing up to the country that altered his way of life by delivering, in what is my opinion, is finest achievement. Dassin stood up to the ridiculous McCarthyism in America and showed the world what a genius director he still was. He delivered something special and thoroughly entertaining.
I do not consider myself that good of writer. I probably do not read enough and wish I had more time every day to catch one or two films, but I know when I have seen something special, something great. I, in no way, am qualified to discuss the deeper social and cultural importance of Rififi, but I do like to think I can happily express my enthusiasm and appreciation for what Dassin made for all of us film lovers and future film aficionados. Rififi is a film that falls into place and never lets up. It is a beauty to watch. A perfect film noir. That is Jules Dassin’s Riffi. A noir of the highest order and one that aided in opening my eyes and mind to the treasures of not only French cinema, but classic and foreign cinema as well. When every element is cranking on all cylinders, it is a thing of beauty. This is why I admire and appreciate Dassin’s fascinating masterpiece.
Photo credit by Criterion Collection.