Alternate Title: Du rififi chez les hommes
He was going to say no. Jules Dassin had read the book or rather – (given its foreign dialect) – had had it read to him and he hated what he’d heard. He was prepared to say no but a peculiar thing happened at the meeting; he found himself thinking about his children.
Unemployed since the Hollywood Blacklist had forced him out of America, Jules Dassin hadn’t made a picture in five years. And before he knew it, he said yes to a film that would go on to define not only his own career but all of the works in the genre that would follow.
He had done the impossible or as Francois Truffaut so eloquently phrased it in one of two glowing reviews he would deliver unto Rififi, achieved an enviable feat by observing that “out of the worst crime novel I have ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best film noir I have ever seen.”
And laying the groundwork for the noir, J. Hoberman is right in arguing in the Criterion essay that accompanies this title’s upgrade to a Blu-ray high definition release that “the rules of the caper film had” already been set by John Huston’s masterful 1950 heist classic The Asphalt Jungle.
Nonetheless, Dassin, who’d already shown audiences his penchant for the poetry of the streets in both Night and the City and The Naked City made a mold-breaking movie that served up something different altogether.
A Parisian film that was a far cry from the frothy comedies of the 1950s, at the same time Rififi couldn’t be described as a Hollywood style journey of good conquering evil. A man who’d been without a country was at once at home in both countries and at the same time didn’t quite feel at home in either place. And as a film that’s far more international in scope than anything he’d done before, Rififi reflects that dilemma brilliantly as a work that was populated by citizens of the world.
A film with more on its mind than mere entertainment, Dassin’s Rififi was a work that on the one hand espoused the reasons he’d had for making the picture to put food on the table with the socioeconomic awareness that had never before been seen in movies of this genre. Likewise, Rififi questions just what real work is and what a shortcut is as embodied by the various actions of the men and women that populate each frame.
Yet before we barely register these arguments, Rififi moves on to explore a different thesis – and indeed its main one – by investigating what it means to have a code of honor in taking responsibility for yourself and others while at the same time not ratting out your fellow man. And as such, Dassin tells us something about who the real tough guys are based on the ones who put others before themselves in a way that made it possible to hold conflicting opinions about the exact same characters as flesh and blood people rather than puppets whose mouths help move the story along.
While obviously it can be taken straight up for the caper film it presents itself as on the surface – at its heart and much like director Elia Kazan did in presenting the other side of the argument in defending his decision to name names through the cinematic guise of On the Waterfront, Rififi uses the device of a heist movie to tell us a tale of the Blacklist.
Whereas it’s painted nobly in Waterfront, informing on your friends has consequences in Rififi as lives are at stake and the cause and effect of this betrayal is written into the film and enacted in numerous frames throughout its 118 minute running time.
Yet this moral dilemma is ultimately best brought to life by Dassin himself in his own onscreen alter ego, portraying an Italian man who joins forces with our two French leads to pull off an audacious overnight heist of a jewelry store, only to find himself being put to the ultimate test in the film’s harrowing nail-biter of a final act.
From the moody atmosphere of darkness and shadow to the startling brutality that goes hand in hand with the world these crooks wander into with their eyes wide open and the emphasis Dassin places in the preparation for the heist and the amount of work involved from the initial idea up through the night of the caper and beyond is pure onscreen adrenaline from start to finish.
Blending in a bit of Italian Neorealism into its post Film Noir approach – no doubt augmented by the inclusion of two Italian characters into the main cast – Dassin also opts for a bit of docudrama in what has become the film’s most memorable sequence as during the execution of the nighttime robbery, not a single line of dialogue or note on the film’s soundtrack can be heard throughout the roughly thirty minute span of intense concentration.
Bringing us directly into the caper in this amazingly audacious, not to mention unbearably suspenseful sequence – we find ourselves keeping just as quiet as the men onscreen, holding our breaths and stifling our coughs as even the tiniest bit of accidental noise emphasizes the heist's life or death stakes.
Far from romanticizing the idea of the robbery the way that modern moviemakers do by cutting crime scenes like they’re music videos, Dassin’s portrait of a robbery never glamorizes it for a second. Rififi argues that you’d have to be a fool to try and carry out a heist for real by documenting just how much work it entails from their extensive preparation and beyond, only to stress that you can never plan for chance or the unpredictable nature of human behavior.
While the male-female dynamics of Rififi run the gamut, Dassin made an impressive and ahead-of-its-time decision to give us a brave heroine in the form of what could’ve been a forgettable supporting role as Claude Sylvain’s Ida makes a selfless decision to help ensure that at least one person will have the chance to save a life when they’re up against the gun.
Yet he respects his audience enough not to overly highlight this action, choosing not to punctuate any moment with symbolic foreshadowing by instead giving us the impression that he just turned the camera on and captured the characters as they live, flaws and all. Reminding us that real life doesn’t go by a Hollywood script, some of the actions we’re set up to expect will occur pay off in unexpected ways altogether.
From putting us in the shoes of the characters at home and on the job by not even bothering to translate the minor characters’ conversations in Italian because in a global society (again, ahead of its time), that’s just the way it goes to having characters make decisions and then immediately change their minds, we’re presented with frustrated, fearless, fully-fleshed out human beings.
And this is perhaps most emphasized in the film’s most shockingly violent scene when an ex-con beats his ex-girlfriend with a belt and then, having planned to rob her of the jewels and fur she was wearing which he felt owed to as a sort of “back payment” changes his mind and tosses the items out the door after her.
Whether it’s macho pride or maybe even a twinge of embarrassment or guilt that changes his mind we never know, only after the scene ends do we realize we’ve been shown the portrait of a thief (as the opposite of traditional “movie cool”) the likes of which we’d rarely seen at that time and still today. The antithesis of the calm and collected crook, Dassin isn’t romantic about his characters and wants to ensure you aren’t either, only asking that you try and understand them.
Working at the height of his powers, Dassin's film is masterfully made. Indeed upon screening Rififi before its release, a friend advised Dassin that in the tradition of Hitchcock’s tendency to reinvent one new “wrong man” movie after another, Dassin should make this film over and over again.
Intriguingly in fact, Rififi was so influential and groundbreaking in its own right that it managed to inspire a theatrical screening policy that the Master of Suspense would use for his roll-out of Psycho years later. For similar to the case of Psycho – because the earliest moments of the movie are so critical to understanding Rififi as a whole, Dassin’s film kicked off the precedent of not allowing patrons to enter the screening after the movie had begun.
And while Rififi is often cited for its influence on films of its own genre, given its impact on Truffaut, is it any wonder that the sense of breathless urgency and spontaneity Dassin uses to film the thrilling climactic sequence of a gunshot-wounded crook driving a child to safety while the blissfully unaware child aims a toy gun at him from the backseat is echoed throughout Truffaut’s oeuvre.
From Antoine Doinel skipping school to go on a ride in The 400 Blows to Jules and Jim racing their lady love, the not-quite docudrama, not quite traditional style that would encapsulate the French New Wave may have derived some early inspiration in Rififi.
Likewise, the showstopping performance of the sultry title song by a seedy nightclub entertainer who later shows off her flexibility dressed simply in form-fitting black pants and a black t-shirt gives off the same kind of jazzy Hollywood-does-‘50s Beatnik energy that Audrey Hepburn brought memorably to life in her now iconic Funny Face modern ballet routine.
In fact, it’s the little moments like these that – when added up altogether – make Rififi so rewarding and they’re that much more evident in this immaculate, high-caliber, high-polished bright-shining diamond of a high-definition Blu-ray presentation.
A work that still fascinates today – from the men’s code of honor to the skinny ties and suits they wear on the job, Dassin’s bandits may be gloved but they’ve still left their prints all over cinema as evidenced in everything from Truffaut to Tarantino and all of the heist films in between.
Nonetheless, homage is homage and there is only one Rififi as Dassin’s work – now available on Criterion Blu-ray – remains the all-encompassing “tough and tumble” battle cry of tough guys, film noir enthusiasts and rebellious filmmakers the world over more than sixty years later.
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