Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.
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So, boys and girls, you like those caper thrillers such as The Thomas Crown Affair (1999), Entrapment (1999) and Mission Impossible I (1996) and II (2000). Well, you can pretty much thank that old pinko Jules Dassin for inventing the caper genre as we know it today.
Historical Background: Jules Dassins Rififi (1954), known as Du rififi chez les homes in France, was the first fully developed heist or caper film, though John Hustons Asphalt Jungle (1950) was, perhaps, halfway there. You might be surprised that Rififi was a French film rather than a product of Hollywood. What makes this all the more surprising is that Jules Dassin was an American citizen and a director with a number of Hollywood films already to his credit, including Brute Force (1947), The Naked City (1948), and Night and the City (1950). How, then, did he end up doing his film noir shtick in Paris, of all places? Well, boys and girls, back in the 1950, rightwing America was caught up in a paranoid frenzy of red-baiting led by Representative Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) that became known as McCarthyism. The powers-that-were, in Hollywood, bless their souls, lacked the gumption to stand up and protect its own and, instead, blackballed those accused of Communist sympathies. It was an ugly chapter in American history. Dassin had been named by Edward Dmytryk in front of HUAC and could no longer ply his craft in Hollywood. Four years passed without work and Dassin decided to take his skills to Europe. Although Dassin was not thrilled with the script for Rififi, he was desperate, and, as it happens, he ended up producing the film for which he is best known. Later that same year, Melville made what is widely considered the second film of the caper genre, Bob le Flambeur, also working in France. The Hollywood blacklist persisted up until 1960, when two courageous directors, Stanley Kubrick and Otto Preminger, took a stand and shattered the practice by hiring blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo to work on Spartacus (1960) and Exodus (1960) respectively. Remember, boys and girls, even in America, freedom of speech is a right that has to be fought for over and over again.
The Story: Released after a five-year hitch in prison, Tony le Stephanois (Jean Servais) catches up with his old protégé, Jo Le Suedois (Carl Möhner), who he protected from a share of the earlier rap. Jo and his wife and young son live in Paris. Jo and his pal Mario (Robert Manuel) are hatching plans for a snatch and grab theft from the window of a ritzy jewelry store and offer to cut Tony in if hell drive the getaway car. Tony has no interest in ending up back in prison and turns the offer down.
Le Stephanois is more interested in tracking down his old girlfriend, Mado (Marie Sabouret), who has taken up with another hoodlum and owner of LAge DOr nightclub, Pierre Grutter (Marcel Lupovici). Tony tracks her down at LAge DOr having dinner with a trick and drags her back to his hotel room. He demands that she strip, starting with her jewelry and fur coat followed by her dress, then beats her (offscreen) with a belt. He then throws her out. Having settled that old score, Tony contacts his pal Jo and says that hes in after all provided that they upgrade their target to the stores safe, which contains a fortune in jewels. Jo and Mario agree. Theyll need a fourth man, a Milanese expert safecracker, Cesar (Jules Cassan himself, listed as Perlo Vita), to complete the team.
The team, thus established, gets down to serious preparations, casing the store inside and out, determining the kind of alarm system, recording the comings and goings all along the street to ascertain how much time theyll have, and figuring out how to disable the alarm. The rightfully famous centerpiece of the film is the tense heist scene itself, lasting almost half-an-hour, during which time there is no dialog or music. With only the sounds of breathing, tapping, and muffled coughs, viewer anxiety is brought to a fever pitch. The heist segment in portrayed in such convincing detail that Rififi was banned in some locales as an instruction manual for bank robbery and safecracking. There is none of the high-tech stuff that pervades films like the Mission Impossible series. These heisters of the fifties made due with a knotted rope, a fire extinguisher, an umbrella, and a set of ordinary tools.
The final third of the film is the aftermath of the robbery. Cesar makes the mistake of giving a diamond ring he had pocketed to a singer he is romancing at the LAge DOr. The ring soon comes to the attention of Pierre Grutter and his drug-addicted little brother, Remi (Robert Hossein), and middle brother Louis (Pierre Grasset). They put two and two together with the newspaper report of the heist and decide to go after the 240 million francs worth of diamonds for themselves. Nothing very good can come out of one gang of thugs after another, but Ill leave rest of the details for readers to discover for themselves.
Themes: Rififi means rough-and-tumble in street parlance. The twin themes of Rififi are pretty much those of the entire film noire genre: the lifestyle of criminals can be gritty and violent and glamorous and flashy all at once but, in the end crime doesnt pay. And while were bantering about clichés, we could add live by the gun, die by the gun and easy come, easy go. Take your choice!
Production Values: Although Rififi comes replete with the usual cast of film noir characters thugs, detectives, dames, pimps, and the golden-hearted hookers Dassin has strung them together into a quite original story and style. If some aspects of Rififi seem hackneyed, it is only because its success has been imitated so many times since. Quentin Tarantino, for example, borrowed elements of Rififi for his film Reservoir Dogs (1992). Part of the international appeal of Rififi was its combination of Hollywood polish and pace and Continental sophistication and setting, which a Dassin working in France was uniquely able to provide. The frank depiction of the beating of Mado, the heroin addiction of Remi Grutter, and the see-through blouse of Marios girlfriend leave little doubt that this film was made in France rather than in the Hollywood of the 1950s.
Alexandre Trauner, the art designer for Rififi, previously worked on Children of Paradise as well as Luis Buñuels famous surreal film LAge DOr and it was in homage to the latter film that the nightclub in Rififi bore the same name. The outdoor scenes were filmed at sites in Montmartre carefully scouted by Dassin. Trauners indoor sets, such as the Montmartre nightclub, were equally effective in evoking the rough and tumble atmosphere of the famous sleazy Paris district. Then, Dassin supplements all that with authentic street lingo (such as Bonjour kid, sit your moneymaker down) and the dark atmosphere of noir. The costumes feature the standard trenchcoats with uplifted collars and tilted fedoras.
Georges Auric wrote the music for Rififi and it is an excellent score. Auric is a classical music composer even apart from film scores I have a few of his works in my music collection. Originally, Aurics score included music for the heist scene, but he agreed with Dassin that the scene worked better without sound. Auric provided a nifty campy number called Rififi with lyrics by Jacques Laure, to be sung by the nightclub singer at LAge DOr nightclub.
Jean Servais, a Belgium actor, was ideal for the role of the down-on-his-luck Tony. He was otherwise best known for a performance in That Man from Rio (1964). Carl Möhner, who played Jo the Swede, later appeared in Sink the Bismarck (1960). Robert Manuel, who was Mario, had a later role in Life is a Bed of Roses (1983). Magali Noël, who played Vivian, was an accomplished actress with a mostly Fellini-related resume including La Dolce Vita (1960), Fellini Satyricon (1969), and Amarcord (1973).
Bottom-Line: Dassin won the Best Director award at the 1955 Cannes Festival for Rififi, which pleased the French no end, as it served nicely as a slap in the face of the McCarthyism that had seized America. Truffaut, who was still a film critic at the time, called Rififi the best film noir Ive ever seen made from the worst noir book Ive ever read. After 1960, Dassin returned to work in America on a few films (returning to the caper genre with his successful Topkapi in 1964), but remained based in Europe, married a fiery Greek actress named Melina Mercouri, and still lives in Greece at more than ninety years of age. The Criterion DVD edition of Rififi includes a stellar interview with Dassin covering both the making of Rififi and Dassins experience with anti-communist persecution. The magnificent restoration process applied to the film for the Criterion release makes it the clear choice when purchasing this film.
When Rififi was released in America, the New York Times critic Bosley Crowther gave it a rave review but Pauline Kael thought it mean-spirited, especially the scene where Tony strips and beat his ex-mistress, Mado. Rififi is in French with English subtitles or dubbing (though I do not recommend the latter option). It has a running time of 117 minutes.
You might want to check out these other excellent films from France:
The Battle of Algiers
La Belle et la Bête
Bob le Flambeur
Boudu Saved from Drowning
A Bout de Souffle
La Cage aux Folles
Céline and Julie Go Boating
Children of Paradise
Cléo from 5 to 7
Un Coeur en Hiver
Cyrano de Bergerac
The Dinner Game
The Earrings of Madame de . . .
Eyes Without a Face
La Femme Nikita
The Horseman on the Roof
Jean de Florette/Manon
The King of Hearts
Last Year at Marienbad
Life and Nothing But
A Man Escaped
The Mother and the Whore
La Nuit de Varennes
Pépé le Moko
The Rules of the Game
A Sunday in the Country
The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe
Umbrellas of Cherbourg
Wages of Fear
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Fit for Friday Evening
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older