Director: Jules Dassin
Cast: Jean Servais, Carl MÃ¶hner, Robert Manuel
Synopsis: Four men plan a technically perfect crime, but the human element intervenes…
Jules Dassin’s jaded film noir Rififi (1955) is chiefly remembered for its groundbreaking heist sequence which lasts more than thirty minutes and is carried out in complete silence. It’s a sequence which served as the template for pretty much every heist movie that followed, and yet it is still as mesmerising today as it must have been back in 1955. In a way, it is the ingenuity and artistry displayed by villains as they carry out the mechanics of a heist which earns our sneaking respect, even though they may, as human beings, be deeply flawed and irredeemable. Dassin realised that, although his characters are common thieves, if he showed us the painstaking care they took in practicing their craft he could get the audience on their side.
Rififi follows the usual three-act structure for a heist movie, with the first act showing the bringing together of the various individuals who will carry out the heist. The second act is wholly taken up with the robbery itself, and the third act chronicles the fall-out after the crime has been committed. The gang here are like a family, with Tony Le Stephanois as the patriarchal figure. He’s played by the Belgian actor Jean Servais, who was only 44 when the movie was shot, although he looks much older. He brings a heavy dose of the much-needed world-weary cynicism of a career criminal, fresh out of prison, who realises that his best years are behind him and whose future holds little of promise. His girlfriend, Mado (Marie Sabouret) left him while he was inside for another gangster, nightclub owner Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici). Le Stephanois tracks her down to Grutter’s nightclub and takes her back to his seedy room where he makes her strip naked so that he can whip her with his belt. Somehow, despite this kind of behaviour, Dassin manages to make Le Stephanois a sympathetic character because, perhaps, he lives by some code of principles, no matter how skewed. Betrayal is an act he simply can’t accept.
This fact is reinforced by the fact that the prison sentence he has just served would have been much shorter had he named Jo (Carl Mohner) as his accomplice. Jo is married with a young son whom Le Stephanois adores, and this chink of humanity in his emotional armour is what will eventually prove to be his downfall. It’s Jo and his friend Mario (Robert Manuel) who come up with a plan to rob an upmarket jewellery store which amounts to little more than a smash-and-grab raid. Le Stephanois isn’t interested at first, but changes his mind when he discovers Mado’s betrayal. He insists, however, that they plunder the contents of the safe rather than the display window.
As Rififi was released in 1955, the store’s security obviously isn’t as sophisticated as modern day equipment, but the gang must still contend with vibration sensors and alarms that sound if the power is cut (the solution to that particular problem is laughably crude but, incredibly, was the most common way of disabling the old ringing bell alarms). The only sounds we hear during the 30-minute heist are ambient ones — the accidental sounding of a piano key; the muffled thud of a hammer on chisel as the gang dig through an apartment’s floor into the jewellery store below — so that every tiny noise registers like a thunder crack. This enforced silence raises the tension incredibly so that, as we watch, our nerves becomes as frayed as those of the robbers. But, of course, stealing the jewels proves to be the easy part of the job…
It’s impossible to over-estimate the influence of Dassin’s Rififi. Although it is, itself, influenced by American film noir films, its European sensibilities set it apart. A filmmaker working in America at the time could never have gotten away with the scene in which Le Stephanois viciously whips a naked Mados — even though the beating takes place off-screen, and a minor character’s heroin addiction could not have been portrayed so directly. That Dassin imbues the movie with a knowing sense of style — as if he deliberately set out to design a template for others to follows — adds immeasurably to the dark tone of the movie. For the most part, the characters in Rififi possess this kind of resigned acceptance that their exploits will ultimately end in failure, and that happiness is a prize forbidden to them. The tragic finale — and the moody supposition that a new generation will bring no change which is inherent in the way that Jo’s son shoots a toy gun and wears Le Stephanois’ coat as he’s driven home to his mother — is inescapable, and yet that still doesn’t prevent us from hoping that Le Stephanois will somehow transcend all that is bad in his world. Even if you’re not a fan of films in French — or any other foreign language — Rififi is one for which you should make an exception.
(Reviewed 12th May 2013)