Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: Rififi (1955)

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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 heist genre that would follow.

With Rififi, Dassin achieved the impossible or, as Francois Truffaut so eloquently phrased the enviable feat in one of two glowing reviews he would deliver unto Rififi, "out of the worst crime novel I have ever read, Jules Dassin has made the best film noir I have ever seen."

Laying the groundwork for Dassin's noir, in the Criterion essay that accompanies Rififi's upgrade to a Blu-ray high definition release, J. Hoberman rightfully argues that "the rules of the caper film had" already been set by John Huston's masterful 1950 heist classic The Asphalt Jungle.

And with Rififi, Dassin — who’d already shown audiences his penchant for the poetry of the streets in both Night and the City and The Naked City — managed to craft a mold-breaking movie that served up something different altogether.

A Parisian film that's a far cry from the frothy comedies of the 1950s, Rififi isn't your typical Hollywood style journey of good conquering evil. Centered on a man who’d been without a country who feels both at home and alienated in his two chosen countries, the existential struggle faced by the main character is Dassin's as well. Far more international in scope than anything he’d done before, Rififi reflects this internal dilemma brilliantly as a work populated by citizens of the world as opposed to one nation.

A film with more on its mind than mere entertainment, Dassin imbues Rififi with the reasons he’d had for making the picture to put food on the table with a socioeconomic awareness that had never before been seen in movies of this genre. Questioning what real work is and what a shortcut is, as embodied by the various actions of the men and women that populate each frame, Rififi uses the crime genre cleverly to play off of a recurring theme of noir in a new way.

Yet before we barely register these subtle 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, thus making 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 the decision to inform on your friends is given the heroic treatment by Kazan in the 1954 Marlon Brando classic, in Rififi, this same action has dire consequences as lives are at stake and the cause and effect of a character's betrayal is written into the film and enacted in numerous frames throughout its 118 minute running time.

And fittingly, this moral dilemma is best brought to life by Dassin himself as an unforgettable member of the ensemble cast. Portraying an Italian man who joins forces with our two French leads to pull off an audacious overnight heist of a jewelry store, Dassin's onscreen alter ego finds himself being put to the ultimate test in the film’s harrowing nail-biter of a final act.


Making the most of the genre's requisite moody atmosphere of darkness and shadow, Rififi doesn't shy away from the startling brutality that goes hand in hand with the world these crooks wander into with their eyes wide open. Saluting their amoral work ethic by using tight frames to make us an honorary member of the crew, the emphasis that Dassin places on the men's preparation for and execution of the heist creates a feeling of pure onscreen adrenaline from start to finish.

Augmented by the inclusion of two Italian characters in the film's main cast, Dassin blends a bit of Italian neorealism into his noir. However, it's his embrace docudrama that best shines through 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.

An 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 filmmakers 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.

Par for the genre, the male-female dynamics of the film run the gamut. However, in an impressive, not to mention ahead-of-its-time decision, Rififi gives 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 Rififi respects its audience enough not to highlight Ida's action overtly, choosing not to punctuate any moment with symbolic foreshadowing by instead giving us the impression that Dassin 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 marvelously unexpected ways.

From putting us in the shoes of the characters at home and on the job — and not even bothering to translate the minor players’ conversations in Italian because that’s just the way it goes in a global society — 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 and guilt that changes his mind, we never know. Only after the scene ends do we realize we’ve been shown the portrait of a human thief instead of the traditionally "cool" movie thieves we usually see in the Ocean's Eleven style heist films that have permeated the genre post 1960. 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 through the streets of Paris, 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 heist pictures in between.

Homage is homage, however, and there is only one Rififi and Dassin’s work, now available on Criterion Blu-ray, remains the all-encompassing "rough 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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